He was orphaned at age 4. After getting bounced from relative to relative for years, he was eventually apprenticed to a shoemaker. The shoemaker was a god-fearing man, but this young apprentice, he would have none of it. And eventually this young man lost his way.
As the decade of the 1740’s was coming to a close, he heard the great evangelist, George Whitefield, preach a sermon on Zechariah 3:2, “Is not this a brand, plucked from a fire?” And having heard that sermon, Thomas Olivers became a new creation. This orphan was now a child of God.
In a few years, Thomas Olivers teamed up with the brothers Wesley. And he had quite a ministry of his own. And while not nearly to the extent of John and Charles Wesley, Thomas Olivers also wrote hymns. While in London in 1770, Thomas Olivers went to hear a renown Jewish cantor by the name of Myer Lyon, at the Great Synagogue in London. This is a building that would later be destroyed by the Blitz in World War II. Myer Lyon also doubled as an opera singer under the name, Max Leoni. Olivers had likely heard Leoni sing opera at the Covent Garden Theatre, and now he wanted to hear him sing sacred music in the Synagogue.
That night, Lyon sang the Yigdal, a song dating back to the 1400’s. It prayerfully speaks of the majesty of God. So moved by the song, Olivers waited after the service to meet with Lyon. In the ensuing days Oliver said about transforming this Jewish prayer in Hebrew into a Christian hymn in English. He worked with Lyon on the tune. The collaboration resulted in a 12 stanza hymn we know as, “The God of Abraham Praise.” Olivers credited the tune to Lyon, entitling it “Leoni.” The first stanza rings out:
The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of Everlasting Days, and God of Love;
Jehovah, great I AM! by earth and heaven confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred name forever blessed.
As the stanzas unfold, The God of Abraham Praise reminds us that God is a Trinitarian God. Part of the conversion of this piece from a Jewish liturgical prayer to a Christian hymn involved adding stanzas on Christ and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the words of the ancient doxology remind us that when we say, “Praise God,” we are saying, “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
This hymn by Thomas Olivers has another level of richness to it, and this richness lies in helping us think of something else. Now Abraham first appeared on the biblical scene in the closing words of Genesis 11. He then dominates the next several chapters until his death comes in Genesis 25. Now we do have the rest of the Bible to see God at work in the lives of His people, and at work in His world, and revealing to us His character. But stop, and consider though what we learn about God from the span of Genesis 12-25.
We learn that God is the God most high—El Elyon in Hebrew. We learn that He is God Almighty—El Shaddai. We learn that He is Jehovah Jireh—the Lord who provides, told for us in that story in Genesis 22, and Abraham and Isaac. We learn that He is a promise making, covenant-keeping God. We learn that He will bring judgment on sinners, but we also learn that He is merciful and compassionate. And in the episode with Hagar in the desert we learn that God is the God who sees, and He is the God who hears. The God of Abraham praise.
As we think of these chapters we find reason upon reason to praise God—Abraham’s God, and ours.