“Be Thou My Vision” is an adaptation of an ancient Irish poem called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Patrick was the evangelist of pagan Ireland, and while there was often in danger of his life from bandits and from lords and rulers who did not want the Christian faith spread in that land. He expressed his firm conviction that the Lord would protect him and keep him safe. It is not certain that Patrick actually wrote “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” which may have been written somewhat later, but it certainly reflects the spirit of Patrick’s faith. He says, in part:
“I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.”
“Be Thou My Vision” draws from many themes in the poem and focuses especially on the sufficiency of God to the needs and wants of the believer. But the hymn is a prayer, expressing not so much the reality of the believer’s imperfect affections but the believer’s desire to be purged of everything else but the desire for and reliance upon God.
Verse one, and the title of the hymn, focus on God as the focus of all the believer’s desire. God is to him the focus of his heart and his ambition, and the mere fact of God’s existence crowds out everything else from his mind. In verse two, it is knowledge and wisdom that the writer focuses on, knowing well the truth that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. That knowledge, as the Proverbs make clear, is the result of a personal connection to God, and can never be a matter of abstract or disconnected information. God is the writer’s Father and dwells in intimate relationship with Him. True wisdom and knowledge flows out of this relationship.
God’s power and protection is the focus of verse three. God is the armor and weapons with which he fights, with which he will be kept safe from all the slings and arrows of life. There are valid times in life to pick up earthly weapons. It is wise to store up for the winter or for the day of trouble, or to take other measures to protect ourselves from danger. Worldly prudence is a virtue. But we should never be under any illusion that any of these things will truly keep us safe. Our confidence should always be in the King of kings, who is truly a buckler and a high tower in times of trouble. A high tower gives you security from the attacks of enemies, and it also gives you foresight—you can see the enemy coming and prepare. With our trust in an omnipotent and omniscient God who is always working good for His people, we never need fear surprise dangers or the secret schemes of men.
Verse four reiterates the writer’s rejection of all earthly desires. He “heeds not” wealth or praise from men. The Bible does not say wealth or reputation are bad things. They are blessings from God when one has them and uses them to His honor. But to “heed” them means that those are the things that drive us, that govern our behavior. The hymnist will be directed by the desire for God and His truth rather than these earthly and temporary things.
The last verse returns to the theme of the whole, that our trust, ambitions and desire is all to be found in God, our High King. It expresses it all as a prayer, not as a presently achieved reality, for we all know the weakness and division that exists within our own heart. We do long for the things of this world. We do put our trust in men. But we pray for God to purge us of a faulty heart and a double mind. We long for the state of mind when God is truly the only Lord of our heart.