“Be Thou My Vision” is a well-known and well-loved hymn. Though it was originally written over 1400 years ago, it was not translated from its Old Irish text until the early 1900’s. The hymn is attributed to a monk nicknamed Dallán Forgaill; the first name meant “blind one,” though he supposedly regained his sight. He was born Eochaid mac Colla, northern Ireland, and created many important Gaelic works in addition to “Rop tú mo baile,” the above hymn, and was called the “Chief Ollam of Ireland,” a great poet, in addition to being a Latin and biblical scholar. He was beheaded just before the turn of the 6th century.
The lyrics of the hymn are said to have been inspired by a prayer written a century before by St. Patrick. The tune was taken from a common Irish folk tune, a common practice for hymns. One way to help people learn and remember a scriptural song was to put lyrics to a familiar tune. The tune is named after Slane Hill, where Patrick, like Daniel in Persia, defied the order of a “high king” of Ireland to worship God. Like in many Psalms where David asks for protection from his enemies, so too does this hymn ask for protection from the earthly rulers. This particular type of “prayer-hymn” is called a lorica as it, like a breastplate, asks for protection from the Lord.
This is a side by side of the original Old Irish text and a Modern English translation.
Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride: Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime. None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló ‘s i n-aidche; Be thou my meditation by day and night.
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche. May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.
Rop tú mo labra, rop tú mo thuicsiu; Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
rop tussu dam-sa, rob misse duit-siu. Be thou with me, be I with thee
Rop tussu m’athair, rob mé do mac-su; Be thou my father, be I thy son.
rop tussu lem-sa, rob misse lat-su. Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.
Rop tú mo chathscíath, rop tú mo chlaideb; Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
rop tussu m’ordan, rop tussu m’airer. Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.
Rop tú mo dítiu, rop tú mo daingen; Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
rop tú nom-thocba i n-áentaid n-aingel. Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.
Rop tú cech maithius dom churp, dom anmain; Be thou every good to my body and soul.
rop tú mo flaithius i n-nim ‘s i talmain. Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.
Rop tussu t’ áenur sainserc mo chride; Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
ní rop nech aile acht Airdrí nime. Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.
Co talla forum, ré n-dul it láma, Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
mo chuit, mo chotlud, ar méit do gráda. My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love
Rop tussu t’ áenur m’ urrann úais amra: Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
ní chuinngim daíne ná maíne marba. I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.
Rop amlaid dínsiur cech sel, cech sáegul, Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
mar marb oc brénad, ar t’ fégad t’ áenur. For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.
Do serc im anmain, do grád im chride, Thy love in my soul and in my heart —
tabair dam amlaid, a Rí secht nime. Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.
Tabair dam amlaid, a Rí secht nime, O King of the seven heavens grant me this —
do serc im anmain, do grád im chride. Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.
Go Ríg na n-uile rís íar m-búaid léire; With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
ro béo i flaith nime i n-gile gréine May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.
A Athair inmain, cluinte mo núall-sa: Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations
mithig (mo-núarán!) lasin trúagán trúag-sa. Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch
A Chríst mo chride, cip ed dom-aire, O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
a Flaith na n-uile, rop tú mo baile. O ruler of all, be thou my vision.
Clearly, we now only sing five of these verses and sometimes only four. The words have changed slightly so as to rhyme and still fit the tune within the bonds of English. Also, some of the couplets have been combined while others removed in order to create the hymn we know today. But what is significant about this hymn is that it is drawn from Scripture. The following will reference only a handful of such passages these lyrics are drawn from and what these verses teach.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
The Lord is our vision if we fix our eyes on Him, for He is the one who directs the desires of our hearts (Heb. 12:2, Psa. 86:11, Pro 3:5-6, 21:2). Therefore, all we live for is Christ, for He is our Lord, and from Him comes everything we have (Mat. 6:9-13, 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:18, Heb. 10:23). Because of this, where else should our thoughts be but on Christ? We know He is our Vision but He is also our peace, our direction, first in our minds (John 16:33, Mat. 22:37, 1 Cor. 2:16, Rom. 8:6). Finally, we know that whether we wake or sleep, God is with us and it is He who sustains us (Psa. 3:5). He is our light in this dark world and in our lives (Psa. 119:105, Mat. 6:22-23, John 1:4-5, 2 Cor. 4:6).
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
We know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, and this all comes from God (Pro. 1:7, 4:7, 9:10, 1 Cor. 1:18-25). Christ is the Word made flesh and the Truth (John. 1:1-14, 14:6, Col. 3:16, 2 Tim. 3:16). We also can take comfort in knowing these things: that He will be with us always (Mat. 1:23, 29:19-20, Rom. 8:28-39), He cares for us because He is our Father (Mat. 6:9-13, 23:21, Rom. 8:12-17, Gal. 3:26, 1 John 5:2), and He has made Himself and His dwelling within us (John 1:1-14, 14:20, 15:4-5, 1 Cor. 6:19-20, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:22).
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
As mentioned before, this hymn is a lorica and asks for protection. The Lord is our foundation, our protection, our shield, and He is what makes us ready to defend (Psa. 18:1-3 & 34, 27:1-14, 61:3, 91:1-7, 119:114, 1 Cor. 3:11, Eph. 6:10-18). Because of this, we rest secure and delight in Him and His Word (Psa. 1:1-6). He is the one who calls us to heaven (Phil. 3:12-14).
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
Where are we commanded to keep our treasure? It is in Heaven, for Christ is our inheritance as we have been adopted as sons (Mat. 6:19-21, 13:44, Gal. 4:4-7, Phil. 3:7-10, Col. 23-24, 1 Thes. 2:6). With these things in mind, what could man say that would matter? We already have been reminded that Christ is our vision and the Lord of our hearts, and here we are reminded to put Him first. Why do we need this reminder? Because He is our High King, not the Irish highland kings nor any other ruler of the earth, and we must follow His Word first (Acts 5:29, Rom. 1:16, Col. 1:18).
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
This verse is an echo of those before. His is our High King and our defender, the one who holds the world and our hearts in His hands; He has promised to be with us, so how can we be harmed or fail ( Psa. 16:1-11, 19:14, 20:6, 31:24, 73:24-26, 1 Chron. 29:10-13, John 16:33, Heb. 13:6, 1 Cor. 15:54-58)? This is the message of “Be Thou My Vision”: that Christ might be first in our lives as we put our trust in Him, for He is our Rock and our Salvation (Psa. 16:8, 33:21, 62:6).
Blessings to you and yours,
Another History of the Text and Tune