Edwin Hatch, who wrote this hymn, was a great scholar. An esteemed member of the Oxford University faculty, he became widely known for his Brampton Lectures, which were translated into German by the great Adolph von Harnack, a great German scholar. Lectures of that sort tend to be challenging to read—tough sledding, as they say. But when it came to expressing his faith in ways that would speak to the ordinary person, nobody has done it better than Edwin Hatch did with this hymn, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”
This hymn is a prayer. The first line of each stanza is “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” That phrase reminds us of the creation in which God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). It reminds us of Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
We need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, living within us—guiding us—inspiring us—helping us to live the kind of life that God created us to live.
This hymn prays that God will breathe on us and fill us with life anew, even as God breathed life into Adam. It prays that God will breathe on us to purify our hearts. It prays that God will breathe on us until we are wholly devoted to God. It prays that God will breathe on us so that we might never die. This hymn, then, is a prayer for God’s help in this life and throughout eternity.
— Copyright 2007, Richard Niell Donovan