PODCAST: Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty (History Behind the Hymns #15 with Daniel Whyte III)

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #15

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is Revelation 4:8 which reads: “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “Jesus! it is the name which moves the harps of heaven to melody. Jesus! the life of all our joys. If there be one name more charming, more precious than another, it is this name. It is woven into the very warp and woof of our psalmody. Many of our hymns begin with it, and scarcely any, that are good for anything, end without it. It is the sum total of all delights. It is the music with which the bells of heaven ring; a song in a word; an ocean for comprehension, although a drop for brevity; a matchless oratorio in two syllables; a gathering up of the hallelujahs of eternity in five letters.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from R.C. Sproul. He said: “If you don’t delight in the fact that your Father is holy, holy, holy, then you are spiritually dead. You may be in a church. You may go to a Christian school. But if there is no delight in your soul for the holiness of God, you don’t know God. You don’t love God. You’re out of touch with God. You’re asleep to his character.”

Our hymn for today is “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” by Reginald Heber. It reads:

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

“Holy, Holy, Holy” by Reginald Heber is unique in many regards. Indeed, it spans many Christian traditions and centuries, unifying them in four timeless stanzas. Not only that, but Heber was an Anglican bishop whose ministry spanned continents and races, placing him as one of the heroes of the Christian faith.

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of the hymn is how the text does not initiate praise, but instead encourages the singer to join in an endless song. Both Isaiah 6:1-5 and Revelation 4:2-11 inspire this hymn, spanning the Testaments, reminding us that the Trisagion (thrice holy) has been uttered in worship for centuries. Isaiah received his vision in the eighth century B.C.; John the Apostle recorded his revelation in the first century C.E.; while Reginald Heber composed his hymn in 1826, in the nineteenth century.

Congregations continue to be inspired by Heber’s text in the twenty-first century. It is safe to say that songs of praise, begun by the seraphim and cherubim, have been echoing throughout the millennia through the voice of the people.

What makes this hymn so special? First, the rhyme scheme is unique since all four lines of each stanza rhyme with the word “holy.” One won’t easily find another hymn written this way. Another reason why “Holy, holy, holy” is such a timeless hymn is its pairing with the well-known tune NICAEA. Written by John Bacchus Dykes, NICAEA has a unique elegance and magnificence, which in turn complements Heber’s stately language. There’s no cheap emotionalism and subjectivity apparent in the music or the words. Named after the Council of Nicaea, where the nature of the Trinity was shaped theologically, NICAEA is also a classic example of Victorian hymn tune writing, notably with its solid harmonies and subtle chromaticism.

Heber is careful to describe the Trinity without encroaching upon its mystery. This is especially evident with the phrase, “though the darkness hide Thee” in stanza 3, and this separation between God and man is exacerbated by sin (“though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see”). Though we may not see or completely understand the Trinity in its fullness in this lifetime, Heber’s and Dykes’s collaboration reminds us those are not reasons that preclude our worship of the Triune God.

One particular characteristic of “Holy, holy, holy!” is the unusual meter of 11.12.12.10. This distinguishes it from most English texts that preceded it, especially those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, who wrote in relatively short stanzas including CM (8686), SM (6686), and LM (8888). This unusual meter, however, is finessed by Dykes’s craftsmanship with the rhythm.

Along with the rhythm, the melody was masterfully constructed. The tune commences with a rising third, which could easily symbolize the Trinity, and continues with a chant-like character (there are few leaps and many consecutively repeated notes). Hymnals have left the original four-part harmony of Dykes’s untouched, although most of them have transposed the key down a whole step from the original of E Major.

Reginald Heber was born in Cheshire, England, in 1783, with a precocity toward poetry. By the time Heber was twenty, he had already penned a poem titled “Palestine,” which won the prestigious Newdigate Prize. Four years later, he was writing numerous hymns while he was vicar of Hodnet, Shropshire. This is the most probable time he composed “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” as he stayed there fifteen years.

Most of his hymns, though, were not published until he passed away in 1826. His widow published Heber’s impressive volume of hymns, which are arranged according to the church year, Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year (1827). This, along with A Selection of Psalms and Hymns for the Parish Church of Banbury (Third Edition, 1826), brought his most eminent hymn into the spotlight.

Heber intended for “Holy, Holy, Holy,” written for Trinity Sunday, to be sung between the sermon and the creed by his parish in Hodnet. This was iconoclastic at the time, since hymn singing was prohibited in Church of England liturgies. In contrast, the Methodist societies in the eighteenth century were known for their hymn singing, along with the dissenting churches that had been using the hymns of Isaac Watts for nearly one hundred years. Consequently, then, British hymnology scholar J. R. Watson notes Heber was a man who “helped to dispel the idea that hymns were associated with Methodists and extreme Evangelicals” (Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology). Unfortunately, he failed to persuade church authorities within the Church of England to grant permission for hymn singing during Sunday services while he was alive.

In 1826, Reginald Heber died in British India from a stroke while bathing (often referred to in India as coup de soleil), leaving an impressive legacy within Christianity. That was because Heber was the Anglican bishop over all of British India from 1823-1826. He worked tirelessly to build a training school for local clergy and traveled extensively around India preaching the gospel. He also embodied nineteenth-century British missiology, which purposed to use Britain’s divine right and calling to evangelize the rest of the world. This is seen in Heber’s hymns “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “Brightest and Best,” two other of his commonly sung hymns. Heber had continued to write a few hymns, although most of his corpus was written during his Hodnet vicarship.

John Bacchus Dykes was not quite as copious in his output with hymn tunes as Heber was with hymn texts, but of his hymn tunes, NICAEA was his best-known work. He worked as the choir director of the Durham Cathedral for most of his life and passed away in northern England at the age of fifty-three. It is safe to say Dykes would be pleased his NICAEA has stood the test of time paired with “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” and may that it “evermore shalt be.”

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” by Henry Van Dyke.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.