Holy God, we praise your name;
Lord of all, we bow before you;
all on earth your scepter claim,
all in heav’n above adore you.
Infinite your vast domain,
everlasting is your reign.
Hark, the glad celestial hymn
angel choirs above are raising;
cherubim and seraphim
in unceasing chorus praising,
fill the heav’ns with sweet accord:
“Holy, holy, holy Lord.”
Lo! the apostolic train
join your sacred name to hallow;
prophets swell the glad refrain,
and the white-robed martyrs follow;
and from morn to set of sun,
through the church the song goes on.
Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name you;
while in essence only One,
undivided God we claim you,
and adoring bend the knee,
while we sing this mystery.
Our hymn of the month is an adaptation of a very ancient hymn, one of the oldest hymns still extant, the Te Deum of the fourth century. It is a hymn of praise to God, anticipating the completion of salvation and the fullness of the kingdom.
That anticipation is clear in the first verse, which states that “all on earth your scepter claim,” meaning that everyone on earth acknowledges the rule of God. Clearly it is not the case presently, but we know that it will be one day. So the writer, anticipating it, writes the hymn as if it had already happened. This verse praises the universal extent of God’s rule and the totality of His sovereignty.
Much of the hymn alludes to Revelation 4 and the vision of the throne of God that John sees. The angels, the hymns, the throne, and the refrain, “Holy, Holy, Holy” all remind us of that chapter. Verse 2 describes the worship of the angels, showing us what a glorified thing it is to worship God. The higher we ascend in heavenly glory, the more we praise God. Worship isn’t something we just do in this present state. It’s not something that just serves some end, like giving us comfort in present sorrow or educating us about God’s nature (though it certainly does those things). Even after the need for education or comfort is gone, we still praise God like the angels do, for it is the highest purpose of our created nature to do so.
Verse 3 similarly portrays the great men and women of the faith, apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and their unceasing praise to God. It is truly a glorious gift to know God and to praise Him, as the hymn illustrates to us by the joyful worship of these great saints. This hymn shows so clearly that the worship of God is something we should look forward to joyfully, not a dutiful chore to be performed.
The last verse makes reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. God is one in essence and three in person, a uniquely Christian doctrine. The hymn does not spell out all the nuances of the doctrine, but nonetheless clearly identifies the true doctrine of God as Trinitarian. The original Te Deum as well as many other hymns contains this doctrine for a few different reasons. First, because the nature of God is always cause for wonder and joy at the revelation of this beautiful mystery. Secondly, it serves to identify the orthodox doctrine and shut the heretics of the day (most notably the Arians who denied the deity of Christ) out of the orthodox faith. And finally, it serves a pedagogical purpose, to deeply impress within the people’s mind the Biblical and orthodox teaching in a way that the decision of a church council by itself never could.
This is a great example of the best use of good hymns. It teaches us good doctrine; it serves as a confession of faith for the church; and it guides us in right practice, showing us what a good and wonderful thing it is to joyfully praise our God.