What Are We Singing: Holy, Holy, Holy
- Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Son and husband.
Distinguished student and award-winning poet.
Lecturer, preacher, and bishop. Missionary to India, so revered a college there is named for him. So beloved, English sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey created a statue of him which was erected in Calcutta, as well as a moment in his honor along the south wall of the Ambulatory of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.
And yet with all these accolades, he is best known as the penman of one of the finest hymns sung both in traditional and more contemporary services. Reginald Heber, 1783-1826, wrote the lyrics to Holy, Holy, Holy specifically for use on Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian liturgical calendar and the Sunday of Pentecost in Eastern Christianity. The purpose of Trinity Sunday is to celebrate the Trinity—the three Persons of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is also the inspiration for the lyrics of the song.
But it was several decades later that John Bacchus Dykes wrote the music, called Nicaea (named after the Nicaean Council of 325 AD), specifically for Heber’s lyrics.
Now, almost two-hundred years later, it remains an honored work, easily sung, quickly recognized. But when you sing it, do you know what you are singing?
Early in the Morning
Knowing the theme of Holy, Holy, Holy was specific to Trinity Sunday, we can easily assume the lyrics “early in the morning, our song shall rise to thee” is based on the morning of that holy day.
But aren’t we called to rise up every morning in the seeking of and praise to the Lord? Isn’t the Bible full of hints that this is the best way—the best time—to meet God and to be with God? David wrote: O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee…. (Psalm 63:1)
E. M. Bounds (1835-1913), a Methodist Episcopal minister and devotional writer who spent much time expounding on the topic of prayer, wrote: The men who have done the most for God in this world have been early on their knees. He who fritters away the early morning, its opportunity and freshness, in other pursuits than seeking God will make poor headway seeking Him the rest of the day. If God is not first in our thoughts and efforts in the morning, He will be in the last place the remainder of the day.
Clearly, we are to seek God, but then what song shall we sing to Him? The answer comes throughout the hymn.
Saints and Crowns and a Glassy Sea The inspiration for the second verse of Holy, Holy, Holy most likely came from the 6th chapter of Isaiah. There is, within the first verses, a scene so magnificent we often find ourselves a bit uncomfortable with such prospect that this actually occurred to a fellow human being, no matter how revered he now is. Isaiah was about to receive his commission, and in doing so, he had a glorious vision.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6: 1-4)
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