Church Worship

What Are We Singing: Holy, Holy, Holy

  • Eva Marie Everson Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 20, 2008
What Are We Singing: <i>Holy, Holy, Holy</i>

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)

Heber’s inspiration would have continued with passages from the 4th chapter of Revelation in which John, having been beckoned through a door in Heaven, received a vision comparable to Isaiah’s. There he saw a throne, surrounded by 24 thrones. On the center throne sat one who had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow encircled the throne and a sea of glass—clear as crystal, John writes—was before it. On the 24 thrones sat 24 elders, dressed in white and crowned in gold. Within this beautiful vision were four living creatures who cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” At this, the 24 elders fell before the one sitting upon the center throne, lay their crowns down and cried out their praise to Him, He who alone was worthy to sit upon the throne.

While we can read about these two moments in time, we must remember as we sing that these are scenes we shall surely witness ourselves, and—I believe—now become a party to when we raise our early morning songs of worship and praise to our King.

The Uniqueness, the Glory, and the Perfection of Jesus

Heber’s song goes on: Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee.

What, in your life, compares to God? To knowing Him? To having invited Jesus to be your Lord and Savior? As I researched various writings in the writing of this article, I found many online songs, poems, and psalms written to Jesus, to tell Him of His incomparable worth. Some were so beautifully penned and so heartfelt, tears stung my eyes and my heart leapt.

So, then, what about you? Would you take a moment to give the Lord a shout of praise? Tell Him how matchless He is. Think of one thing in your life that you hold as dear and then hold it up to the Light of Jesus. How does it shine next to Him?

A Praiseworthy Doctrine

There are two main focuses within Heber’s hymn.

  1. The trinity of God
  2. The holiness of God.

The Trinity of God

If you want to start a good argument, begin by attempting to explain the Trinity. There is no such word in the Bible as “trinity” but the concept is most definitely there. The trinity is, in short, the God-head made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; all being God and yet all being uniquely distinct from the other.

The concept of the Trinity can be traced back to Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, God… God, here, is Elohim or Elohiym. This title is a plural intensive with a singular meaning. In Genesis 1:2 we read that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. Then, in Genesis 1: 26, God Himself declared, “Let us make a man in our image.”

We also have the remarkable words from Deuteronomy 4:6, known as the Shema, which has been recited by faithful Jews for millennia. “Hear O Israel,” they cry out, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Loraine Boettner, in her Studies in Theology[1], wrote: the doctrine of the Trinity is the distinctive mark of the Christian religion, setting it apart from all the other religions of the world.

Christians alone recognize and rejoice in God as Father, Son (in the person of Jesus), and Holy Spirit.

The Concept of Holiness

The answer to the question of what song we should be singing is this: we are to praise God in the morning—indeed, all day long—because He is holy. Therefore, we should sing a song of praise, adoration, honor, and glory. Our hearts should cry out the distinctiveness in Him as God and God alone. Our lips should sing, now and forever, “You are holy, holy, holy.”

Holiness is as difficult to explain and express as the Trinity, and this is what makes our focus hymn all the more inspirational and intriguing. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary says this about the holiness of God: One does not define God. Similarly, the idea of holiness is at once understandable and elusive. Nevertheless, there is not term equal to the fullness inherent in holiness. All of heaven's hosts, Israel, and the church ascribe praise to a holy God because that idea sets him apart from everything else. Holiness is what God is. Holiness also comprises his plan for his people.

In other words, God is holy. He is holy. He is holy. He is holy. And we, as we draw near Him in our praise and in our worship, should strive to be holy, too.

Eva Marie Everson’s most current work is Reflections of God’s Holy Land: A Personal Journey Through Israel (Thomas Nelson/Nelson Bibles). For more information about the book and Eva Marie's speaking topics, go to:



[1] Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976, pp. 80-81.