Hymn of the Month, April 2017
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High.”
This month’s hymn is simultaneously one of the rarest hymns in the Trinity Hymnal and one of the most common. According to an online database of hundreds of hymnals and thousands of psalms and hymns, this hymn appears only in the Trinity Hymnal. At the same time, its words come from a fourth century Latin hymn that has been translated and retranslated many times—“All Glory Be to Thee, Most High” is but one of many renderings. Furthermore, that fourth century hymn is itself an elaboration of one of the most famous hymns of all time: the praise of the angels in Luke 2, declared in the presence of shepherds the night Jesus was born. That fourth century hymn begins by expressing the praise of the angels, and then goes on to summarize why the Triune God deserves such praise according to the rest of the New Testament. In that light, this month’s hymn might be likened to a 1994 penny in a person’s hand: unique because no one else has that particular penny, yet common as ever because the die that produced it churned out plenty more like it.
Our hymn—our penny, figuratively speaking—was translated from Latin into German by a monk named Nicolaus Decius and sung first on Easter morning, April 5, 1523 in Braunschweig, a city in the heart of modern-day Germany (the city is often referred to as “Brunswick” in English). Decius was born in Bavaria in 1480 or 1485. As a monk, he lived for a time in a cloister, but in 1522 was appointed a schoolmaster in Braunschweig. Soon thereafter he was asked to come and labor as a preacher in Stettin (today located in modern-day Poland and spelled Szczecin). He accepted the invitation and in time became recognized as pastor of the Church of St. Nicholas in Stettin.
Decius was an advocate of the Protestant Reformation, and by all appearances a popular one. Indeed, earlier in life he had studied under Martin Luther at the University of Wittenburg, and Luther’s teaching had a lasting impact on his life and work. Decius died suddenly and unexpectedly on March 21, 1541 after a suspected poisoning, allegedly by Roman Catholics who were opposed to the Reformation.
It is unknown who produced our English translation of Decius’s hymn. The most we can say is he or she is one of many who have translated and published English renderings of Decius’s hymn. For all we know, the translator may have been a member of the committee that compiled the Trinity Hymnal, especially in light of the fact that “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High” appears in the Trinity Hymnal alone.
Nicolaus Decius had a hand also in the making of the tune of this month’s hymn. An able musician as well as a preacher, Decius adapted a familiar tenth-century Easter chant for use with his hymn. The tune was first published in a 1539 hymnal and has been associated with the hymn ever since.
In later years many Lutheran composers incorporated Decius’s tune into their compositions. J.S. Bach (1685-1750), for instance, incorporated it into four of his cantatas and composed ten organ preludes around it. The arrangement published in the Trinity Hymnal comes from a similar work by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Sources: Hymnary.org, Wikipedia.org, Bach-cantatas.com, and The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
As already mentioned, “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High” starts with the praise of the angels in Luke 2, and then proceeds to explain why the Triune God deserves such praise. Indeed, we spend most of the hymn praising the persons of the Trinity individually, acknowledging with joy who each one is and what each one does. In that respect, this hymn is not only a song of praise, but also something of a musical primer on the doctrine of the Trinity—doctrine (teachings) and doxology (praise) go hand-in-hand.
All glory be to thee, Most High,
to thee all adoration;
in grace and truth thou drawest nigh
to offer us salvation;
thou showest thy good will to men,
and peace shall reign on earth again;
we praise thy Name forever.
In Luke 2:14 we hear the multitude of the heavenly host say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” That, together with what the angel told the shepherds moments earlier, is the basis for our own praise here in this first verse. With the angels, we declare that all glory is due to God because he sent us “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). This Savior, as we learn in John 1, is the eternal Word, one with God the Father, who “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Those words of Scripture shape our praise here, even though our primary focus is the praise of the angels. As we take upon our own lips the praise of the angels, we elaborate that we ascribe all glory to God because through Jesus Christ he drew nigh—in grace and truth—to offer us salvation. In doing so, he showed us good will and brought peace that we sinners did not deserve in the least (this language closely resembles the King James’s translation of Luke 2:14, which reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”). In the light of such amazing grace, we are thus determined to praise his Name forever.
We praise, we worship thee, we trust,
and give thee thanks forever,
O Father, for thy rule is just
and wise, and changes never;
thy hand almighty o'er us reigns,
thou doest what thy will ordains;
'tis well for us thou rulest.
In this second verse we continue our praise, focusing specifically on the full testimony of Scripture concerning the person and work of God the Father. We worship and trust him specifically because his rule is just and wise (Rev 16:7: “And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’”), his rule changes never (Mal 3:6: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”), his almighty hand reigns over us and all creation (Ps 47:8: “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”), he does what his will ordains (Ps 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”), and that’s well for us (Ps 62:8: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”). All told, the question is not whether God is worthy of worship, trust, and thanks, but whether each of us worships, trusts, and thanks him. Do you? Will you?
O Jesus Christ, our God and Lord,
Son of the heav'nly Father,
O thou who hast our peace restored,
the straying sheep dost gather,
thou Lamb of God, to thee on high
out of the depths we sinners cry:
have mercy on us, Jesus!
Along the same lines we sing praise now specifically to Jesus Christ. We acknowledge that he, our God and Lord, is Son of the heavenly Father (Matt 3:17: “Behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”), the one who has restored our peace (Rom 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”), the one who gathers straying sheep (John 10:16: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”), the Lamb of God (John 1:29: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”), and as such the one to whom we sinners may and must cry, “Have mercy on us!” The two blind men in Matthew 9:27 once cried out to Jesus with those words, and we not only must follow in their footsteps, but also may do so with confidence given what Jesus said in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” As before, the question is not whether Jesus is worthy of our praise and pleas, but whether we will present our praise and pleas to him. Do you? Will you?
O Holy Spirit, precious gift,
thou Comforter unfailing,
from Satan's snares our souls uplift,
and let thy pow'r, availing,
avert our woes and calm our dread.
For us the Savior's blood was shed;
we trust in thee to save us.
We finish by singing praise to the Holy Spirit in this fourth verse. We acknowledge that he is a precious gift, the unfailing Comforter promised by Jesus (John 14:16: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever….”). In that light we ask him to strengthen us and calm us as he alone can do (Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 1:22). Given the fact that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” we rejoice that the Savior’s blood was shed for us. That noted, we all have quite a road ahead of us before we arrive at the Celestial City. If the Holy Spirit does not continue to work in us to save us, Jesus will have shed his blood in vain. For that reason we finish with a simple expression of trust in the Holy Spirit, thankful that “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). Do you trust in the Holy Spirit? Will you?