Hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy”

The next in our series of “favorite hymns” or “great old hymns” may be the first hymn I really learned. And I think it illustrates several features of what truly make a hymn great.

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.

There are some things about this hymn that I really like that I think are features of nearly all, or at least many, truly great hymns. And there are also some things about it that just appeal to me.

The first thing I’d like to note is that essentially every part of the text is in the vocative—that is, every word is addressing God, and even more, is entirely focused on him, his holiness, and his glory, not on us or our concerns.

Second, this is not inane praise; it is rich, thoroughly orthodox poetry, showing a clear understanding of the relevant doctrines.

And third, it’s thoroughly drawn from Scripture. If we had time and inclination, we could find a “proof-text” for every phrase, and several phrases are even fairly direct quotations from Scripture.

More trivially, I like this hymn because I like to sing phrases like “wert, and art, and evermore shalt be”—things that aren’t your everyday phrases, even in poetry (and even in songs that are not inane), but which if used today would most likely be used wrong because they’ve fallen out of general use.

I also like the tune that is usually set with this text, “Nicea.” Simple and straightforward in both melody, chord progression, and voice leading without (as so many lesser tunes are) becoming boring—in any of the parts (in the standard harmonization)—and still manages to bring in subtle touches, like a rising phrase for “our songs shall rise.” And it leaves plenty of room for improvised embellishments, and even a descant.

The one thing I wish was different about this hymn is that it only has four verses. Many of my favorite hymns have five, six, or even more, so I whenever one of my favorites only has three or four I’m somewhat wistful about that fact.

Do you have any thoughts?

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