Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Rejoice, the Lord is King'

History of Hymns: 'Rejoice, the Lord is King'

By C. Michael Hawn

Charles wesley

“Rejoice, the Lord Is King”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 715, 716

Rejoice, the Lord is King!
Your Lord and King adore,
Mortals, give thanks, and sing,
And triumph evermore;
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice,
Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice.

Hymnologist J. Richard Watson summarizes “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” as “an economical statement of the final triumph of Jesus as Saviour and Judge, as stated in the Apostles’ Creed” (Watson, 2002, p. 193). The opening stanza of this well-known hymn by Charles Wesley (1707–1788) is one of unbridled exuberance. The six-line stanza contains at least seven imperative exhortations: “Rejoice,” “give thanks,” “sing,” “Lift up your heart,” “Lift up your voice,” “Rejoice, again,” “rejoice.”

This hymn was first published in Hymns for Our Lord’s Resurrection (London, 1746, no. 8) in time for Easter of that year (March 30), one of at least six editions (Resurrection Hymns, 2011, p. 1). This small, focused collection of sixteen hymns was one in a line of pocket-sized volumes on seasons of the Christian year produced by Charles during the mid-1740s. “Rejoice” is the only hymn from the collection that has continued in use. Interestingly, the collection does not include Charles Wesley’s most famous Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is risen today” (1739).

An unusual feature of this Wesley hymn is a refrain in lines five and six in five of the six stanzas. This refrain begins with a citation from the third-century eucharistic invitation—“Lift up your hearts,” or Sursum corda in Latin. Wesley adapts the Sursum corda to the singular “heart” to fit the context of the hymn—“heart” and “voice” agree as singular nouns so that “voice” may rhyme with “rejoice.” The author changed it to “hearts” for the 1774 edition of the collection only. An unmistakable reference to Philippians 4:4 follows these exhortations in the final line: "Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (KJV).

As is typical with Wesley’s hymns, this one is rich in biblical allusions. In addition to the reference to the Sursum corda, stanza 1 begins with an allusion to Psalm 97: “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice” (97:1a, KJV) and “Rejoice in the Lord” (97:12a, KJV). Lines three and four of stanza 2 partially quote Hebrews 1:3c, d: “when he had by himself purged our sins, [he] sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (KJV). Wesley’s lines four and five in stanza 3—“The keys of death and hell / Are to our Jesus given”—were inspired by Revelation 1:18: “ I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (KJV).

Hymnals today generally include four of the original six, six-line stanzas. Hymnal editors often omit stanza 4. This omission is regrettable because it is a lyrical summary of article six of the Apostles’ Creed: “[He] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” Lines four and five may draw upon the kenosis hymn (Phil 2:5–11), specifically, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and thing in earth, and things under the earth” (ver. 10):

He sits at God’s right hand,
Till all his foes submit,
And bow to his command,
And fall beneath his feet.
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice,
Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice.

The exclusion of stanza 5 is understandable according to British Wesley scholar J. Richard Watson. It is “characteristic of Wesley’s enthusiasm, his pride in the achievements of Christ figured in the image of the swelling bosom” (Watson, 2002, p. 193):

He all his foes shall quell,
Shall all our sins destroy,
And every bosom swell
With pure seraphic joy;
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice,
Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice.

The final stanza begins with an eschatological reference: "Rejoice in glorious hope, / Jesus the judge shall come." These lines draw upon the final verse of Psalm 96, "Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (96:13, KJV). Wesley's reference to the judgment echoes the Nicene Creed (325 CE): "From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." The stanza concludes with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, leading to a triumphal modification of the final refrain: “We soon shall hear th’archangel’s voice, / The trump of God shall sound, Rejoice.”

Like “Christ the Lord is risen today,” John Wesley (1703–1791) omitted “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” in his monumental Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodists (1780). British Wesley scholar Oliver A. Beckerlegge notes that this was “probably because John was not so wedded to the church’s year as Charles” (Beckerlegge, 1992, p. v). This omission led to the hymn being overlooked in the United States until it was included in a Wesleyan Association collection in 1849 and not in a British Wesleyan collection until 1876. Rather than placing it among the Easter hymns, most hymnals include this in either the “Christ the King” or “Ascension and Reign” sections.

Most hymnals pair one of two tunes with this text. DARWALL’S 148TH (1770) was composed by English vicar John Darwall (1731–1789) for use with the psalm of praise “Ye holy angels bright” (1674), a text by Richard Baxter (1615–1691), an unusual bridge-builder between Puritans and Anglicans in his day. The unusual meter ( or is the same meter used for the metrical version of Psalm 148 found in the Genevan Psalter (c. 1550), giving the tune its name. DARWALL’S 148TH is a stirring melody, especially with the ascending line corresponding to the Sursum corda in line five of the refrain. The melody drops an octave and regroups to ascend again for “Lift up your voice,” climaxing an octave above the initial pitch. As sometimes happens with Charles Wesley’s texts, his inconsistent poetic scanning causes some “bumps” between the poetic and musical meters. For example, “Mor-TALS” (stanza 1) and “Je-SUS” (stanza 2) result in awkward misplacements of emphasis. Some hymnals smooth these out with slight alterations. For example, line three of the first stanza is rearranged to "Rejoice, give thanks and sing." Line one of stanza 2 begins, "The Lord, our Savior reigns" in the recent hymnal Catholic hymnal One in Faith (2015) as well as several others.

GOPSAL (c. 1752) is a tune ascribed to G.F. Handel (1685–1759). The somewhat florid setting of the text by his musical contemporary John Frederic Lampe (1702/3–1751) may have inspired Handel. Lampe published his tunes in Hymns on the Great Festivals and Other Occasions (1746, no. 16), a volume of solo settings of hymn texts by Charles Wesley and Samuel Wesley Jr. (1691–1739). Handel also composed the tune as a solo setting with figured bass, but without the passing tones and trills in Lampe’s composition. Though Lampe’s music captures the “rejoicing” spirit, the emphasis is upon the singer’s technique more than the depth of the text. Handel’s GOPSAL, on the other hand, recognizes the majesty of Wesley’s text, especially in the eschatological final stanzas.

British hymnologist and composer John W. Wilson (1905–1992) claims that GOPSAL is the “only example of a hymn tune by one of the greatest composers still sung to the English words for which it was written” (Wilson, 1985, p. 22). Named after Gopsal Hall, the residence of Charles Jennens (1700–1773) in Leicestershire, this is a fitting tune to be associated with the librettist of Handel’s Messiah. Handel and the Wesleys were contemporaries. GOPSAL was originally composed in the festive Baroque key of D Major (the key for trumpets and timpani during that era—think of the “Hallelujah Chorus”). This key suited the general mood of the text and heightened the final eschatological stanza with its allusion to I Corinthians 15:52: “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (KJV). Contemporary congregations, however, will usually find GOPSAL in C Major because of its range. While it will never be as popular as the worthy DARWALL'S 148TH in the United States, Wesley’s words soar when sung to GOPSAL, especially with John Wilson’s arrangement in The UM Hymnal (Hymn 716).


Oliver A. Beckerlegge, ed. Hymns for our Lord’s Resurrection (facsimile reprint) (Madison, New Jersey: The Charles Wesley Society, 1992).

Resurrection Hymns (1746), Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Randy L. Maddox (November 6, 2011): https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/35_Resurrection_Hymns_%281746%29_Mod.pdf (accessed August 16, 2021).

J. Richard Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

John W. Wilson, “Handel and The Hymn Tune: I—Handel’s Tunes for Charles Wesley’s Hymns,” The Hymn 36, no. 4 (October 1985): 18–23: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015009687651&view=1up&seq=154&skin=2021 (accessed August 16, 2021).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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