Home History of Hymns: British hymnist bases "O Worship the King" on majestic Psalm 104

History of Hymns: British hymnist bases "O Worship the King" on majestic Psalm 104

“O Worship the King”
Robert Grant
UM Hymnal, No 73

Robert Grant

O worship the King, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing God’s power and God’s love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

Sir Robert Grant (1780-1838) was born in Kidderpore, Bengal, India. Educated at Magdalene College in Cambridge, England, Grant was a lawyer by trade and quickly became a prominent politician. Knighted and appointed governor of Bombay in 1834, he died four years later of a sudden illness.

This hymn, one of Grant’s most popular, is a paraphrase of Psalm 104. It was originally thought to have been a rendering of W. Kethe’s setting of the same psalm in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561. However, Episcopal hymnologist Raymond F. Glover contends that this is a misconception. He argues that the two settings are in the same meter only because they were written for the same psalm.

Grant’s paraphrase is a very free version of the psalm: “Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind: Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire: Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever.” (Psalm 104:1-5, KJV)
While the hymn incorporates several images from the King James Version, the intent of the hymn writer seems to be to capture the majesty of the psalm in his paraphrase.

Hymnologist and literary scholar, J.R. Watson, notes: “The nature imagery of Psalm 104 is beautifully captured in the last four lines of verse 2 and the gentle imagery of verse 4, and superbly integrated into a wider vision of divine mercy and human adoration.” The last four lines of the second stanza follow and may be compared to the psalm as cited above:

His chariots of wrath
The deep thunder-clouds form,
And dark is his path
On the wings of the storm.

Originally found in the publication The Christian Observer (1806), this hymn was first published in Bickersteth’s Ch. Psalmody (1833), No. 17. It continued to be used with only slight alterations in hymnals throughout history including Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861, 1875); Thring’s Coll. (1882); The Hymnbook (Presbyterian, 1950); The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopalian), and others. It is found in at least 17 current hymnals within the United States including Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist publications. Most hymnals today only include stanzas 1 through 5, leaving out the sixth and final stanza.

The usually neglected sixth stanza offers a duet begun in heaven and continued on earth:

O measureless Might, Ineffable Love,
While Angels delight, to hymn there above,
Thy humbler creation, Though feeble their lays,
With true adoration Shall sing to thy praise.

The tune this hymn is most often set with is HANOVER, which is most often attributed to William Croft (1678-1727). The other tune rivaling in popularity with HANOVER in today’s hymnals is LYONS. This tune’s origins are unknown but it has striking similarities to HANOVER in its melodic contour and traditional harmonization. Within the 17 hymnals surveyed, six different tunes that are in use: LYONS, HANOVER, OLD 104TH, CASSEL, HOUGHTON (Gauntlett), and OLD HUNDREDTH.

Erik Routley, one of the most prominent hymnologists of the 20th century, said this hymn, “For sheer literary grace and beauty . . . may be one of the six finest hymns in the [English] language.”

Mr. Hehn is a candidate for the master of sacred music degree, Perkins School of Theology, and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

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