Home History of Hymns: "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates"

History of Hymns: "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates"

"Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates"
Georg Weissel; translation by Catherine Winkworth
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 213

Lift up your heads, you mighty gates;
Behold, the King of glory waits;
The King of kings is drawing near;
The Savior of the world is here!

This hymn for the first Sunday in Advent comes from a devastating time in 17th-century Europe—the Thirty-Years’ War (1618-1648). The struggles between the Protestant princes of Bohemia and the tyranny of the Catholic Emperor led to the plundering of the land by troops and untold suffering bringing on disease and famine.

Yet, this is an era that has given to Christianity some of its finest German hymns: “Now thank we all our God” by Martin Rinkart, “Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended” by Johann Heermann, and the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, several of which were translated by John Wesley. Among these hymns is Georg Weissel’s reflection on Psalm 24:7.

Georg Weissel (1590-1635) was a Prussian scholar, school-teacher and pastor who wrote about 20 hymns. Most of Weissel’s hymns are on the themes related to the various seasons of the Christian Year. This Lutheran pastor received his education at the University of Königsberg as well as Wittenberg, Leipzig, Jena, Strassburg, Basel and Marburg. He became pastor of the Altrossgart Church in Königsberg in 1623 and served this congregation until his death in 1635.

“Lift up your heads” first appeared in posthumously in 1642 in Preussische Festlieder in five stanzas of eight lines each in an meter. The famous British translator of German hymns, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), rendered the hymn into English in five, eight-line stanzas as well for her Lyra Germanica (1855). The version that appears in hymnals today usually reduces the hymn to four, four line stanzas in Long Meter (88.88).

Psalm 24 has traditionally been associated with the Advent season, especially verse 7: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” (KJV) The first stanza places this verse in the context of waiting for the “King of glory” who is the “Savior of the world.”

Stanza two reflects the pietistic origins of the hymn writer and the time. The gates are not literally openings to a walled city, but a metaphor for the “portals of [our] heart.” Our hearts become a “temple set apart from earthly use for heaven’s employ.”

In stanza three the “King” becomes a “Redeemer” who will “abide” within our wide-open hearts. Once again the focus is not on an external being, but on one whose “inner presence [we] feel” and whose “grace and love in us [are] reveal[ed].”

The concluding stanza is adapted from the final lines of Winkworth’s translation. It is an eschatological petition to the Holy Spirit to “lead us on until the glorious race is won,” or in other words to lead us to eternity.

The complete original translation of the hymn places it somewhat more explicitly in the context of the Thirty-Years’ War with stanzas that refer to “distress” and “woe.” According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, “The poet takes refuge from present misery in contemplating what his land would be if Christ were really ruler.”

The essential themes of Advent are present in this hymn: waiting for a Savior who will not only change our hearts now, but will come in glory in the fulfillment of time.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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