History of Hymns: "O Worship the King"
"O Worship the King"
The UM Hymnal, No. 73
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.
“O Worship the King” draws upon the splendor of 19th-century monarchy as a metaphor for the magnificence of the Almighty. Attributes of an earthly monarch are magnified to communicate the characteristics of the King of kings—one who by nature cannot be described.
The hymn is based primarily on the rich imagery of Psalm 104:1-7: “Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.”
The author deftly combines additional biblical images with the splendor of a ruling monarch to paint an image of God as King in earthly terms.
In stanza one, the monarch’s role of protector of the realm is captured in “Our Shield and Defender.” Psalm 84:9 is one of many passages referring to God as our Shield: “Behold, O God our Shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”
“The Ancient of Days” parallels the lineage of an earthly monarch—the family line that leads to the throne. References to God as “Ancient of Days” are found in Daniel 7:9, 13 and 22: “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire” (Daniel 7:9).
Stanza two identifies this monarch as the sovereign of all created order, “whose canopy [is] space” and whose “chariots of wrath” form “deep thunderclouds.” Following the narrative of Psalm 104:8-32, stanzas three and four detail God’s earthly handiwork in the natural world.
The final stanza turns to humanity as a part of creation: “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail. . . .” In antithesis to the majesty and all-powerful nature of the Almighty described in earlier stanzas, we find a monarch that manifests “mercies how tender, how firm to the end. . . .” Unlike earthly kings, the unique nature of this ruler is captured in the final line of the hymn: “Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” This hymn captures in 19th-century terms the fuller nature of God’s relationship to humanity.
Composer Sir Robert Grant (1779-1838) was born and died in India—a country that by this time had long played a major role in the British Empire. He was a public servant distinguishing himself in law, serving as a member of Parliament, judge advocate general and governor of Bombay (now Mumbai).
Despite his Scottish roots, Grant was Anglican, not Presbyterian. His father Charles was a leader in the evangelical wing of the Church of England and also played an active civic role with William Wilberforce in the emancipation of African slaves in the British Empire. Robert was born in India when his father went there to negotiate an end to barriers set up against missions by the British East India Company.
The hymn was published posthumously in 1839 in Sacred Poems, a volume edited by Grant’s brother, Lord Glenelg. It had appeared in an earlier form in 1833, but the 1839 publication was said to be a “more correct and authentic version.”
According to British hymnologist Erik Routley, Grant—though not a prolific hymn writer—provides a “good example of the impact on hymnody of the new search for poetic standards which [Reginald] Heber so strongly promoted.”
Heber (1783-1826), the writer of the famous “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” is often considered the leader of Romantic hymn writers in the early 19th century. More importantly, he shared Grant’s ecclesial interests as a mission-minded bishop of the Church of England who died while serving as Bishop of Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, India.