Holy, Holy, Holy

Edited from the files of Grace W. Haight

by Guye Johnson

Holy, holy, holy, Lord ‘God Almighty!
Early in the morning our songs 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!

—Reginald Heber, 1783-1826

The lyrics, the tune, and the title of this hymn unite to praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The words are based on Revelation 4:8, which reads, “And they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”

E. E. Ryden (The Story of our Hymns) says of Heber’s “Holy, Holy, Holy”: “It is a hymn of pure adoration. There is nothing of the element of confession, petition, or thanksgiving in it, but only worship. Its exalted language is Scriptural throughout; indeed it is the Word of the Most High.”

From childhood, the composer, Reginald Heber, was an eager student of the Word of God. He became noted for the wealth of Scripture stored in his memory, and his high regard for God’s Word is reflected in his hymns.

Oxford scholar Heber was refined, intelligent, talented. According to many, he was “the most distinguished student of his time.” Praise did not affect his simplicity of character, however, for throughout his life he was noted for humility of heart and life. A close friend remarked, “In spite of his high intelligence, he always seeks to accommodate his instruction to the comprehension of all people,”

Along with his wife, Amelia Shipley, Heber served in an obscure parish for 16 years. It was during this period that he wrote most of his hymns. From his youth, Heber felt a strong pull toward the mission field, particularly the land of India. His zeal for missions in India is expressed in his popular hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” How surprising, then, that he turned down his first two calls to the land he claimed to love so much. With the third call, a call to Calcutta, he yielded.

Calcutta’s climate, coupled with the strenuous work of overseeing his parish took heavy toll on Heber’s physical strength, and within three years he was with the Lord. On Sunday, April 11, 1826, he had preached to a crowded audience and confirmed 40 young people. The next morning, at six o’clock, he confirmed a number of native converts, Then, warm and exhausted, Heber returned to his room to rest until breakfast. When the call to breakfast brought no response from the missionary, a servant went to investigate. Heber was dead of apoplexy. In eulogizing this dedicated man, someone said, “No other man ever made so great a mark on India in so short a time.”

“Nicaea,” the tune to which this hymn is usually sung, was composed by an Englishman, John B. Dykes, Dykes was born in 1823. An accomplished organist, a faithful minister, a writer of note with regard to theological matters, he was a prolific composer of tunes.

Of the 57 tunes attributed to Dykes, “Nicaea” was so named in honor of the council at which the Nicaean Creed was adopted and first promulgated in A. D. 325. This council was remarkable for its doctrinal impact, and the hosts of courageous people who had endured Diocletian’s persecution. These people had scarred faces, twisted arms, paralyzed legs, and sightless eyes for suffering for the Faith.

The stirring lyrics and melody of “Holy, Holy, Holy” have led some authorities to acclaim it “one of the noblest and most majestic odes ever addressed to the Divine Being.” Others believe that “it is doubtful if there is a nobler hymn of its kind in all the realm of hymnody.”

This article first appeared in Faith for the Family, March/April 1975. It is republished here by permission.