Hymn O worship the King

Music has the wonderful ability to speak to our spirits and move us into a deeper worship of God. Especially the great truths of faith that are expressed in hymns. O worship the king is one of those hymns that will lift up your heart if you sing it in truth.

This hymn, written and published in 1833, has often been called a model hymn for worship. It has few equals in expressive lyrics and in the exaltation of the Almighty. “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. 

Each of the epithets applied to God (King, Shield, Defender, Ancient of Days, Maker, Redeemer, Friend), as well as the vivid imagery (such as, His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form and the references to His attributes, power, might, grace, bountiful care, love)—all combine to describe with literary eloquence and spiritual warmth the majesty and praiseworthiness of our God.

O worship the King is a hymn written by a very busy man, Sir Robert Grant. He was born in India in 1779, and his father, Charles Grant, at that time was director of the East India Company. Despite his Scottish roots, Grant was Anglican, not Presbyterian. Charles and his family were also members of what was called the Clapham Sect, an evangelical off-shoot of the Church of England dedicated to social issues such as the abolishment of slavery. 

Robert and his older brother Charles attended Magdalene College in Cambridge and both received their law degrees on the same day in January of 1807.  Robert was elected to serve in Parliament the following year, an office he held for several more years. Grant was not only a politician and a public servant of England, but also a devout Evangelical Christian who took every opportunity to share the Good News. He was a financial supporter of missionaries, and was loved by the people of India, who established a Medical College in his honor.

One day in the early 1830s, during his personal study, reading William Kethe's translation of Psalm 104 in a 1561, which speaks of Christ, who “makes the clouds His chariot” and is “clothed with honor and majesty.” There, he began to lists the comparisons of Christ, the King of Kings, to British Royalty and wrote the hymn, which is considered one of the greatest in the English language, as his own version of the psalm with the words:

O Worship the King all glorious above! 
O gratefully sing his power and his love,
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise

The most common tune for Grant’s text is LYONS. For most of the tune’s existence, its composition was attributed to either of the Haydn brothers. In 2000, Margaret K. Dismore discovered that the tune was actually composed by Joseph Martin Kraus, a German composer who was probably in London, along with Haydn, when Kraus’ sonata was premiered, the first line of which became the theme of this hymn tune. Hymn tune analyst Paul Westermeyer describes this tune as an example of a popular instrumental melody broken into a “congregational idiom,” and done quite well (Let the People Sing, 204).

A second tune that is often put to Grant’s text is HANOVER. This tune also had a mix-up over who actually composed it. For many years it was attributed to Handel, but is now generally ascribed to William Croft. Both of these tunes are excellent. HANOVER is spritely, but does jump around a bit melodically, while LYONS tends to have steadier climbs and natural progressions, and might be more comfortable for congregations, unless you’ve been singing HANOVER for a long time already. 

The author, Sir Grant 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. 

Sir Robert Grant died in his beloved India on July 9, 1838. Even though Robert was surrounded by the “glory” of British royalty, he recognized the unsurpassable glory of Christ, and humbly called others to do the same through his hymn, “O Worship the King,” which was published in 1833. 
Several of Grant's writings, prose and poetry, were published during his lifetime. After his death, his brother gathered 12 of Grant's poems into a book titled Sacred Poems. One of those poems, O Worship the King was set to music and has appeared in church hymnals ever since. “O Worship the King” is most often used as a hymn of gathering and a call to worship.

The Hymn Full Text:
1. O worship the King all-glorious above,
    O gratefully sing his power and his love:
    our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
    pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

2. O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
    whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
    His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
    and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

3. Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
    It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
    it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
    and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

4. Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
    in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
    Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
    our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

5. O measureless Might, unchangeable Love,
    whom angels delight to worship above!
    Your ransomed creation, with glory ablaze,
    in true adoration shall sing to your praise!

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