Holy, Holy, Holy!

There are some songs/hymns which are iconic in their purpose. That is, they are fairly universally-recognized for filling a certain role in the assembly. There’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” for the Communion. There’s “Give Me the Bible” for a song before a sermon or about the word of God. One of the iconic praise hymns is Reginald Heber’s “Holy, Holy, Holy!” (the hymn is so iconic that it has appeared as #1 in numerous hymnals). It was written in connection with Trinity Sunday (in the liturgical year, the first Sunday after Pentecost) and the tune written for it is named NICAEA after the city where the Nicene Creed was agreed to. The Nicene Creed was the first major credal statement about the three-in-one nature of the Godhead. Revelation 4, one of the source texts, is a prescribed reading for Trinity Sunday in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

The common expression of the hymn is “Holy, holy, holy.” The word, “holy,” generally has to do with being set apart or made special. Repeating the word is used to intensify the sense. This threefold declaration is sometimes compared to a “super-superlative,” a degree beyond “most holy.” The idea is to declare God as uniquely holy, that is, so much holier than us that any comparison of His holiness to ours would be an exercise in understatement.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God over all and blest eternally.

The core text for the hymn is a combination of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. The more obvious references are to the latter. The opening line is from Revelation 4.8, the shout of the four living creatures. The second line (“Early in the morning”) is not, that I can tell, deliberately tied to any particular passage of Scripture. It could be an interesting turn of phrase on Psalm 88.13, wherein the psalmist says that his prayer comes before Yahweh in the morning. Regardless, it expresses a useful thought in that from our earliest thoughts, our day needs to be one of praise to the Lord. This line has been changed at various times to reflect a particular time of day (or so as not to pinpoint a specific hour). God is the “Almighty”—the all-powerful One—but He is also merciful. In perhaps another turn of verse, Lamentations 3.22–23 (ESV) says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

The last line is perhaps one of the most well-known altered lyrics in hymnody. Heber’s original line is “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Contrary to popular belief, the “culprits” behind this change were not members of the churches of Christ, but the Baptists, in the 1879 Hymn Tune and Service Book. It has been almost universally followed in hymnals associated with the churches of Christ (except, ironically, by Sacred Selections for the Church). The usually-given reason is an objection to the word, “trinity,” as an extra-biblical designation for God. The concept of a divine trinity is taught in Scripture (cf. Matt 28.19), even if the word itself does not appear. The replacement thought is certainly a biblical one, taken from Romans 9.5.

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who wert, and art, and ever more shalt be.

We are given yet another image from Revelation 4 to open up the second verse. This one comes from the 24 elders throwing their crowns before the throne of God. The image is extrapolated out to all of God’s people. I don’t know if Heber intended this or not, but to me there is an interesting wordplay in this line. As mentioned above, “holy” deals with being set apart, and a “saint” is one who has been set apart. So, in essence, we are declaring to the uniquely set-apart One that those whom He has set apart adore Him. Casting down crowns is taken as an image of complete submission to God.

Joining in this picture are the cherubim and seraphim. The seraphim are shown uttering the praise of verse 1 in Isaiah 6.2. God is described as being enthroned among the cherubim in Isaiah 37.16, and they figure heavily into Ezekiel 10. The last line, however archaic it sounds to us, is the conclusion of the thought from Revelation 4.8, “Who was and who is and who is to come!” This is another statement of God’s eternal nature.

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.

The third verse is based at least in part on Isaiah’s reaction to God’s presence in Isaiah 6.5: “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” It is more directly a reference to Matthew 5.8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Content-wise, this verse gets to a big part of what it means for God to be uniquely holy (Rev 15.4). Sin in our hearts (darkness) separates us from God and obscures Him from our view. God, by contrast, is completely pure (1 Jn 1.5), demonstrates complete love (cf 1 Jn 4.19, among other passages), and has complete power and control.

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 over all and blest eternally.

The final verse is a restatement of the first, except for the second line. That line can be derived from the Isaiah 6 declaration, “The whole earth is full of his glory!” All that God has done declares His praise (cf. Psa 19.1ff).

Throughout this text, the number three appears multiple times. I do not know whether Heber did this intentionally or they appear by coincidence. Note:

  • Holy, holy, holy—I have heard the threefold “holy” be interpreted as trinitarian (“Holy is the Father, Holy is the Son, Holy is the Spirit,” as in the Schubert hymn).
  • Three groups of worshipers in verse 2: the saints, the cherubim, the seraphim
  • Three general classes of worshipers: man (v.1), those in God’s presence (v.2), all creation (v.3).
  • Three things God is perfect in: power, love, purity
  • Three places God’s name is praised: earth, sky, sea

Perhaps because of 1.2, “early in the morning,” or because of our tendency to begin our assemblies with songs of praise, I typically hear this song as an opening song. This is a fitting place for it, as it reminds us exactly who we are worshiping: the Almighty God, who is uniquely holy above all others.

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