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Holy, Holy, Holy

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." ~2 Corinthians 13:14

One of the unique things about this week’s hymn is how well it’s melody, 4 part harmonies, and words have stood the test of time as it has been embraced by so many Christian traditions in the nearly 200 years since it was first penned. Because of this, I can’t help but love the accapella arrangement below.

I don’t know about you, but I love those random moments and surprises where God reminds me that He has a plan. When I started this series, I simply wrote down a list of songs to work by way through in the coming weeks and summer months. Holy, Holy, Holy was the next song when I looked at my list for this week’s post. As I researched the song, I quickly learned it was written specifically for Trinity Sunday which got to wondering when Trinity Sunday was this year. As it happens, it is this Sunday: June 7th.

The Trinity is something most Christians are aware of and have some understanding of. We can name the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. We can explain the basic roles of each person: Father as creator and judge, Son as Savior, and Spirit as helper. We have our water analogy where water is still water but can in the three forms of ice, liquid, and steam. Or perhaps you favor the egg analogy where the egg has a yolk, a white, and a shell and needs all three to still be called an egg. But few of us go beyond a basic understanding because to do quickly gets mind-boggling, philosophical, and overwhelming.

In graduate school at St. Andrew’s University, one of the classes I took was Trinitarian Theology. My head hurt trying to figure everything out much of the time. But it was also incredibly exciting to have some of my harder, deeper questions about God finally addressed in a way that brought some real clarity. To study Trinitarian theology is to gain a deep appreciation for both how simple and straightforward God can be and how immense, overwhelming, and utterly beyond human comprehension God can be. As God told the prophet Isaiah:

As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Describing the great mystery of the Trinity is why Holy, Holy, Holy was written in 1826 by Anglican bishop Reginald Heber. In a time where music wasn’t included in the official church service, Heber sought to write hymns which change the minds of Anglican leadership. It’s no accident that one of the common reviews about this hymn is that it is without excessive emotionalism and with care to focus on describing the Trinity without encroaching on the mystery of the Trinity.

Another unique aspect of this hymn is the consistent used of units of three throughout the hymn. Take a look at the lyrics, how many can you spot?

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song 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, who 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 pow'r, 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!

Did you find all of these?

  • God is Holy, Merciful, and Almighty.

  • God is perfect in Power, In Love, and Purity.

  • All of creation praises God including the earth, the sky, and the sea.

  • He is adored by the saints, the cherubim, and the seraphim.

  • He has been, is now, and forevermore.

Again and again this hymn both describes and worships God in three persons.

It’s clear description of such a mysterious aspect of how God is certainly contributes greatly to its wide usage and its ability to stand the test of time with very few changes even to the basic melody it was originally set to. However, I think there is an even greater reason for both its wide usage and longevity.

This hymn invites the singer to join in the endless song of praise being sung in heaven. With references to scriptures in both Isaiah and Revelations, it invites the singer into praises uttered both before and after Jesus’ time on earth. In addition, the passages he uses from Revelation 4 describe the Throne Room of heaven which is an incredible scene of never-ending worship. Heber pulled from this text to write this hymn and ever since then it has invited humanity to join in that worship if even just for a moment.

Which, for me, brings about a certain amount of irony. For while Heber specifically wrote the hymn to avoid excessive emotionalism, I can think of more than one occasion where this song has been sung, by individuals, choirs, and entire stadiums, without a single instrument and brought tears to the eyes of many. It is in the simplicity and straightforwardness of worship a deep connection to God can still be found in hearing and singing this hymn.

Follow Up

  1. The Trinity can be a very complex, confusing topic. A website I came upon which gives a good introduction can be found by clicking HERE.

  2. Take a look at how you worship God. Do you worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit equally or do you tend to focus more on one person of the Trinity in your worship? What about when you pray?

Pondering a jump into deeper waters when it comes to Trinitarian theology? I’m going to suggest starting with the main text used in my Trinitarian Theology class. “The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life” by Stephen Holmes. If you have other great books, please let us know.

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