Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: Praise My Soul the King of Heaven

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on September 6, 2013

Hymns of the Faith

“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”

Psalm 103

A Presentation
of First Presbyterian Church

Jackson,
Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill
Wymond

Dr. Wymond:
Good morning! This is “Hymns of the Faith,”
brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First
Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for “Hymns of the Faith.”…..
Here with “Hymns of the Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan:
Thanks, Bill Wymond! This is Ligon Duncan, along with Derek Thomas, and the
three of us are discussing hymns of the faith. We gather Lord’s Day after Lord’s
Day to reflect upon this treasury of devotional truth that has been passed down
from century to century over two millennia of Christianity and has given us this
wonderful repository of devotional expression in worship in our English hymnal.
And today we’re looking at one of the great hymns in the English language,
written by one of the great hymn writers in the English language: Henry
Lyte’s marvelous rendering of Psalm 103, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.

This hymn is always
ranked among the best. I’ve seen in Anglican hymnody this ranked among the three
best hymns ever. Henry Lyte, of course, is the author of the hymn that our
friend Brister Ware loves to quote: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,”
one of the great evening hymns ever written. And it’s not just an evening hymn,
it’s a dying hymn, and there’s a story that goes behind it. But I’m delighted to
be here with you today, Bill and Derek, talking about
Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.
Derek, do you want to tell us a little bit about
Henry Lyte–this
marvelous, marvelous writer of hymns?

Dr. Thomas:
Well, he was from Northern Ireland (but then, of course, it would just have been
Ireland), the son of Captain Thomas Lyte, and educated in Portora (which is
known to me) at the Royal School of Enniskillen, which isn’t more than an hour’s
drive from Belfast.

Dr. Duncan:
…Where you spent almost eighteen years of ministry.

Dr. Thomas:
Correct. And then he went, as good Anglicans did, to Trinity College, Dublin,
and graduated in 1814, distinguishing himself by gaining the English Prize Poem
on three occasions. At one time he intended studying medicine, but abandoned
that for theology and took holy orders (as it was called in 1815), his first
curacy being in the neighborhood of Dublin in Wexford. And then he moves to
Cornwall in 1817, two years later. But it was actually in 1818 — so he’s been in
the ministry for three, four years or so — that he undergoes this great
spiritual change. He is one of these individuals, I suppose like Wesley, and
Thomas Chalmers, and Thomas Charles of Ballar, who are in the ministry but
who evidently are not converted
.

Dr. Duncan:
We could mention that there are a variety of reasons why that happens. One is
that in this time period the ministry was a very honored and esteemed
profession. It was something that you thought about doing just like you thought
about going into law or going into medicine, and very often second and third
sons would consider the ministry as a very comfortable career to pursue. And so
the very social status of it made it attractive, no matter what your own
spiritual inclinations might have been.

Dr. Thomas:
Right. And especially if you were given to literary abilities…and one thinks of
Jane Austen’s novels and some of the weird and cranky ministers she has in her
novels! But very erudite, very literary, whose sermons are very, very literary
in their style.

Dr. Duncan:
So you get a man like Thomas Chalmers, for instance, who is an outstanding
mathematician, and he’s the minister in a tiny little parish, Kilman, and he’s
just a few miles from the University at St. Andrew’s, and all week long he’s
really thinking about mathematics. In fact, he’s teaching some courses in
mathematics. And then he goes through an experience of almost dying, and in the
course of that comes the faith in Christ. And something like this happens to
Henry Lyte, is that what…?

Dr. Thomas:
Yes, 1818. A friend, a brother clergyman dies, and Lyte says of him,

“He died happy under the belief that though he
had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his
delinquencies and be accepted for all that he had incurred.”

And then he adds about
himself,

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter,
and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before. I
began to study my Bible and preach in another manner than I had previously
done.”

A
couple of years…well, it’s just the next year, 1819, he writes a book, Tales
On the Lord’s Prayer
, and then in 1823, he’s appointed Perpetual Curate of
Lower Brixham in Devon. (I have no idea what a “Perpetual Curate” is! Sounds
like a sentence! [Laughter] I have no idea what that means!)

Dr. Duncan:
Don’t you love these Anglican titles? They have the best titles!

Dr. Thomas:
Well, I remember a friend of mine once…a dear friend of mine, the father of one
of my best friends in all the world, was made a Propendary, and he called me up.
He was all very excited, and he said (he was a minister in the Church of
England…well, Church of Ireland, but the Anglican Communion), and he said, “I’ve
just heard by the Bishop that I’ve been made a Prependary!”

Dr. Duncan: A
Prependary?

Dr. Thomas:
Well, a Propendary is what he called it! And I said, “What is that?” And he
tried to explain to me, but at the end the only thing I could gain from it was
that he had a higher salary! [Laughter] That’s all I understood of what
it meant!

Dr. Duncan:
Now, Henry Francis Lyte has given us some outstanding hymns over the course of
his writing.

Dr. Thomas: Well, I’m
not going to read them to you, but I have a list here: 81 renditions of the
Psalms. But obviously he put the Psalms (a bit like Isaac Watts) into verse, and
we might say “Christianized” the Psalms like Isaac Watts did.

Dr. Duncan:
Bill Wymond, this tune…we actually in our congregation sing this text to two
different tunes, and both of them are wonderful tunes. Maybe not everyone in the
listening audience will immediately know
LAUDA ANIMA,
the tune to this song, so maybe let’s hear it. And tell us a little bit about
this tune after you play it. [Dr. Wymond plays.]

Dr. Thomas:
It’s one of those tunes that makes you immediately feel as though you’re in
church! You’re transported into church, into….

Dr. Duncan:
And as pedestrian as
AURELIA, which we talked about not long
ago, this one has…I mean, it can soar. This is a really…the tune is evocative.

Dr. Wymond:
This tune is “cathedral-esque” to me. I
see St. Paul’s Cathedral when I hear this tune. It is so dignified and majestic,
and very strong, actually. Any hymn that starts off with repeated notes
is oftentimes strong. It goes [plays]…he
is exhorting his soul to praise the King of heaven. It has that strong
beginning, and it jumps up the fourth, a good interval there for strength,

and it’s like A Mighty Fortress is Our God [plays]. Any hymn that
starts off like that is going to be a strong hymn, I think.

And the tune does
soar, especially as it builds in the second line of it, where it’s saying,
“Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven…” [plays]…the emotions just soar
with it to “who, like me, His praise should sing?” And then it has this
sequence, which goes down [plays]… “Praise Him, praise, Him, praise Him,
praise Him…” and many hymns that introduce those words praise Him or
Alleluia or something, seem to go down the scale like that
. I think
of another hymn….still using that same kind of phrase when we’re doing Ye
Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
. [Plays]…that descending phrase like that
does that.

Dr. Thomas:
That’s the perfect, perfect tune for that hymn! But it’s also sung to
REGENT SQUARE
in Britain.

Dr. Duncan:
Really? Praise My Soul is?

Dr. Thomas:
Yes… umhmm.

Dr. Wymond: But
they should have always done it to this tune! [Laughter] You know they
haven’t always got the message!

Let me tell you a
little bit about the composer of the tune, John Goss.
He is said to be the last of the great English school of church composers
because he dedicated himself exclusively to composition for the church, and his
name was Sir John Goss. He was born in 1800, and lived right through the
Victorian period to 1880. He was born in Hampshire, in England, and then as an
eleven-year-old, he was seen to be talented, so he was sent to be a chorister at
the Chapel Royal, that great training ground that we’ve talked about before. And
then the biographers tell us that when his voice broke and he became an alto and
then a tenor and so on like that, in 1816 he began studying composition.

Now, I think that’s
kind of an interesting thing. His voice did not change until he was 16, which
was so common back in those days…

Dr. Duncan:
Today it’s much earlier, isn’t it? Partly just physiological differences between
us and them.

Dr. Wymond: Much
earlier. I think it’s diet and things like that now, which means that back in
those days the choristers could get very good. They would be high school
students, still singing soprano.
And also it means that hymns were
pitched higher back in those days, and so this hymn was probably in the key of
E, which is kind of high for us today. And
also it means that today in the choir schools they have to have a lot of extra
sopranos in training, because the boys don’t remain sopranos very long.

When his voice
broke, he started studying composition with Atwood, who was the organist at St.
Paul’s Cathedral in London, and then Goss himself became an organist when he was
24, at St. Luke’s in Chelsea, where Lyte had been a curate. So their paths
crossed at that time. And then when Atwood…who was an important early nineteenth
century composer…died, Goss succeeded him at St. Paul’s Cathedral and became the
organist there until 1872. And he wrote a number of anthems during that period
of time, some of which we still sing. I think my favorite is O Savior of the
World
. It’s a simple anthem, and yet it is very sincere and a wonderful
complement to the text that he’s writing. So at the same time he was at St.
Paul’s Cathedral, he also was a Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of
Music, and he was there for 47 years. That was often common for whoever was at
St. Paul’s or at Westminster Abbey, to be an instructor there. And so I think
it’s a really fine tune. He left us a couple of Christmas songs that we like.
One of them is See Amid the Winter’s Snow…I love that tune! And also he
took the Polish carol, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, and set that. That has
become part of our repertoire.

Dr. Duncan: The
text to this Psalm — it’s a Psalm rendering, really. It’s based on Psalm 103. I
think many in our listening audience will remember the very opening words of
that Psalm: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy
name.” The English sort of paraphrase approach that Lyte uses here changes that
bless to “praise, my soul, the King of heaven.” But like so many
of the Psalms — and very frankly, like so many of the hymns that we’ve studied
— this is in the first instance a self-exhortation. It’s an exhortation to
oneself to bless the Lord (or to praise the Lord) and it begins to pile up
reasons to yourself why you ought to praise the Lord.

And one of the
things, Derek, I like about this Psalm and this song — this hymn that Henry Lyte
has composed based on Psalm 103 — is the way that it does not ignore the darker
side of Christian experience: the wrestling with trials and troubles and
sorrows, and pain and heartache. And you see it repeatedly in the text from the
second to the fourth stanza.

Even though it
begins very upbeat — “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven, to His feet your
tribute bring; Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven…” and I love that phrase!
That’s very powerful, just like, Bill, the opening… “Praise my soul the
King…that has ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven….” There’s just so much
momentum in that line. “Who, like me, His praise should sing?” It’s very upbeat.

But then, “Praise
Him for His grace and favor to our fathers in distress…” we have in the second
stanza. The third stanza: “Father-like, He tends and spares us, well our feeble
frame He knows; In His hands He gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes.”
And so with the opposition of the world.

Then the fourth
stanza: “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone;
but while mortals rise and perish, God endures unchanging on.” And so there in
three consecutive stanzas we have distress, opposition, and death.

I think one of the
things that we miss so much, Derek, from modern songs that are written, is that
in their lyrics there is a perpetual upbeat-ness and optimism about them that
ignores the hard side of the Christian life, and I think one of the things that
I love about the best hymnody of the church (and of course it’s just reflecting
the Psalms themselves) is the realism of them. The mention of those things
doesn’t turn this hymn into a dirge, by any stretch; but it’s so realistic and
so helpful, I think, for Christians to praise God without having to pretend
there are not hard things in our experience. Thoughts on that, or maybe you want
to go a different direction in looking at the text?

Dr. Thomas:
Well, of course we constantly have to remind ourselves that we are one of the
first of maybe two or three generations now where life expectancy is much longer
than it would have been in the early nineteenth century, let alone the
eighteenth or seventeenth century. And so as a minister, he would have been
surrounded by death and disease and the burial of…

Dr. Duncan:
Infant mortality rates would have been very high.

Dr. Thomas: Yes.
So you couldn’t have them singing the kinds of things that would appeal to our
generation, because of the sheer prevalence of death. I love those words
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven
. There are four sermons on those words
alone. I also read here that Psalm 103 of course was part of the liturgy of
The Book of Common Prayer
, so these words, the words of Psalm 103, would
have been very familiar to any congregation, and his versification of them
therefore would provide yet further additional help.

I love the fifth
stanza: “Angels, help us to adore Him….” And I’ve been accused of harping on
this theme that when we worship and pray, that we mingle our voices with angels.

Dr. Duncan: I
love it when you pray that prayer. You remind us that when we gather on the
Lord’s Day as a congregation that we not only have the inestimable privilege
based upon the promise of Christ that where two or three are gathered in His
name, there He is in our midst; but there is, as we thought about in the song
The Church’s One Foundation
, this mystical sense in which we share a union
in our worship with the exalted saints above. And not only with the saints, but
with the elders, and with, as you say, the angels and the archangels. Now, where
are we getting that from? That’s not an idea that’s coming from some sort of
medieval tradition, Derek. That’s coming out of your biblical convictions. Where
are those convictions coming from in the Bible?

Dr. Thomas:
Well, of course, the doctrine of the church, in places like Ephesians and the
book of Revelation. Indeed, one could argue that one of the main lessons of the
book of Revelation (rather than trying to pinpoint the return of Jesus) is
actually the communion of saints here on earth with those in heaven.

Dr. Duncan:
Yes, it’s almost John’s way of showing to us what the prophet showed to his
servant in the Old Testament when he said, “There are more that are with us than
are with them.” So when we feel like a small, persecuted minority tucked off
somewhere, it’s like John wants to pull the curtain back and say, ‘Look at the
myriads and myriads, and look at the angels and the archangels. You’re with
them. They’re with you.”

Dr. Thomas: You
know, and we suffer terribly in our day and age from the individualism that has
been part of evangelicalism. And one does need to stress the individual, that we
individually need to be born again and have a personal relationship with Jesus
Christ, but there’s also of course the communion of saints. There’s the
corporate idea of the church, and some of these hymns, I think, if we sing them
with understanding (as Paul says in I Corinthians 14 that we sing with
understanding), I think help us to reflect on God’s great provision for us.
Because in the loneliness of the twenty-first century, especially those who live
even in big cities can be terribly lonely and despair — and suicidal, even.
One of the pastoral effects of the doctrine of the church is to reinforce
that we are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Duncan:
The text of the Psalm itself is one that we often read at funerals
.
Psalm 103 is one of the favorite songs because it does speak of the Lord’s
graciousness and patience, and His slowness to anger and the plenteousness of
His love.

Dr. Thomas: And
the fleetingness of life: “The days of man are but as grass, for he flourisheth
as a flower of the field; for as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone.”

Dr. Duncan: And
Henry Lyte was not afraid to remind us of that in the hymn. That’s something
that I think many hymn writers today would want to anesthetize us to. They want
to pull that out; they wouldn’t want us to think about that. But Henry Lyte
wants us, in the very context of praising God to remember that we are here but
for a day, and we are gone. And, boy! Is that an important thing to learn!

I think we were
just thinking on this not long ago when we were looking at Psalm 90, Moses’
great Psalm in which one of the big prayers of petition that Moses prays at the
end of that Psalm is, “Teach us to number our days.” It’s something that we have
to constantly be reminded of.

Dr. Thomas: Yes.
It’s a wonderful way to end the hymn: “Sun and moon, bow down before Him,
dwellers all in time and space.” Of course it’s the Psalm that’s saying that,
but just the language “dwellers all in time and space”…the whole of creation….

Dr. Duncan:
There’s a world of theology in that line. There’s the Creator/creature
distinction. You even hear the echoes of Genesis 1 there.

Dr. Thomas:
Well, we were speaking recently of a book that everyone seems to be talking
about where the doctrine suddenly – as though it were some new doctrine! –
emerges. But of course it’s the Bible. It’s here in the Psalm — the importance
of the fact that we are part of the rest of creation, and the Creator/creature
distinction.

Dr. Duncan: And
even the sun and the moon, which in so many ancient cultures when this Psalm was
first written would have been worshiped as deities, must bow down before the
sovereign God who actually created them and brought everything else in the world
into being.

Dr. Thomas:
Well, even in our own time, you can’t enter Facebook or Google without saying
“what is your zodiac sign?” as though the movement of the planets affected who
or what you were, or ….

Dr. Duncan: And
plenty of the people in the media and the print media and the internet and such
still have their own little private astrological worship of the astronomical
bodies. So here again is a beautiful Christian declaration of the sovereignty of
God and an enjoyment of praise to all who trust in Him.

Dr. Thomas: And
we’re going to hear it sung to
LAUDE ANIMA,
and not
REAGENT SQUARE, Bill! The perfect
tune! [Laughter]

Dr. Wymond: This
will be the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir and Organ, with John Scott conducting.

“Praise, my soul, the King of heaven, to His
feet your tribute bring;

Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who,
like me, His praise should sing?

Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise
Him,

Praise the everlasting King.

“Praise Him for His grace and favor to our
fathers in distress;

Praise Him, still the same forever, slow to
chide and swift to bless;

Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise
Him,

Glorious in His faithfulness.

“Father-like, He tends and spares us; well our
feeble frame He knows;

In His hands He gently bears us, rescues us
from all our foes;

Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise
Him,

Widely as His mercy goes.

“Frail as summer’s flow’r we flourish, blows
the wind and it is gone;

But while mortals rise and perish, God endures
unchanging on.

Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise
Him,

Praise the High Eternal One.

“Angels, help us to adore Him; you behold Him
face to face;

Sun and moon, bow down before Him, dwellers
all in time and space,

Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him, praise
Him,

Praise with us the God of grace.”

Dr. Wymond: This
has been “Hymns of the Faith” brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian
Church, and the choir singing our hymn this morning was the St. Paul’s Cathedral
Choir in London, England.

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