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Bible Study

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven: Henry Francis Lyte

Bible Study by David Wright

Henry Francis Lyte published this hymn in 1834 in his now almost forgotten book, Spirit of the Psalms. Few of the other hymns from this book are now in common use, even though it included over 280 items. The other well-known one is; ‘God of Mercy, God of Grace’, based on Psalm 67, and a few hymn books include ‘Praise the Lord, His glories show’ (Psalm 150) and ‘Whom should we love but Thee’ (Psalm 18). The author is best-known for another hymn which is not based on a Psalm: ‘Abide with me’.

Lyte was born in 1793 at Ednam, near Kelso, in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, the son of an army captain. He was educated in Ireland, at the Royal School of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh; and then at Trinity College, Dublin, an Anglican establishment. He was clearly a most talented person: he originally planned to be a doctor, yet won three prizes for poetry. Ordained in 1815, he served his first curacy at Taghmon, near Wexford in south-east Ireland. After 2 years he moved to Marazion, Cornwall, and from 1823 he was curate at the fishing village of Lower Brixham in South Devon. He died on November 20th, 1847, in Nice, where he had gone because of failing health. Exactly a hundred years later, on November 20th, 1947, Queen Elizabeth II (when still Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Phillip chose this hymn for the opening processional at their wedding.

Based mainly on Psalm 103, this is not a paraphrase, but a re-expression of the Psalmist’s thinking, seen in the light of the New Testament. There are several other quotations from Scripture that are little known today. The term ‘King of Heaven’, and a number of other phrases, are from the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha: ‘Then Tobit wrote a prayer of rejoicing, and said’ (Tobit 13:1) . . . ‘My soul shall praise the King of Heaven’ (Tobit 13.7) . . . ‘Give praise to the Lord . . . and praise the everlasting King’ (Tobit 13:10). (See v1.6.) ‘To his feet thy tribute bring’ (v.1.2) is another phrase from the same chapter of Tobit (13:11): ‘Many nations shall come from far to the name of the Lord God, with gifts in their hands; even gifts to the King of Heaven’. This whole chapter of Tobit is an outstanding prayer of praise.

The four verbs of line 3 of the first verse make an unforgettable impact on all who think about the hymn as they sing it. Psalm 103:3-4 uses the words ‘forgiveth . . . healeth . . . redeemeth’. In the context of Christianity, this one line is a remarkable summary of our faith.

The Psalmist praises God for his ‘acts to the children of Israel’ (Psalm 103:7); the hymn-writer widens this idea to ‘our fathers’ (v.2.2). Grace and mercy (favour) are present in both psalm and hymn, and both the psalmist (103:8) and the hymn-writer (v.2.4) praise the Lord because he is slow to anger. The phrase, ‘still the same for ever’, refers to Psalm 103:17, ‘the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting’, but there is also a hint of the New Testament verse, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8).

Verse 3 moves to the concept of God as father: a remarkable simile that is closely based on this Psalm. This is one of many places in the Old Testament where this analogy is used, yet the idea remains widespread that the God of the Old Testament was remote. ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are but dust’ (Psalm 103:13-14).

Lyte’s original verse 4 is often omitted from hymn books, even though it is closely based on Psalm 103:15-17. The contrast of the first and second couplets is particularly noteworthy.

The final verse moves to God as the great Creator. The ideas of God the Creator and God the Father can seem almost contradictory to non-Christians, but this hymn blends the two concepts by making a free rendering of Psalm 103:20-21: ‘Bless the Lord, ye his angels . . . Bless the Lord, all ye his hosts’. Angels, and the sun and moon, are invited to join with us in praising the God of grace. (See also Psalm 148:2-3). Some hymn books render lines 3 and 4 as ‘Saints triumphant bow before him, Gathered in from every race’: this version, too, effectively conveys the idea of heaven and earth together praising the Lord.

© 2002 David and Jill Wright. Copying facilities provided are limited to local use by owners of HymnQuest. Wider or commercial use needs negotiation with the copyright holder.

The copyright in this bible study vests in the author. Permission is given for them to be reproduced by HymnQuest purchasers for local use. Wider or commercial use requires their consent.

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