Posted by: rcottrill | June 18, 2014

Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne

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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748), altered by John Wesley (b. June 28, 1703; d. Mar. 2, 1791)
Music: Old Hundred, attributed to Louis Bourgeois (b. circa 1510; d. Aug. 25, 1572)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The original version of the hymn was written by Dr. Watts and published in 1719. It began with an entirely different stanza:

Sing to the Lord with joyful voice,
Let every land His name adore;
The British Isles shall send the noise
Across the ocean to the shore.

For obvious reasons, this nationalistic stanza has been omitted. John Wesley did an excellent job of revising the rest in 1737. It is Wesley’s version that is included here.

Today’s editors have changed the opening line, feeling that, in modern usage, the word “awful” has departed to far from its original meaning. (Wasn’t that an awful looking hairdo that Mabel had!”) As Wesley thought of the word, it meant filled with awe–that God’s throne is so glorious and majestic as to fill us with awe and reverence.

Abandoning the word, some have tried, “Before Jehovah’s awe-full throne;” others “Before the Lord Jehovah’s throne;” and still others “Before Jehovah’s Awesome Throne.” A simpler procedure, by far, would be for the service leader to explain the true meaning of the word “awful,” before the hymn is sung.

Various tunes have been suggested (the Cyber Hymnal currently lists three options). I have chosen instead Old Hundredth, the tune often used with All People That on Earth Do Dwell. (This tune doesn’t require a repetition of the last line of each stanza, as the Cyber Hymnal has it.)

This hymn is a paraphrase of some truths expressed in Psalm 100. Watts called it “Praise to the Lord from All Nations.” It provides a strong statement of the sovereign majesty of Almighty God.

“Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know that the LORD, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations” (Ps. 100:1-5).

CH-1) Before Jehovah’s awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
Know that the Lord is God alone;
He can create, and He destroy.

CH-2) His sovereign power, without our aid,
Made us of clay, and formed us men;
And when like wandering sheep we strayed,
He brought us to His fold again.

On one occasion, Charles Haddon Spurgeon held a service in the Music Hall in Surrey Garden, London, with a gathering of eight to ten thousand people. After the opening prayer, Spurgeon announced this hymn. He read the entire hymn through, announcing that they’d use the tune Old Hundredth in singing it. Then, he read each stanza separately, before it was sung. Describing the experience, one wrote:

“Most magnificent was the shout of praise that now went up. Not a voice was mute, save where occasionally someone’s nerves were overpowered by the massive rolling chorus that rose on every side. Never did we before realize what congregational singing might become. It was an uplifting of voice and heart such as one can hope to hear only a few times in a lifetime.”

Some form of the word “praise” is used 152 times in Psalms (NKJV), surely indicating a major theme of the book. And 44 of those times, the word appears in a verse with forms of either the word sing or song (e.g. Ps. 7:17; 28:7). There is no greater activity in which human beings can engage that in praising God. It will occupy the saints in eternity too (Rev. 19:5).

CH-3) We are His people, we His care,
Our souls, and all our mortal frame;
What lasting honours shall we rear,
Almighty Maker, to Thy name.

CH-4) We’ll crowd Thy gates with thankful songs,
High as the heavens our voices raise;
And earth, with her ten thousand tongues,
Shall fill Thy courts with sounding praise.

CH-5) Wide as the world is Thy command,
Vast as eternity Thy love;
Firm as a rock Thy truth must stand,
When rolling years shall cease to move.

1) See if you can list the things for which Watts and Wesley praise the Lord in this hymn?

2) What particular thing comes to mind that you personally can praise God for today?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Thank you for this explanation! Bringing the language of the Bible up to date is such an important thing as it was intended for people of every generation.

    • Glad to be of help. There are other words that have lost their meaning in a similar way to what “awful” has. “Dreadful” originally referred to something that filled the person with dread, or great fear. That is how it’s used in Genesis 28:17 (KJV). “Terrible” indicated something that filled one with terror, and it’s used that way in Deuteronomy 7:21 (KJV). The New King James Version has “awesome” in both cases.


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