Posted by: rcottrill | April 25, 2019

Holy, Holy, Holy

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Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826)
Music: Nicaea, by John Bacchus Dykes (b. Mar. 10, 1823; d. Jan. 22, 1876)

Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The tune Nicaea is appropriate for a Trinitarian hymn. It was at the first Council of Nicaea in AD 325 that the deity of Christ was affirmed, and the doctrine of the Trinity was ably defended by Athanasius (AD 296-373).

Repetition and review–teachers know the technique well. When I was in elementary school, we were drilled on our times tables, over and over, all the way from 1×1 to 12×12. (Do they still do that?) If something is to be learned so it can be used and applied in years to come, most of us need to have it repeated many times, before it becomes part of our mental furniture.

Orators use repetition as well. Listen to Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. In a couple of minutes he uses those words eight times, making clear to all his hope for the future. Similarly, he repeats, ten times, “Let freedom ring,” a phrase from the American national hymn, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.

God has used repetition in the Bible too. For example, in Psalm 135, the phrase, “His mercy endures forever” is found twenty-six times. Likely, the psalm was sung antiphonally, with one group echoing that refrain, and another group singing what was in between. The emphasis impresses those who read or sing it with the eternal goodness and loving kindness of the Lord.

Some form of the word “holy” is repeated in Scripture over 600 times, including other terms, such as sacred and hallowed, translating the same Hebrew and Greek words. Holy means set apart or separated. Most often this has to do with God being utterly separated from sin and corruption. And this is urged as a standard for His children as well. “As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (I Pet. 1:15).

The prophet Isaiah refers to the holiness of God in describing an awe inspiring vision He had of God’s throne.

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up….Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1-4).

We’re not told how many seraphs there were (seraphim is a Hebrew plural). But the angelic beings cried out, back and forth to one another, about the holiness of God. The three-fold repetition of the word is for emphasis. It calls attention to the absolute and eternal separateness of God from sin, or anything that corrupts or defiles. This truth not only strikes the prophet powerfully, it causes him to realize the sinful uncleanness of himself and his people (vs. 5).

In the New Testament, when John was privileged to be caught up into heaven, he witnessed a similar scene around the throne of God (Rev. 4:6-11). There “four living creatures” (likely angels, again) around the throne, “do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (vs. 8).

It’s the latter scene that inspired one of our greatest hymns. Written by Church of England clergyman Reginald Heber, it was published after his death, and has since been included in over fourteen hundred hymnals. The majesty of the Triune Godhead is powerfully presented.

CH-1) 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, blessèd Trinity!

CH-2) 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 shall be.

CH-3) 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.

1) What does having holy conduct mean to you, practically, day be day?

2) What was wrong with the Pharisees’ claim to holy conduct?

Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. My mother and I both love this hymn! Thank you for yet another thoughtful reflection on it.


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