MANY hymns are based on the beautiful poetry of the Psalms, and this one is full of wonderful images: ‘pavilioned in splendour’, ‘whose robe is the light, whose canopy space’ and ‘His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is his path on the wings of the storm’.
It was written by Robert Grant (1779-1838). He was born in India, the son of Charles Grant, who was chairman of the East India Company and a leading campaigner against slavery. When he was six the family moved back to England and settled in London. Later Robert went to Magdalene College, Cambridge. He became a lawyer and an MP. In Parliament he lobbied for the removal of restrictions on Jews in public life (known as ‘disabilities of Jews’), and twice got Bills through the Commons, only for them to be voted down by the Lords. The historian Thomas Macaulay’s maiden speech was in favour of the Bills. (The law was eventually changed, 20 years after Grant’s death.) Grant was a strong supporter of world missions and influential among evangelicals in the Church of England.
In The Poets of the Church (1884) Edwin Hatfield wrote: ‘He was of medium stature and robust constitution, with a full and ruddy face, and, in his later days, pure white hair. He was an excellent speaker, his voice musical and perfectly at command, his language chaste and elegant, and his manners highly graceful. His moral character was perfectly unsullied, and he was held in high estimation by all parties.’
He and his wife Mary had two sons and two daughters, one of whom died in childhood.
In 1834 he was appointed Governor of Bombay and was knighted. He had the opportunity to put his social concerns into practice with the terrible poverty there. Among his achievements were the opening of several new roads as an inducement to commerce. One is named Grant Road.
He was struck by the poor state of public health in the area, and proposed to build a medical school to train Indians as doctors. The plan met stiff opposition – a previous school had collapsed amid claims that Indians did not have the faculties and application necessary to become doctors. Grant was able to prove that the earlier failure was due to lack of support from the government in Calcutta, and pleaded for reconsideration of the proposal. On April 20, 1838, he wrote: ‘I should be sorry to seem impatient or precipitate. But all is full of casualty in this country and I own I am very anxious to bring it quickly to the test whether the Government will or will not be pleased to sanction our design.’
Within three months, on July 9, 1838 (182 years ago tomorrow), Sir Robert died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 59. Nine days later the Calcutta government gave the go-ahead for the school to be built. It was jointly funded by the East India Company and Bombay philanthropist Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, and was named after Grant. An attached hospital was originally called the Bombay Native Hospital and later renamed the Sir J J Hospital. Both are still going strong.
Grant wrote only 12 hymns and this is the sole survivor. It was written in 1833, the year before he became Governor of Bombay. It is based on Psalm 104, which you can read here. He was influenced by William Kethe’s paraphrase of the psalm for the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (1561). You can find it here.
O Worship the King was first published in Edward Bickersteth’s Christian Psalmody (1833) with several unauthorised alterations. The correct version appeared the year after Robert’s death in 1838 when his brother Charles printed his twelve hymns in a slender volume called Sacred Poems. These are the words:
1 O worship the King, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing His power and His love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise.
2 O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is His path on the wings of the storm.
3 The earth, with its store of wonders untold,
Almighty, Thy power has founded of old;
established it fast, by a changeless decree,
and round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.
4 Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
5 Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.
6 O measureless might! Ineffable love!
While angels delight to worship Thee above,
The humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
With true adoration shall all sing Thy praise.
These are the words I sang at school, but modern versions have changed ‘Thee’ to ‘you’ (note: lower case) and in the last verse ‘ineffable’ to ‘unchangeable’. They just can’t resist it, can they? The words are not synonyms – ‘ineffable’ means ‘too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words’. There seems to be a theory in the church that hard or unusual words must be avoided. How about teaching people what these words mean? Because of this hymn I have understood and occasionally used ‘ineffable’ since I was 11.
The tune I know is called Hanover and was composed in 1708 by William Croft (1678-1727), organist at Westminster Abbey.
Here is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
I have never seen one like this before:
Here is a jolly version by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.
Probably more common in America is Lyons by Michael Haydn (1737-1806), the younger brother of Josef Haydn. He was a church musician in Salzburg, where he was a contemporary of Mozart, but apparently the wives did not get on with each other. However Mozart admired Michael’s composing ability and lifted several of his tunes for his own works. Oddly the first few notes of both melodies are the same.
Here is a robust performance from First Methodist Houston, Downtown:
Here is a rather charming trombone and piano duet.
And this is a group called Christian Edition: