Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: John Warrington Hatton (ca. 1710-1793)
1. Jesus shall reign where'er the sun Does its successive journeys run, His kingdom stretch from shore to shore, Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
2. To him shall endless prayer be made, And praises throng to crown his head. His name like sweet perfume shall rise With every morning sacrifice.
3. People and realms of every tongue Dwell on his love with sweetest song, And infant voices shall proclaim Their early blessings on his name.
4. Blessings abound where'er he reigns: The prisoners leap to lose their chains, The weary find eternal rest, And all who suffer want are blest.
5. Let every creature rise and bring The highest (peculiar) honors to our King, Angels descend with songs again, And earth repeat the loud amen.
MEDITATION In these times of national elections, in the middle of what seems to be a cold civil war, it is good to remind ourselves that ultimately Jesus is Lord. Which isn’t to say that what kind of government we have does not matter. Not at all. When people acknowledge that they are not their own lords, it makes for a better government here on earth. With Jesus in charge, they understand their own greed and lust for power needs to be tempered: both because they know there is another, greater Lord, and that they will one day face judgment for their sins.
When there is no sense of a higher power, people will make a god of what they desire most: Wealth, sex, political power. Jesus reigns. We need a few Daniels to stand before the people and worship the true God, no matter what the consequences, even the lion’s den!
When I sing this text, I remember our debate on the hymn text committee of the LBW on how to fix one word in it that had lost its meaning over time. We were to bring honors “peculiar to our King.” Today the word means odd. In Watts’ day it meant specific or restricted to that person. The revision here doesn’t quite get at that. The “highest” is okay, but not as theologically nice as it could be. What honors are peculiar for God?
The entire hymn points to Jesus’ powers and how he reigns over all. In such a situation, there is no one like him. He commands something different from us. Something unique. And for those who worship Christ Jesus, there is only one thing we can bring him: our thanks.
Last year, I translated the Icelandic classic Hymns of the Passion by Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674). The very first hymn describes Jesus after the Last Supper. The poet remarks. "So heed and learn your Savior's ways/To pray to God with grateful praise." It is the first lesson, among many, the poet teaches. At first I didn’t really notice how fundamental that was to the entire set of hymns. Here Jesus is going to die for us and the poet says, like our mothers, say thank you?
My mother wrote thank you notes to people every day. thousands over her lifetime. Of course, say thank you. I understand that. It helps us honor each other and get along. But Hallgrímur is getting at something fundamental about faith: giving thanks means you are in debt to someone else. We don’t like that. We want to pay off our debts as fast as possible.
But salvation is a debt we cannot pay off. We can only give thanks. Endless prayers and praises, Watts says. We are to bring "honors peculiar to our King." What is peculiar is our thanksgiving. For no reason at all except love, our Lord died for us. Thanksgiving is due! A lesson I have to learn every morning. Gratitude teaches us we are not our own rulers. How awful, and yet how supremely wonderful, to be dethroned and made subject to the one who wants us to live fully and freely, one who has relieved us of the impossible task of ruling the universe! That is good news even as much as the old Eve in me dislikes it. To be grateful is to be aware of a power greater than myself, to be truly free to live as I was created. A human being with duties and responsibilities meant to live well, but free of my own destructive needs to be in charge. For that I owe "Honors peculiar to our King."
Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody, broke the stranglehold of paraphrasing the psalms exactly in effect when he started writing hymns. He grew up in a Dissenter household and continued his affiliation with the group for the rest of his life. A gifted man, he changed English hymnody for all time. This hymn from 1719 riffs on Psalm 72. Watts used the common poetic forms of English, like the ballad stanza, which this is, for his hymns. There are many many tunes that this text can be sung to.
I marvel at Watts' use of English poetic conventions. One does not look at the language and notice, necessarily, its skillful craft. In fact, one does not notice it. In the first two lines, one can see his supreme skill. The alliteration of Jesus and journey, reign and run, sun and successive. These are rather quiet—one thinks of what the hymn is saying rather than the art--which is the goal of any artist. But if you want to remember a hymn, these conventions make it memorable indeed. It feels good in the mouth.
Whoever Hatton was the scholars cannot really say. But we can find his tune, Duke Street, all over the hymnal. "I Know that my Redeemer lives" is another classic English hymn to this tune. It even has survived the contemporary movement’s need to write new tunes. Which is a big deal. John Ylvisaker’s comment that harmony is chronological is true. We can tell from the sound of the harmony when it was written.
LINKS First Plymouth Church/Lincoln Nebraska https://youtu.be/5U4IMtvp6bg
Jon Wesley Barnhill/contemporary harmony https://youtu.be/Bs_x2EZvk4s
Brackenhurst Baptist South African choir singing the Getty arrangement https://youtu.be/5SpyaArOXgo