Author: Reginald Heber, 1783-1826
Composer: John B. Dykes, 1823-1876
Tune title: Nicaea
Themes: holiness of God, Trinity, worship
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am undone For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who is seated on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created.”
Born in Cheshire, England on April 21, 1783, Reginald was raised by scholarly/well-to-do parents. At the age of 17, he entered Oxford University, where he excelled in poetry/became fast friends with Sir Walter Scott. After graduation/his ordination to the ministry of the Anglican Church, he succeeded his father as vicar in his family’s parish, for 16 years in the village of Hodnet, western England. Known/respected as a man of rare refinement/noble Christian character, Heber was also noted as a prolific literary writer, making frequent contributions to magazines with his poetry, essays, and hymns.
During those 16 years of service, Heber was always trying to improve the music at the Anglican church. Although his superiors frowned on the use of anything but metrical psalms, Heber introduced hymns by Newton and Cowper, and even wrote 57 hymns, including the great missionary hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” which exhorted missionaries to take the gospel to faraway places like “Greenland’s icy mountains” and “India’s coral strand.”
In 1823, Heber accepted the call to become the bishop of Calcutta, India. This responsibility included not only India but the Island of Ceylon and all of Australia as well. The pressures of this work along with the humid climate of that area wore heavily on his health. One Sunday morning, while in the village of Trichinopoly on April 3, 1826, after preaching in the hot sun to a large outdoor crowd of Indians on the subject of the evils of their caste system, Heber plunged into a pool of cool water, where he suffered a stroke and drowned. Heber was forty-three years old.
One year after his untimely death, a collection of his fifty-seven choice hymns was published by his widow and many friends. Most of these hymns are still in use today.
Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson called the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” the world’s greatest hymn.
Whether in England as he surveyed the prevalence of vice, or in India, where he was surrounded by the worship of false gods, Heber was impressed with the holiness of God. “Only Thou art holy,” he wrote. The tune to which this hymn is usually sung is called “Nicaea”, named after the church council that met in 325 A.D., which formulated the Nicene Creed and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity.