Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power

The Song of the Lamb
Horatius Bonar, 1866
Addressed to all the saints and angels
Blessing and honor and glory and power,Rev. 5:13
wisdom and riches and strength evermoreRev. 5:12
give ye to him who our battle hath won,John 16:33; Rev. 5:5; 17:14
whose are the kingdom, the crown, and the throne.Rev. 11:15; Heb. 2:9; 1:8
Soundeth the heav’n of the heav’ns with his name;Deut. 10:14; Is. 44:23; Ps. 148:1–6; Phil. 2:10
ringeth the earth with his glory and fame;Ps. 148:7–10; Rev. 5:13
ocean and mountain, stream, forest, and flowerPs. 65:5–13; 96:11–12
echo his praises and tell of his power.
Ever ascendeth the song and the joy;Rev. 5:8
ever descendeth the love from on high;Gen. 28:12; Ps. 118:1
blessing and honor and glory and praise—
this is the theme of the hymns that we raise
Give we the glory and praise to the Lamb;
take we the robe and the harp and the palm;Rev. 7:9; 14:2; 15:2
sing we the song of the Lamb that was slain,Rev. 15:3
dying in weakness, but rising to reign.2 Cor. 13:4

A hymn which is purely about praise to God, modelled after songs in John’s Revelation, is actually a dangerous task for any hymn writer. As our current generation has proved, this task can easily go awry. Praise about praise can seem circular and self-centered. Without defining the object of our praise and without explaining what reasons we have for praising God, such a hymn can easily slip into sentimentalism, allowing the listener to create a God from his own imagination and ascribe praise to a figment instead of the very God. If some reply that the songs of Revelation spend more time asserting the worthiness of God than rehearsing why he is worthy, they are mistaken. The songs of saints and angels in Revelation 4, 5, 11, 15, and 19 are consistently specific in their descriptions of God’s praiseworthiness. The Lamb in chapter 5 is worthy because he was slain. The list of things of which the Lamb is worthy follows directly after his opening the seals. So John the Divine is not a sentimentalist and neither should we be. The problem in many contemporary hymns about praise is not that they are about praise but rather that they are vague and thin, unlike their biblical prototypes (say, Psalms 145–50). It turns out that redeemed humanity’s ability to praise God is not least among the wonders he has performed and, as such, is definitely something to sing about.

The praises described in “Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power” belong not generally to God but particularly to the Christ of Revelation 5 who was slain and has conquered and ascends to the throne. The structure of the poem suggests the magnitude of these praises. It proceeds in stages, just as any awareness of a phenomenon bigger than ourselves tends to take shape gradually. First we hear the praise, as stanza 2 describes the sound in cosmic terms (see Revelation 5:13, “and I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them”). Next, in stanza 3, we detect the direction of the praise. Bonar elaborates spatially on the sonic metaphor from the previous stanza: the song “ascends,” as we “raise” our theme (like the incense in Revelation 5:8). Then we identify the singers and their audience in stanza 4. Actually, the last two words of stanza 3 clarify that it is we who are singing, but stanza 4 identifies us as the robed, harp-playing, palm-bearing “multitude that no one could number.” Finally, the object of our praise is described in the penultimate line of the hymn as the Lamb that was slain.

This structure is unified by the continual use of two literary devices—the list and the contrast—both of which speak to the richness of Christ’s glorious praiseworthiness. (Note that “glory” is the only word other than “and” to appear in all four stanzas.) The poem begins with a list and ends with a contrast. The seven nouns at the beginning are chained together by repetition of the conjunction “and,” which emphasizes each item even as the list breathlessly yet majestically builds momentum. Because we usually depend on “and” to signal the final item in a list, the repetition here is slightly disorienting. We lose our sense of when the chain will end. Maybe it won’t. All this makes the arrival of the adverb “evermore” and the enjambment to the verb at the beginning of line 3 quite climactic (a climax well served by the tune O QUANTA QUALIA, with its tonicizing of the dominant on “evermore” and its radical shift in range at the beginning of line 3). This extraordinary opening prepares us for the lists that follow in the fourth line of stanza 1, the third line of stanza 2, the third line of stanza 3, and the second line of stanza 4. Listing is a favorite device of biblical writers, from Genesis 1 (livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth) to Revelation 22 (the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood). It enumerates without systematizing. Elements accumulate in an open-ended manner. If the whole in all its wonderful relations lies beyond the comprehension of our feeble imaginations, a list can at least suggest with some concreteness the certainty of that whole and the wonder of those relations.

So can a contrast, like those in the first couplets of stanza 2 (heaven and earth), of stanza 3 (ascending and descending), and of stanza 4 (giving and taking). The praise of Jesus is such an expansive topic that it joins seeming opposites. The poetic use of contrast culminates in the double antithesis of the final line (dying and rising, weakness and reign). Bonar could have accomplished this with yet further citations from Revelation 5, where the lamb is also a lion (v. 5) with seven horns (v. 6), but instead he dramatically cuts through the figurative language to summarize the paradox according to 2 Corinthians 13:4.

The tune O QUANTA QUALIA basically has two alternating phrases, each of which develops on its return. The first melodic phrase is contained in the first line and repeats with significant modification in the third line. The second melodic phrase is contained in the second line and is repeated with significant modification in the last line. The musical contrast between the first two phrases is especially meaningful in each of the last three stanzas, where the poem juxtaposes dissimilar ideas between lines 1 and 2. The close musical relationship between lines 1 and 3 and between lines 2 and 4—not to mention the reiteration in ten out of sixteen measures of the same long–short–short rhythm, always with different pitches—reproduces musically the flow of a list. That is, the tune enumerates related melodic possibilities. It has a sense of continual growth so that the last line seems naturally to follow on from what has come before but does not seem a repetition of it. This continually growing nature is suited to the text, with its themes of glorified worship in eternity. Each phrase of that eternal song, we may speculate, will follow and grow from the one before it, without any need for tedious repetition nor any need for truly new music. To quote Katherine Hankey, the new, new song will be the old, old story.