O Christ, Our King, Creator, Lord

Attributed to Gregory the Great, c. 600; translated by Ray Palmer, 1858
Addressed to God the Son
O Christ, our King, Creator, Lord,Ps. 2:6; John 1:3; Heb. 1:2
Savior of all who trust thy word,John 4:41–42; Eph. 1:13
to them who seek thee ever near,2 Chr. 15:2; Matt. 28:20
now to our praises bend thine ear.
In thy dear cross a grace is foundRom. 5:15
(it flows from every streaming wound)1 Peter 2:24b
whose pow’r our inbred sin controls,Rom. 5:19
breaks the firm bond, and frees our souls.Heb. 2:15
Thou didst create the stars of night;Heb. 1:10
yet thou hast veiled in flesh thy light,Phil. 2:6-7
hast deigned a mortal form to wear,Heb. 2:14
a mortal’s painful lot to bear.
When thou didst hang upon the tree,
the quaking earth acknowledged thee;Matt. 27:51
when thou didst there yield up thy breath,Matt. 27:50
the world grew dark as shades of death.Amos 8:9–10; Luke 23:44–45
Now in the Father’s glory high,Heb. 1:3
great Conqu’ror, nevermore to die,Rev. 3:21; 5:5; Rom. 6:9
us by thy mighty pow’r defend,Ps. 72:4
and reign through ages without end.Luke 1:33

This hymn begins the way “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” culminates (in its fourth stanza out of six)—with a list of titles. Here there are five, by which we immediately establish the divinity of the Messiah and his appointment to the offices of King and Prophet for the salvation of his people. It certainly makes for a rich beginning. It also destines this hymn to a form opposite that of Newton’s hymn. Whereas “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” unfolds in a series of ideas or figures that rise to a high point just past halfway, this poem has a valley shape: beginning with exalted doxology, falling to “painful” and “hang” just past halfway, and ending with an eternal reign. There is, after all, a sixth title for Jesus in this hymn (Conqueror), which we don’t get to until the last stanza. The valley shape is further delineated by petitions that come directly after the titles in stanzas 1 and 5 and, with them, frame the hymn.

The first of these petitions asks Christ to hear, in the stanzas that follow, our praises of him as the second and last Adam who mediates the covenant of grace. Against the background of royal and prophetic references in the hymn’s first two lines (“King” and “word”), stanzas 2–4 focus on his priestly sacrifice. It is a false perception that dogmatics and poetry do not mix; God made the world in such a way that metaphor is often the best way to secure our hearer’s understanding and thus to “justify the ways of God to men,” as Milton put it. Stanza 2 uses hydraulics (“flows,” “streaming”) to help us imagine the power of grace. One can hear it in the interlocking alliteration of “breaks the firm bond, and frees.” Various historic deliverances from tyranny by means of fluid power come to mind: the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the midst of the sea, perhaps, or the breaking of the Siege of Leiden in 1574.

Stanzas 3–4 turn to a new metaphor, light—starlight and veiled light in stanza 3 to incite wonder at the contrast between a sublime creation and a humiliating incarnation, then absence of light in stanza 4 to explain the atonement. What is the “mortal’s painful lot” that Christ bore? The darkness of damnation. Death. The last word of stanza 4 sets up a dazzlingly abrupt shift to “now in the Father’s glory high” at the beginning of the next. Stanza 4 prepares us for the truth of Stanza 5 without in any way dimming the brilliance of the shift, because the awesome crucifixion miracles were, in their own way, manifestations of divine glory.

In his Table Talk Luther called the Latin hymn on which ours is based “the best hymn of all.” For theological and poetic richness Ray Palmer’s translation may be unequaled among Good Friday hymns. But the very multiformity of its riches makes it hard to set to music. Since every stanza of a hymn is sung to a single repeated melody, good hymn-poets, anticipating the limitations of this strophic approach, try to structure their stanzas similarly so that one size will fit all. We then can select a tune to make the most of any parallels, such as when climactic words occur in the same place from stanza to stanza. If Palmer consciously sought such parallels, he settled for parallels of the paradoxical sort. How can anybody compose a musical gesture to fit both “yield up thy breath” and “by thy mighty power defend” (line 3 in the last two stanzas)? Or “the world grew dark as shades of death” and “reign through ages without end” (line 4 in the last two stanzas)? The best tune, in addition to realizing the usual ideals of singability and distinctiveness, must employ gestures capable of bearing opposite meanings.

It would be unrealistic to ask for better than OMBERSLEY. It is musically satisfying (see diagram) and singable (every phrase has the same rhythm, while the melody moves mostly by step and contains nothing chromatic; only the high E keeps it from being altogether easy). And it can communicate opposing ideas. The third line, for instance, flirts with minor mode (the tenor’s G-sharp briefly emphasizing A minor) and ends with a peculiar half cadence for “when thou didst there yield up thy breath,” but it also includes the pinnacle of the melody: a high E occurring on a downbeat with tonic harmony for “pow’r.” The fourth line sinks to the very bottom of the range for “dark” and “death,” even as it reaches a melodic resolution of compelling logic for “and reign through ages without end” (again, see diagram).


The opening and pinnacle motif (measures 1 and 11) returns twice (measures 13–14 and 15–16) in rhythms permitting the first scale-degree (do) to fall on downbeats. The penultimate instance of the motif, being relatively weak in harmony and placement within the phrase, prepares us for the solidity of the ultimate, synthesized as it is with the descending half-step from the end of line 1.