O Lord, Thou Judge of All the Earth

Joint Committee on a Uniform Version, 1909
Based on Psalm 94
Addressed to God, the wicked, and one another
O Lord, thou Judge of all the earth,Ps. 94:1–2; Gen. 18:25
   to whom all vengeance doth belong,Jer. 51:56; Rom. 12:19; 1 Thess. 4:6
arise and show thy glory forth,Ps. 82:8
   requite the proud, condemn the wrong.Luke 1:51; Jer. 50:31; Ps. 34:21
How long, O Lord, in boastful pridePs. 94:3–4; 74:10; Rev. 6:10
   shall wicked men triumphant stand?
How long shall they afflict thy saintsPs. 94:5; Judg. 2:18
   and scorn thy wrath, thy dreadful hand?
Be wise, ye fools and brutish men;Ps. 94:8; 92:6; Jude 10
   shall not he see, who formed the eye?Ps. 94:9; Prov. 20:12
Shall not he hear, who formed the ear,
   and judge, who reigneth God Most High?Ps. 94:10; Jer. 5:29
The Lord will judge in righteousness,Ps. 96:13
   from him all truth and knowledge flow;Prov. 1:7; Col. 2:3
the foolish thoughts of wicked men,Ps. 94:11; Rom. 1:21
   how vain they are the Lord doth know.1 Cor. 3:19
That man is blest whom thou, O Lord,Ps. 94:12; James 1:2
   with chast’ning hand dost teach thy will,
for in the day when sinners fall,Ps. 94:13
   that man in peace abideth still.Heb. 12:11
Unless the Lord had been my help,Ps. 94:17; 124:1
   my life had quickly passed away;
but when my foot had almost slipped,Ps. 94:18; 73:2
   O Lord, thy mercy was my stay.2 Tim. 1:18

This is a hymn for our age. Steeped as Christians are in the secularist, materialist education and media of a culture that assumes God’s irrelevance, we do well to sing about him as he is: the God of all, who sees, hears, and knows all, and who does things—who judges, arises, shows his glory forth, requites, condemns, teaches, helps, etc. The verbs of this poem are a refreshing answer to the sickly neo-deism and functional atheisim that often passes for contemporary Christianity. Right from the start, the psalmist trains us, with four imperative verbs in just two lines (stanza 1, lines 3–4), to cry out to God when distressed by human evil.

Pastors can acknowledge the discomfort some congregants feel in singing about vengeance, and can teach them the difference between it and revenge. Vengeance, or avenging, is punishment of evil, whereas revenge is personal and often passionate retaliation—to avenge oneself. That our culture does not distinguish between the two is a symptom of its man-centered worldview, in which we do not recognize a source of justice beyond ourselves. By invoking the Judge of all the earth, this hymn counteracts the human pride that accompanies all wrong-doing (as much in ourselves as in others) and seeks consolation in the certainty that the evil we find so distressing falls under his jurisdiction. When mystified by his timing (stanza 2), we need this counteraction and consolation all the more.

The wicked think God does not see, hear, or judge them, but stanza 3 witnesses to the absurdity of this. Anybody who has reflected honestly on the mechanics and psychology of sight knows he is a creature. And does the inventor of sight not himself see? Could a blind man invent a camera? Would he even think to? Although in another context “fools and brutish men” would be rude name-calling, here such words are merely frank, since stanza 3 presses the absurdity of the situation. As it is, one thinks of the guilty toddler who covers his face to feel hidden. Not only is God the source of all moral order, but, stanza 4 asserts, he is the source of all knowledge as well, so in epistemology as much as in morality, man’s pretended autonomy is vanity of vanities.

In stanza 5, the same truths that opposed unbelief in previous stanzas now comfort belief. When saints are afflicted by wicked men (stanza 2, line 3), they can be assured that God will use their affliction for their good to teach them and to establish them in peace. Stanza 6 presents the ultimate lesson of the hymn as personal (first-person singular) testimony: that the meaning, security, and future of human existence is in the Lord.

THE KING’S MAJESTY is an outstanding tune that fits the first stanza of “O Lord, Thou Judge of All the Earth” so closely it comes as a surprise to learn that another text was in the composer’s mind (the Canadian composer Graham George, whose names the Trinity Hymnal mistakenly reverses). A melisma falls on the key word “all.” Then “to whom all vengeance doth belong” gives us a solemn dotted rhythm, the tune’s highest pitch, and three blazing major-chords in a row. “Arise and show thy glory forth” coincides with ascending scales. “Requite” coincides with an extraordinary chord (built on the lowered second scale-degree, that is, G-flat in the key of F minor) that appears nowhere else in the tunes studied on this web site. (The bass line at “glory forth, requite the proud” reaches G-flat in a mirror image of the soprano line.)

It is a tune which almost anybody can sing but with which nobody can ever be at ease. Nobody ever whistles THE KING’S MAJESTY absent-mindedly. On one hand, the notes of the melody all belong to the key and fall within a comfortable range. On the other hand, after line 1 of the stanza, they relinquish its pattern of regularly alternating strong and weak beats, to make the hymn feel more like a chant than a strophic setting of an iambic poem. The chord-progressions are nontraditional (consider how each of the four phrases begins and ends with two chords a whole step apart: f to E-flat at “O Lord, thou,” E-flat to f at “the earth,” etc.). The leading tone (the crucial raised seventh scale-degree, or “ti”) appears only once, in the accompanist’s right thumb on the first beat of measure 5, to connect the first half of the tune with the second half. And the melody avoids repetition, at least of the obvious kind. (In fact there is a beautiful, if well hidden, instance when the last half of line 4 is set to the same music as the last half of line 2, transposed down to effect a large-scale move from the dominant to the tonic, encompassing the entire tune.)

The tune strikes even adept singers with some awe, although a child could learn it. Congregations that do, perhaps by singing it every Sunday for a month or two, will be glad they did. If leaders nevertheless desire a different tune for this hymn—either because their congregation is extremely insecure about music or because they already use THE KING’S MAJESTY for another text—they would be wise to select one without prior associations and then learn it. C. F. Lampe’s KENT/DEVONSHIRE (The English Hymnal #347) or the “Greenwood’s Psalmody” AFFECTION (The English Hymnal #343) would do nicely.

THE KING'S MAJESTY © 1941, H. W. Gray Co., Inc.