Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven

Henry F. Lyte, 1834
Based on Psalm 103
Addressed to oneself, one another, and angels
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven,Ps. 103:1–5; 104:1; Dan. 4:37
   to his feet your tribute bring;Ps. 54:6; Is. 60:13; Luke 17:16; John 12:3
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,Is. 35:10; Ps. 107:20; Lam. 5:21; Luke 7:47
   who, like me, his praise should sing?Luke 7:42
Praise him, praise him,
   praise the everlasting King.Jer. 10:10
Praise him for his grace and favorPs. 103:6–8
   to our fathers in distress;Ps. 22:4–5
praise him, still the same forever,Heb. 13:8
   slow to chide and swift to bless;Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13
praise him, praise him,
   glorious in his faithfulness.Ps. 103:11; 36:5
Father-like, he tends and spares us;Ps. 103:9–10, 13; Mal. 3:17
   well our feeble frame he knows;Ps. 103:14; 78:39
in his hands he gently bears us,Deut. 1:31; Is. 46:4
   rescues us from all our foes;Ps. 136:24
praise him, praise him,
   widely as his mercy goes.Ps. 103:12; Mic. 7:19; Luke 1:50
Frail as summer’s flow’r we flourish,Ps. 103:15–19; Job 14:2; Is. 40:6
   blows the wind and it is gone;
but while mortals rise and perish,
   God endures unchanging on.Ps. 102:27
Praise him, praise him,
   praise the High Eternal One.
Angels, help us to adore him;Ps. 103:20–22; 148:2; Is. 6:3; Rev. 5:11
   you behold him face to face;
sun and moon, bow down before him,Ps. 148:3
   dwellers all in time and space,Ps. 145:10
praise him, praise him,
   praise with us the God of grace.

The highest and most essential thing we do as humans is praise God. We are never more ourselves than when we sincerely express right conceptions of him to him, to ourselves, and to others. Naturally, then, the pervasive topic of congregational singing, both in the examples Scripture gives and in the 120 hymns studied here, is the object of Christian praise: God’s character and works, especially his majesty, wisdom, mercy, and goodness. The next most common topic—more frequently found than our needs, our guilt, our devotion, our destiny, or the church—is the act of praise: its importance and the pleasure we take in it. Very often this takes the form of exhortation to praise. “Alleluia!” (Praise the Lord!) In good hymns, this talk about praise doubles as praise itself, because we urge the duty on ourselves and on others by demonstrating God’s praiseworthiness. A huge number of the psalms follow this pattern. Most praise-and-worship songs start to, in that they call for praise, but they don’t follow through by demonstrating God’s praiseworthiness. Their attempts to express right conceptions of God must be judged too vague when measured by the standard of Scripture.

“Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” calls for praise thirty times in three minutes. (Both tunes repeat Lyte’s fifth line to produce a fourfold call to “praise him,” unless the hymnal translates it to the Hebrew “Alleluia,” in which case the hymn calls for praise only twenty times.) That’s a lot, but the insistence of the calls is justified—required, even—by the clarity of the picture of God’s grace, faithfulness, and glory that the calls punctuate. Stanzas 2–4 (linked together by parallel, threefold F-alliteration in the first two lines of each) explain that as he loved the saints who went before us (stanza 2) so he still loves us, for his ways, unlike ours, are not ephemeral (stanza 4). The High Eternal One never changes, least of all in his fatherly care for his children (stanza 3). In a memorable paraphrase of a great Old-Testament creed, we confess he is “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

The initial calls to praise, in stanza 1, are to oneself, because worship is always an act of the individual heart. My religious words and gestures cannot be made genuine by the sincerity of those around me, nor can anyone worship by proxy. The next calls to praise, in stanzas 2–4, are to the saints, as indicated by the plural pronouns “our,” “us,” and “we.” Private worship may be a prerequisite to public worship, but public worship is the higher priority. “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (Ps. 87:2).

Like most psalm paraphrases, “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” scrambles the word-order of several of its lines. The second line, for instance, is the complete reverse of the way we normally speak. Instead of (1) imperative (2) object (3) adverbial phrase, we get (1) adverbial phrase (2) object (3) imperative. In bad hymns, “inversion” (as poets call it) makes it harder for congregants to understand and thus to mean what they are singing. In every case here, however, the inversion contributes to the meaning of the line, with minimal risk of confusion, by emphasizing the very thing that ought to be emphasized:

to his feet your tribute bring; (stanza 1, line 2)
well our feeble frame he knows;
in his hands he gently bears us, (stanza 3, lines 2–3)
Frail as summer’s flow’r we flourish,
blows the wind and it is gone; (stanza 4, lines 1–2)

The hardest line in the poem goes too far, perhaps. Some congregants may need help to understand the fourth line of stanza 1: “who, like me, his praise should sing?” Coming after “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,” the sense is, “Who has more reason to praise God than I?” The answer to the question is, of course, “no one.” To the Spirit-filled Christian, this is a highly motivating realization. The neat thing about the equivocal wording of the line, however, is that, by the end of the hymn, it can be taken literally. Who should be singing God’s praise with me? Let us not limit the call to other saints. Let us insist that angels contribute, too (stanza 5). And the sun. And the moon. And every creature in time and space.

The phrasing of LAUDA ANIMA is foursquare throughout, except in the first line. There, the note on the fourth downbeat (“heav-”) is drawn out like a movement of the soul toward God. It is an extension of the melody in time analogous to its extension in pitch from monotone to leap two beats earlier at “King.” As we sing the rest of the tune, musical ideas develop from line to line as coherently as do the theological and poetic ideas in the text. Compare measures 10–12 with measures 1–3, or measures 14–15 with measures 3–5 and 18–21. The last line—the words of which expand the “praise him” refrain in a new direction every stanza—continues the scalar descents of “praise him” to land conclusively on the tune’s only low “do.” (By the way, isn’t “grace” the perfect last word for this hymn?)

ANDREWS is more lyrical, with a singing refrain and a more interesting rhythm. There is an alternation every two measures between placing the subsidiary accent on beat 3 and placing it on beat 2, with the refrain shuffling the pattern a bit. Measures 20–22 (“-luia! Praise the ever-”) compact the music of the tune’s first six measures into three. Finally, measures 23–24 descend the scale, as in LAUDA ANIMA, to the melody’s only cadence on “do.”

They are among the finest tunes in the book. If we had to pick one, we might slightly prefer LAUDA ANIMA for congregations with organ accompaniment and ANDREWS for congregations with piano accompaniment. But the best practice is to sing both.