Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Joachim Neander, 1680; stanzas 1–3, 5 trans. C. Winkworth, 1863; stanza 4 trans. in J. Farmer’s Hymns and Chorales, 1893
Addressed to Bethlehem, angels, one another, and God the Son
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!Ps. 47:7; 103:19
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!Ps. 103:2–3; 68:19–20
   All ye who hear,
   now to his temple draw near,Ps. 95:2
join me in glad adoration.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,Ps. 97:1; 99:1
shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!Ps. 61:4; 3:5; 1 Cor. 1:8
   Hast thou not seenPs. 139:14b
   how thy desires e’er have been
granted in what he ordaineth?Ps. 37:4; 145:19; Prov. 10:24
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee!Deut. 28:12; Ps. 1:3; Is. 37:35
Surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;Ps. 23:6
   ponder anewDeut. 7:18; 1 Chron. 16:12
   what the Almighty will do,
if with his love he befriend thee.James 2:23
Praise to the Lord, who with marvellous wisdom hath made thee,Gen. 1:31; 2:22; Ps. 139:14a
decked thee with health, and with loving hand guided and stayed thee.Ps. 103:3; Mt. 8:17; Ex. 33:14; Ps. 78:72
   How oft in grief
   hath not he brought thee relief,Ps. 4:1
spreading his wings to o’ershade thee!Deut. 32:11
Praise to the Lord! Oh, let all that is in me adore him!Ps. 103:1
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before him!Ps. 103:20–22; 150:6
   Let the amen
   Sound from his people again;Ps. 106:48
gladly fore’er we adore him.Ps. 79:13

Since the early 20th century, modern poets have been cautious with the use of steady meter and rhyme. Many things motivate their caution, not least the contemporary preference for realism. We do not speak in meter and rhyme—why then should we write in it? No doubt something of this influence is behind a great deal of contemporary praise and worship music, much of which neither rhymes nor is metrical. But there’s another motivation when it comes to congregational song. In congregational song, more than art poetry, surely it is proper for us to speak in the most natural and unaffected of ways. On the face of it, congregational songs that rhyme and use strong, clear meter must thereby work against the thesis of this website, and of the Apostle Paul, that we are to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. It is not customary for pastors to teach and admonish us in the thumping rhythms and pert rhymes of Humpty Dumpty or Hickory Dickory Dock. We often forget, however, that Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:16 begins with the words “Let the word of Christ dwell in you.” That little word “dwell” is a homely one. Indeed, its root is the Greek word for “home” and one way of rendering it into English is “home-make.” It is toward this purpose that rhythm and rhyme of congregational poetry work. They help us to remember. In this hymn, the short internal couplets like “Hast thou not seen / how thy desires e’er have been” or “Let the amen / sound from his people again” are printed on the mind of so many Christians because of the force of their rhythms and the pertness of their rhymes. I may not want my preacher to take up the rhythm of Hickory Dickory Dock. Then again, while I have trouble remembering last Sunday’s sermon I have no trouble remembering what the mouse ran up. Nor will I forget that the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me. Some Christians may be embarrassed at what seems to be a venal or cliché mnemonic trick. No doubt it can be used thus, but it is not so used here in Joachim Neander’s finest hymn. Ably translated by the most competent and most prolific of the 19th century translators of German hymnody, this text retains the full force of its original German rhythm and rhyme and thereby makes a home for its thoroughly biblical ideas.

The hymn’s metrical form is unusual for English. The fourteen syllable lines of the first couplet are the longest in the standard repertoire. But the English fourteener does not thump like Neander’s line. If we hear it at all, we are used to a fourteen-syllable line that sounds like this:

The congregation stood to sing, and so the elder stood,
But when he opened up his mouth, his teeth were made of wood.

That is, the fourteener is usually iambic (having a rhythm that alternates between unstressed and stressed syllables exactly). In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” we have a rhythm that is like the first two words of Hickory Dickory Dock. Poets call this a dactylic rhythm. It stands out, for English singers, from a sea of iambic hymns (all your favourites are). Its rhyme is equally daring. Notice the difference between the rhymes of the opening couplets (“creation/salvation” “reigneth/sustaineth”) and the kind of rhyme we normally expect:

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came, and in the branches blew.

Notice that in Neander’s first couplet, the rhyming syllables are the next-to-last. The last syllables are simply identical. Because he uses a distinctive sort of rhyme, the final words or word pairs of each opening couplet are more memorable to us. Amazingly, they are also never cliché or comical (as this sort of rhyme can be: bear witness all ye limericks). This is all the more impressive because this couplet is also made to rhyme with each stanza’s last line. Notice, then, how the ideas of the first couplet of each stanza tie in with each final line. For each stanza, the final line not only summarizes the stanza’s ideas but it sonically rounds off the stanza by returning to the sounds of the opening lines.

The hymn’s great poetical success, however, is not even in these things. It is in the sudden shift to a short-lined couplet in the third and fourth lines of each stanza. While retaining the triplet dactyl rhythm, we suddenly move to punchy lines of four and seven syllables. We also move to the type of accented rhyme more normal to English speakers. All this, coupled with a tune that climaxes on this internal couplet, makes these texts unforgettable for anyone who regularly sings this hymn.

The hymn will, by these fairly mechanical means, dwell richly in us. And we will be glad for it to do so because it is so rich with the word of Christ. Neander identified the poem, at its first printing, with Psalm 103:1, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” All stanzas begin with the same phrase, derived from this verse. (Neander’s “Lobe den Herren” comes directly from Luther’s translation of Psalm 103:1.) The poem as a whole expands the verse into a great arch that stretches from “O my soul” in stanza 1 to “all that is in me” in stanza 5. In between come three stanzas in which we “forget not all his benefits,” in words drawn from several other psalms. Interested readers may fact-check by using the scriptural references supplied above.

Oddly, the Trinity Hymnal reverses the order of Neander’s third and fourth stanzas. We can only guess the reason. Winkworth omitted Neander’s third stanza, so the translation used here (“. . . who with marvellous wisdom hath made thee”) comes from another source. The reordering of stanzas does enhance the poem’s arch-like structure by placing its most vivid image, God’s wings, symmetrically in stanzas 2 and 4—with the command to “ponder anew” at the midpoint.

Neander was one of the few hymn-poets who was also a composer. (He also wrote the wonderful tunes we use for “All Authority and Power” and “God Himself Is with Us.”) In “Praise to the Lord” he designed text and tune to complement each other. The text’s opening admonition, and one that repeats in each stanza, is set to the largest leap in the tune. When we arrive at the emphatic short lines, we outstrip even the high note already touched on in the opening line. We are now at the very upper reaches of the congregation’s singing range—and holding. And what words are the congregation screaming at this point? “All ye who hear” or “Hast thou not seen” or “Ponder anew.” Each short phrase is either a command or a rhetorical question. And two (in the first and last stanza) have to do with hearing. Little wonder then that our voices are pitched so high. In doing so, we make melody in our hearts too, even as we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.