HYMNS OF THE CHURCH

Charles Nutter

Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne

Isaac Watts, Altered by John Wesley

1 Before Jehovah’s awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
Know that the Lord is God alone,
He can create, and He destroy.
2 His sovereign power, without our aid,
Made us of clay, and formed us men;
And when like wandering sheep we strayed,
He brought us to His fold again.
3 We’ll crowd Thy gates with thankful songs,
High as the heavens our voices raise;
And earth, with her ten thousand tongues,
Shall fill Thy courts with sounding praise.
4 Wide as the world is Thy command,
Vast as eternity Thy love;
Firm as a rock Thy truth shall stand,
When rolling years shall cease to move.

This hymn first appeared in the author’s Horæ Lyricæ, 1706, and again, in somewhat altered form, in his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, 1719. It is based on the hundredth Psalm:

   Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.

   Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing.

   Know ye that the Lord He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.

   Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.

   For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting: and His truth endureth to all generations.

As first published it was titled “Praise to the Lord from All Nations.” The last stanza has remained unaltered from the beginning except that “must” in the third line has been changed to “shall.” The first four stanzas were originally as follows:

1 Sing to the Lord with joyful voice;
Let every land His name adore;
The British isles shall send the noise
Across the ocean to the shore.
2 With gladness bow before His throne,
And let His presence raise your joys;
Know that the Lord is God alone,
And formed our souls, and framed our voice.
3 Infinite Power without our aid
Figured our clay to human mould;
And when our wandering feet had strayed,
He brought us to His sacred fold.
4 Enter His gates with thankful songs,
Through His wide courts your voices raise;
Almighty God, our joyful tongues
Shall fill Thine house with sounding praise.

When Watts republished this hymn in 1719, the first two lines of verse two had been changed to read as follows:

   Nations attend before His throne
   With solemn fear, with sacred joy.

In verse three “Infinite Power” had been changed to “His sovereign power,” and verse four had been substituted by the following:

   We are His people, we His care
   Our souls and all our mortal frame:
   What lasting honors shall we rear,
   Almighty Maker, to Thy name?

The form of the hymn given in our Hymnal and now found in all hymnals is John Wesley’s improvement upon Watts. By discarding the first verse and changing entirely the first two lines of the second verse and improving the fourth stanza as Watts first wrote it, John Wesley succeeded in making a useful and popular hymn of it.

If any one desires to prove by example as well as by argument the wisdom of allowing judicious editors to alter and improve the original words of the authors when this is called for, hereby rendering a real service to the authors themselves, let him make use of this hymn, which would never have found a place, and, least of all, a place of high esteem, in the great hymnals of the Church but for the fact that the original was abridged and otherwise altered by John Wesley.

The hymn as thus altered by Wesley appeared in his first collection of Psalms and Hymns, published in 1737 at Charleston, S. C., while he was a missionary in America.

The moral significance and far-reaching importance of the visit of Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853-54 is well known. It is said that while his flagship lay anchored off the coast of Japan, in close proximity to the shore, on a certain Sabbath religious services were held on board the steamer, and this hymn was used in the worship, the naval band playing as an accompaniment the tune of “Old Hundred,” while thousands who lined the shore listened in impressive silence to what was to them new and strange music.

It is narrated that when Dr. Dempster, of Garrett Biblical Institute, was on his way, with his wife and two brother missionaries, to South Africa, they were pursued for three days by a pirate vessel, and it seemed that they would have to surrender. They spent no little time in prayer to the “wondrous Sovereign of the sea” to rescue them from the hands of their pursuers. On the third day, just after they had joined in prayer and in singing this hymn, the pirate ship was seen to change its course, thus leaving them to pursue undisturbed their errand of mercy to the Dark Continent. It is not strange that this hymn should have remained ever thereafter associated in grateful remembrance with their providential escape from robbery and possibly from death.

Isaac Watts

The Genevan Psalter was a Psalm book published at Geneva in French about 1551. This is the book that first gave the tune now called Old Hundredth or Old Hundred. It was set to the one hundred and thirty-fourth Psalm.