I had heard it many times before, but the first time the O Worship the King tune grabbed my attention was when I was only eight years old. I remember sitting in the small church building where we attended worship at the time and the song leader got up, announced the hymn number in his thick drawl and then belted out the opening line (“O worship the King, all glorious above!”) with gusto. He intended for everyone else to follow and imitate his powerful timbre, but it seemed like the congregants were almost taken aback by his enthusiasm and it took a moment for their voices to join him. My juvenile brain snickered a little at the way the man seemed to yell out, more than sing, the song. But something else seemed to burrow its way into my mind and memory. It occurred to me at that moment, and every moment after, that it was appropriate (perhaps the ONLY way) to sing those lines: powerfully, mightily, forcefully. How can it not be powerful to ponder the King’s glory, power and love – “pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise?”
Loving the tune the way I did, it always seemed like the song was over too quickly. The three verses I grew up singing seemed to fly by, each verse only lasting a mere 30 to 40 seconds. But it was so wonderful to break out strongly from the beginning and keep the energy flowing through the entire song (especially when compared with some other songs’ tempos which were dragged along like a stubborn mule). It also felt like the joy from it seemed to hold through several songs after. I loved the quick waltz fiero throughout and my brain seemed to latch onto that very German-Austrian flavor. But the part that my heart adores most is the subtle mezzo piano into crescendo on the third and fourth lines of the quatrain … our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days, PAVILIONED IN SPLENDOR, AND GIRDED WITH PRAISE.
The original music was composed by Franz Josef Haydn’s brother, Johann Michael Haydn. Michael Haydn wrote several songs which have been set with religious lyrics, however most of these are either in German or have fallen into disuse; which, based on the glorious theme of O Worship the King, is a severe loss to us today. In spite of his fame, Michael Haydn seems to have led a relatively quiet life. But the man who wrote the lyrics for O Worship the King certainly did not.
Robert Grant was the son of Charles Grant, chairman of the Directors of the East India Company and subsequently was born and spent his boyhood in Kidderpore, India (modern day Bangladesh). At the age of eleven, his family moved back to England where he and his brother, Charles, grew up in Inverness, Scotland. Charles, Sr., Charles, Jr. and Robert all represented Inverness at various times in the House of Commons, with Robert also sent to Parliament by Aberdeen, Norwich and Finsbury. While in Parliament, Robert twice powerfully advocated, through the introduction and representation of bills to Parliament, for the emancipation of Jews in Britain. He nearly succeeded both times. In 1834 Robert was appointed the Governor of Bombay and given the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Guelphic Order (an order which ended in 1837), becoming Sir Robert Grant. He did much traveling and was highly regarded within India until the time of his death in 1838, at the age of 59.
Many years after his death, three things happened which recalled the impact of his work. Firstly, the earliest western medical college ever established in India was named after him (Grant Medical College in Bombay). The groundwork had been laid by Sir Robert when he first arrived in Bombay as he had a great desire to alleviate the suffering he saw around him. However it was not until nine days before his death, after four years of relentless work, that the proposal for the medical college was approved and he never saw the many thousands of lives made better due to his labor. The school survives to this day and is one of the most highly regarded medical schools in all of Asia. Second, the Jews were given emancipation in 1858 after one of Robert’s bills was picked up posthumously and run through Parliament again. Third, his brother Charles (at that time, the Lord Glenelg), published a collection of Sir Robert’s poetry and hymns. Among those hymns was O Worship the King.
It is fitting, perhaps, that such prominent lyrics like, “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail” should be published after their composer has passed on. Sir Robert’s words, when combined with his living efforts for the protection of the underclass (Jews in England) and the care for the hurting (establishment of a hospital and medical school), distill into a more beautiful fragrance in retrospect. For we are frail … are we not? Our feeble efforts often amount to so little. But, when done in the worship of the King, our work can outlast us – just as Sir Robert’s did – and our effectual fervent supplications of service can last for centuries.
Furthermore, when read in their entirety, the words form such a well-balanced idea of the harsh power of God being softened for us because of his grace and love, in spite of the ugliness of our sins. As Sir Robert wrote, He simultaneously, ‘forms deep thunderclouds with His wrath’ while filling our lives with light and grace. He takes our feeble frailty of dust and forms us into a vessel for His mercy.
Therefore read anew the words of a beautiful hymn. Tap your toe to the rhythm and lift your heart to our ‘Shield and Defender,’ our ‘Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend.’ Let us praise God for the lives of His dedicated people; and may we ever strive to leave a mark of Godliness ere our coming, inevitable end.
O worship the King, all glorious above,
And gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.
O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.
The earth with its store of wonders untold,
Almighty, Thy power hath founded of old;
Established it fast by a changeless decree,
And round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend.
O measureless might! Ineffable love!
While angels delight to worship Thee above,
The humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
With true adoration shall all sing Thy praise.