This hymn comes from that great English hymnwriter, Isaac Watts, of whose fame and glory this writer often expounds. Watts came from the Dissenting tradition—he was not Church of England. Yet, both ecclesiastical worlds were marked by somber, lugubrious worship which arguably contained neither joy nor served well as a vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel. In fact, the great satirist William Hogarth depicted, with humor, several scenes of the Divine Service:
The lack of piety and decorum exhibited in common worship services troubled Watts greatly, about which he wrote later, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” Although Lutherans had been singing hymns, not just the psalms, for well over a century prior to Watts’ birth, those in the Reformed tradition had been limited to singing the psalms in church, following with strictures of Calvin. Even the Church of England was so influenced, although the psalter did admit the occasional New Testament canticle and the Te Deum as part of the congregational repertoire. Nonetheless, the musical portions of the service were slight.
This hymn comes from Watts’ 1719 collection entitled The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, in which he sought to “Christianize” the psalms, even adding elements of Christian theology to them. (“Joy to the World” is also from this volume.) This was revolutionary given the conservative liturgical ethos of the time, but did provide an alternative to the same drab psalm translations that had been promulgated in the psalters since the Reformation. Interestingly, the original title of this hymn, which itself is based on Psalm 100, is “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne.” The editors of modern hymnals take liberty with Watts’ text, often altering the title to something more amenable to modern ears. Indeed, we don’t mean “full of wonder and glory” when we say “awful.” We mean “something bad.” The usage of the term “Jehovah” has also lost sway over time. So, the editors of The Hymnal 1982 translated Watts’ as “Before the Lord’s Eternal Throne,” which still conveys the meaning of the original title. In the original language of the psalm, we sing, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know tha thte Lord is God, it is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generation.” This short psalm finds faithful expression in Watts’ paraphrase which we sing this morning.