Holy, Holy, Holy (We Bow Before Thee)

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For many of us, the words of this classic hymn flow off our tongue effortlessly. Even if we didn’t grow up worshipping with hymns, or if we didn’t grow up worshipping at all and found Jesus later in life, we probably know this one! It is all the more important, then, to move beyond our familiarity and get at the heart of this beautiful anthem.

The title of the song, and its constant refrain, is the cry of the seraphim found in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. One of the most distinctive characteristics of these mysterious creatures is that they are covered with eyes. They were created to behold God and positioned before His throne to be forever occupied in worship. Through their words, we are invited to lift our eyes and exchange the lowly landscape of our lives for this heavenly scene where golden crowns are cast down upon the sapphire sea before the Lord of Glory.

It is to this very real place where our songs rise, as the first verse calls us to remember. The reason heaven may not readily come to mind when pondering worship is quite simply that it is far too easy for God Himself to drift into the background when considering the subject. The goal of ‘good’ worship or the hindrances to achieving it can quickly become fixated on who the worship pastor is, the quality of the sound system, the right planning software, and of course a robust fog machine. All of these concerns may have a place, but they cannot become primary.

By turning our eyes to heaven, we are reminded that at the heart of worship lies a consuming preoccupation with God Himself. We read of myriads of angels tirelessly lauding the glorious King enthroned on high and we are rescued from the self-compulsion that threatens to undermine true worship. The goal of worship cannot be evaluated simply by the experience a service produces in the participants, but only by the extent to which the glory of God is truly seen and magnified as result. And the problem of worship, as A.W. Tozer forcefully reminds us, is always God Himself:

It is my opinion that the Christian concept of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity. All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together an at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God:  that He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.  (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy)

If these words were true over fifty years ago when they were penned, how much more do they thunder through our propensities toward shallowness today? Honest reflection should cause us to realize we are too often guilty of holding a tame, suburbanized view of God in which what is most admirable quality about Him is the perpetuation of our comfortable, efficient lifestyle. “Nice! Nice! Nice!” is the refrain of this anthem in the diluted theology we foster in our hearts. It is good, it is right, that we are sobered by the uncomfortable, unfamiliar vision of God’s transcendence.

Let us lift our voices with strength and fix our eyes on God’s majesty. The rest of the day may bring the predictability of strip-malls and yardwork, but these old words can transport us into a new awareness of the Trinitarian mystery that is the burning center of our adoration.