The Best-Known Hymn in History

Why We Keep Singing ‘The Doxology’

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

These 25 words, known to many around the world today as “The Doxology,” comprise what is likely the single best-known verse of all Christian hymnology and poetry.

On the surface, these lyrics are surprisingly modest and memorable. Few of us remember first hearing them, and few recall straining to learn them. Yet, as simple and accessible as these four lines are, Christians have been singing them now for more than three centuries. Because simple doesn’t mean shallow. Plain does not exclude profound. Which is one of the striking truths at the heart of our faith — and one of the great evidences for its truth — from the Gospel of John, to the early creeds, to the most widely known and enduring lyrics we share with the global church today.

“The greatest realities about God and his world can be captured in the humblest of terms.”

The greatest realities about God and his world, when understood aright, can be captured in the humblest of terms, even as they are bottomless in their depth. And yet we find an enduring quality in “The Doxology” absent from many of our passing modern choruses. Substance hides in the brevity and singability. Though short, the hymn is a coherent progression, rather than a loosely connected attempt at memorable phrases, and turns on the profound theological truths of God’s aseity and generosity, and God as Trinity.

Morning, Evening, Midnight

Thomas Ken (1637–1711), who crafted these plain and profound words in the late 1600s, wrote them as the final and “doxological” stanza of three hymns he published, first for students at Winchester College at Oxford University.

Ken, who was an Anglican minister, royal chaplain, and eventually bishop, first penned verses for his students at Winchester to sing upon arising in the morning, and at bedtime each evening. Later he added a third hymn, to rehearse at midnight, were students to have trouble sleeping. Each hymn was a confession of faith, and an invocation of divine blessing, tailored to its particular moment of the day. And each hymn ended with the same 25-word doxological verse in praise of God, three in one.

Ken’s hymns have by no means been lost today. However, it is his final verse — our beloved “Doxology” — that has endured, so well-known is it that it needs no placeholder in our hymnbooks. Christians the world over simply know it, almost without fail — both Ken’s timeless words and the tune, which Ken did not write, but which much later began to accompany the song. The tune, called Old One-Hundredth, originally designed to accompany the singing of Psalm 134, and later Psalm 100, first appeared in the Geneva Psalter in 1551 and was written by Louis Bourgeois (1510–1561), who served as head of choirs and music, alongside famous pastor and theologian John Calvin.

Source of All Good

What, then, has been the power of these 25 words? Why have they endured, and for many become one of the most basic and repeated expressions of the Christian faith?

For one, our God is indeed the one from whom all genuine blessings flow. He himself is the Blessed One (1 Timothy 1:11; 6:15), the only one in whom is fullness of joy and pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11). Yet, unshakably happy as he is, he is not a God inclined to keep to himself but gives generously. He is happy enough to be outgoing.

God delights to give, to overflow with joy, to bless his creatures and share his own happiness in them and then with them. He is the giver of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17). “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

Three in One

This blessed God is also sovereign over all. He is both the singular source of all true good, and he is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all nature, and all the heavenly hosts above, and “all creatures here below.” Here and there, above and below, he is God and “does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). As the great humbled king of Babylon learned to declare in his own doxology, our God “does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand” (Daniel 4:35).

“God is glorified in our heartfelt expression of praise. God made us for praise. He made us for doxology.”

Still, this God, utterly complete in goodness and power, has revealed himself to his people. He is one and three — one God, three persons, working in history to redeem and restore his people from their sin and rebellion. He is a God three times for us in a great salvation, which is arranged by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Spirit.

And so, we praise him as three in one, and one in three, just as we baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and pray with the apostle, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Our Joy, His Glory

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. “The Doxology” has served as a ready-made form, and occasion, for Christians to connect the very purposes of God in all he does with our heart’s deepest desire. God made our hearts to ache for happiness. And he made the world, and us, to glorify him. And in this act of praise (which “The Doxology” directs and assists), our souls both rejoice and go public in expressing their delight in him.

God is glorified in our heartfelt expression of praise. God made us for praise. He made us for doxology. He made the world that he might be praised. And these simple yet profound words serve that simple yet most profound human act of devotion — and all the more when we join our voices and sing together.