Monday, February 9, 2009

All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night

Praise for the Lord #21

Thomas Ken (1637-1711) was an Anglican cleric connected with Winchester College at Oxford, who wrote hymns that were few in number but quite influential.(Cyberhymnal) Though Protestant in nature, the Church of England did not sanction hymn-singing; its services were more like a simplified, Anglicized form of the Catholic Mass, with most of the musical participation limited to the presiding priest and the choir. Emphasis on congregational psalm-singing, and on hymn-singing when it arrived, was associated with the fractious Independents, Separatists, Methodists, etc. Nonetheless, devotional poetry--and the singing of devotional poetry as hymns--did have its place outside the official services of the church.

Ken had an obvious concern for the spiritual training of his charges at the College, and wrote a very thoughtful Manual of Prayers for their edification. His concern for daily devotions was also expressed in a pair of hymns for morning and evening prayers, "Awake, my soul, and with the sun" (PFTL#58) and the text at hand, "All praise to Thee, my God, this night". Though Ken was not a prolific hymn-writer, the quality of his texts, and the fact that he was writing these even before Isaac Watts burst onto the scene, have ensured his place in our hymnal. His best-known text is the final stanza found in each of these hymns: "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow", also known as the Doxology (PFTL#528).

Stanza 1:
All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

It is good to remember, at the end of the day, all the blessings God has given us. Frustrations and burdens pile up on us as the day goes on; but at the same time, often unremarked, God's blessings have piled up as well. If we had food to eat; if we had clothes to wear; if we had a job to do and a home to return to at the end of the day, how blessed we are compared to many people in this world! Surely our "cup runs over."(Psalm 23:5) It is also wise to remember the blessings of today, rather than worry about the problems of tomorrow. "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." If we lie down at night remembering that today, on the balance, was a blessed day, we can also look forward to tomorrow as another day that God will see us through.

The shelter of God's "wings" is a common poetic image in the Old Testament, calling up images of the powerful bird of prey that nonetheless tenderly protects and nurtures her young in the nest:

He found [Israel] in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him.(Deuteronomy 32:10-12)

In the shadow of such a mighty wing is protection indeed. David, when he was on the run from Saul and hiding in the cave of Adullam, wrote this:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.

Perhaps David laid himself down to sleep in the cave, a wanted man, comforted by this thought on his heart.

Stanza 2:
Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ill that I this day have done,
That with the world, myself, and Thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

"Your sleep will be sweet", promises Proverbs 3:21-24, if you "keep sound wisdom and discretion." In Matthew 5:23-25 Jesus teaches the broad principle of "coming to terms quickly" when someone has something against us; certainly, if the Lord has something against us, we need reconciliation even more! It is good to review at the end of the day, and see that we are aware of any way in which we may have gone wrong. We can repent and ask forgiveness of God; if we need to ask forgiveness of another, we can determine to do so at the next opportunity. Looking at it in the othe direction, Ephesians 4:26 says, "do not let the sun go down on your anger." Anger, even justified anger over a wrong done to us, does not need to make itself a houseguest in our hearts; it is not welcome to spend the night!

The following stanza is omitted in Praise for the Lord:

Teach me to live, that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the judgment day.

It is a worthy sentiment, but probably not one we want our children reading before bedtime. Remember, of course, that Ken was writing for a college audience.

Stanza 3:
O may my soul on Thee repose,
And with sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that may me more vigorous make
To serve my God when I awake.

This stanza reminds us that sleep has a necessary function; it is not a luxury or a weakness, as our culture sometimes seems to treat it. We are not designed to run without sleep, just as a car's engine is not designed to run without oil. If someone tried to see just how little oil his car's engine could run on before seizing up, we would consider him a fool; but unfortunately our society has made it a virtue to do the same thing with the human body.

Jesus even commanded His disciples at one point to "rest a while" because "they had no leisure even to eat."(Mark 6:31) He knew they needed rest, even if it meant taking a break from fulfilling His mission. It is worth noting, as well, that going without sleep eventually impairs our judgment and self-control; we can become short-tempered and subject to weaknesses that we would resist when we are at our best (it was surely no accident that Satan chose to tempt Jesus when He was physically weakened by His extended fasting).

We need to quit listening to worldly pride and accept this blessing from God, heeding Psalm 127:2--"It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives to His beloved sleep."

The following two stanzas are omitted in Praise for the Lord:

When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest.

The last two lines are a bit troublesome--does Satan use dreams to draw us astray, or to have other evil influence on us? I do not feel prepared to address that subject here, and I can see why the hymnal editors omitted this stanza! The following stanza, however, is quite worthwhile:

O when shall I, in endless day,
For ever chase dark sleep away,
And hymns divine with angels sing,
All praise to thee, eternal King?

It is unfortunate that we do not have it in our hymnal, but we can't have them all. The hymn closes with Ken's famous doxology:

Stanza 4:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The use of a doxology (literally, a "word of praise") at the end of a hymn has its roots in the ancient practice of singing the "Gloria Patri" (PFTL#166,167) at the end of a psalm or hymn:

Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning,
Is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

Ken's doxology reminds us that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,"(James 1:17) then calls on all created beings to praise Him, reminiscent of Revelation 5:13,

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"

He closes with an invocation of the Trinity, perhaps in echo of the traditional doxologies of earlier centuries.

About the music: Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was one of the greatest English composers of the Renaissance. Serving as composer to the Chapel Royal under the reigns of monarchs diverse as Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, he somehow kept his head (literally) as a devout Roman Catholic in a court where religious loyalties were frequently in flux. Interestingly for a man of his loyalties, he wrote some very fine psalm-singing tunes, and some of the first English-language choral motets, thus setting the stage for the great Anglican composers such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Henry Purcell.

The TALLIS CANON is another matter. A "canon" is a musical piece in which one voice begins, then after a certain number of beats the next voice begins (at the beginning), then after the same number of beats the next voice, and so on. The simplest form of canon is a "round" such as "Row, row, row your boat". This canon by Tallis appeared, in its original form, in a psalter edited by Matthew Parker from the 1560s, and was popularized in Ravenscroft's psalter of 1621.(Temperley, 375)

To recreate the original version, you can have the men sing the melody, then the women begin eight beats later, when the men start the second line "For all the blessings of the light". It is really quite enjoyable, and very different from singing our written version. The harmonization we have is fine, but some of the parts are awkward (if I were an alto, I would feel free to stay on a D instead of going down to that low G). The canon aspect is still present, too--the tenor part follows the soprano in canon at an octave below.


Cyberhymnal. Thomas Ken.

Temperley, Nicholas. The adventures of a hymn tune. The Musical Times 112/1538 (April 1971): 375-376.


  1. I came across your blog because in one of your posts you referenced something from one of my hymn studies. Of course, I always enjoy reading what others have to say about hymns, especially someone associated with churches of Christ. For Ken's Evening Hymn, I prefer the arrangement of Tallis's tune known as Tallis' Evening Hymn as used in Great Songs of the Church No. 2. It may be a little harder to sing but it is much more mellifluous than the rather stern Canon.
    Wayne S. Walker

  2. I came across your blog because in one of your posts you referenced something from one of my hymn studies. Of course, I always enjoy reading what others have to say about hymns, especially someone associated with churches of Christ. For Ken's Evening Hymn, I prefer the arrangement of Tallis's tune known as Tallis' Evening Hymn as used in Great Songs of the Church No. 2. It may be a little harder to sing but it is much more mellifluous than the rather stern Canon.
    Wayne S. Walker