“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” Although he was an Anglican vicar, he had initially considered studying medicine. Although he was tolerant of his repeated transfers to different churches, he eventually gave up the ministry in an effort to regain his health. Although he published three volumes of poetry, only two of his texts remain in popular usage, “Abide with Me” and “Praise, My, Soul, the King of Heaven.” Henry Lyte (1793-1847), an Englishman, seems to have been a writer who was profoundly mystified by the sadnesses of life. In 1818, he was deeply moved by the death of a fellow clergyman, writing “He died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and be accepted for all that had incurred.” Lyte himself underwent a spiritual change as he continues, “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.” He wrote “Abide with Me” in 1820 under similar circumstances.
This hymn is a free paraphrase of the praise-filled Psalm 103. Yet, this hymn is apparently not representative of his work, as one scholar observes that “it is with the tenderness and tearfulness of the Psalms that he is most deeply penetrated,” and that Lyte had a “habit of isolating the sad part of a psalm.” Perhaps that this hymn was based on such a joyous psalm has contributed to a longevity not experienced by Lyte’s other hymns.
As I consult with people to select music for their weddings, I am often admonished only to play “upbeat” music. I am often left at a loss understanding exactly what is meant by this useless word. We have also heard churches likewise praised for their “uplifting” music and worship, as if something narrowly-defined as “upbeat” and “uplifting” somehow qualifies as an encounter with God. “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” is certainly a joyous expression of praise—no matter the tendencies of the hymnwriter—but it is also faithful to the theological nuances of the psalm. The psalm begins with the “upbeat” litany, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise His holy name.” Yet, both the psalm (and consequently the hymn) continue with the reason why this praise is rendered; we praise because it is God “. . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.” In the paraphrased words of the hymn, we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” In verse 13 of the psalm, God is compared to a father, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.” This is paraphrased in the hymn in stanza three as, “Fatherlike He tends and spares us; Well our feeble frame He knows; In His hand He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes.” Is this good news or bad news? Is this law or gospel? Is this upbeat or unduly morose? Many in our culture would find these lines depressing, for they acknowledge human frailty; we have “foes” from whom we need rescuing. We have diseases which need healing. We sin constantly and need forgiveness. I have a suspicion that when people want Christianity that is “upbeat,” they want only “rescuing,” “healing” and “forgiveness.” They want the gospel, but they do not want the law. What is the good news of the gospel without a knowledge of sin, from which the gospel saves? This is no gospel at all!
This hymn is characteristic of all good hymnody (and of every psalm) in that law is presented with gospel. The law without the gospel is depressingly burdensome, and cannot by nature be focued of Christ Jesus, who redeemed us from the law. The gospel without the law cannot by nature be the true gospel, for it ignores the power of what Christ Jesus has accomplished. The complexity of the Christian life is such that the sorrow and sadness of sin will be experienced by everyone on this earth. But the joy of forgiveness and redemption will be experienced, too, at least by every Christian. This hymn reminds of the natural tension between law and gospel, and the supremacy of the true gospel through Christ.