Have you ever tried to express or explain something but in the end had to give up because it was beyond you? That is pretty much what happened when Reverend John Mason penned the following hymn in the mid-1600s. “How Shall I Sing That Majesty” confesses the problem all true worshippers experience: God is simply too great and infinite to understand, let alone praise as He deserves to be praised. But while its message is that of helplessness, it serves to stretch our minds to greater heights as we try to join heaven in the worship of this great King.
How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?
Verse one asks an important question. How can dust, that is fallen humanity, hope to ever reach the heights of praise holy angels are barely capable of? This is the question threading throughout the whole hymn. God is infinite. We are so far removed from Him that on our own there is no way we can truly praise Him in the way He should be praised. We are simply incapable. God is not within our grasp. “Let the angels sing,” says the hymnist, “And let humanity stay silent in awe.”
Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears;
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun:
Lord, send a beam on me,
For where heaven is but once begun,
There alleluias be.
Verse two continues expressing just how much we fall short. The angels enjoy close communion with God, while we can only trace His footsteps in the world and His Word. The angels are face to face with God, while we can only hear a whisper of His glory. The angels sing because of this closeness to God, so the hymnist stirs himself and pleads for a taste of this closeness. “For where heaven is but once begun, there alleluias be.” If we could only get to the very fringes of communion with God, we would burst into clearer songs of praise.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Enflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold
With all my fire and light,
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
Verse three begins by showing how fallen man can rise to heavenly praise: faith and love. Faith acknowledges our helpless state and runs to Christ instead of giving up or hiding in shame. True, humble, and obedient love is the one great motivator. Because we hold fast to Christ in faith and because He loves us, we love Him and long to praise Him.
How great a being Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.
Verse four reaches the very thing this whole hymn has been concerned with: the great mystery and enigma of the person of God. The hymnist throws up his hands and says, “I give up!” The only person who can measure God is God Himself. He is limitless in every way, like a shoreless sea or a sphere-less sun. He cannot be contained in time or space, and He is not diminished because of our inability to love Him, serve Him, or praise Him as He ought to be. But because of Christ our mediator, we can add our lisping, imperfect songs to the glorious choir of heaven and look forward to the day when we are perfected.