First-time or infrequent visitors to our churches might be surprised by what we sing, read, pray and preach in our worship services. One notable surprise for them is our use of “Catholic” concepts such as the Invocation, Confession of Sin, Declaration of Pardon, and Catechism readings. We also use Latin words in our liturgy such as the “Sursum Corda” And for sure, the singing of “Gloria Patri” and other doxologies is new to them.
So why do we sing these songs? Let us look at what they mean from Scripture, where they are found, and how they have been used in the Old Testament, New Testament, and in the early church.
The English word doxology was coined in the 17th century via medieval Latin from the Greek words doxa (“glory”) and logos (“word”). So etymologically, it means “word of glory.” A doxology then is simply aÂ psalm or hymn sung, or words recited, in praise of God. Many doxologies are found throughout the Bible, and they were used in synagogue and early Christian worship.
Obviously, the Psalms have the most frequent use of doxologies since they are songs and prayers in worship to express praise and thanksgiving to God. All five books of the Psalter end in a doxology (Ps 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48; 150:1-6). The last doxology is a the whole of Psalm 150, in which “praise” (Hebrew halal) appears 13 times. Verses 1 and 2 says:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
“Praise the Lord” is the translation of the Hebrew hallu yah, from which the popular “Hallelujah” comes (yah is a contraction of Yahweh, which is usually translated as Lord). Other examples of doxological verses in the Psalter are Psalm 28:6; 31:21; 68:19, 35, 36; 96:7-8; 112:1; 113:1.
Doxologies are also found in other books at the end of songs or hymns (1 Chr 16:36), and prayers (1 Sam 25:32). They can take the form, “Blessed be the Lord“ (Gen 24:27; 1 Sam 25:39; 2 Sam 18:28; Psa 28:6), or “Ascribe to the Lord“ (Deut 32:3;Â 1 Chr 16:28, 29; Psa 29:1, 2; 96:7, 8). Unlike modern “praise” choruses, Scriptural doxologies do not keep repeating the praise to God without reason. Biblical doxologies are almost always completed with an enumeration of God’s wondrous and mighty works of creation, as in Psalm 29:1-3:
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation (Psa 68:19).
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psa 103:1-5).
The New Testament expresses doxologies to God in 16 verses (Rom 11:36, 16:27; Gal 1:5; Eph 3:21; Phil 4:20; 1Tim 1:17, 6:16; 2Tim 4:18; Heb 13:21; 1Pet 4:11, 5:11; 2Pet 3:18; Jude 25; Rev 1:6, 5:13, 7:12), eight of them written by Paul.
Paul uses doxologies frequently to praise God, some of them seemingly bursting out of wonder and amazement of God’s grace and mercy for his people through Christ, as in Romans 11:33, 36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
In some of his doxologies, it is not clear whether Paul ascribes them to God or to Christ (Gal 1:3-5; 2 Tim 4:17-18). But the majority is in praise of God, using the formula: “to [God] be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:5; Rom 11:36, 16:27; Phil 4:20; cf Eph 3:20-21; 1 Tim 1:17).
In his most common doxological formula above, Paul’s uses four elements. First, he names the One to Whom glory is given, sometimes to “God” (Rom 16:27; Phil 4:20), once to “the King of the ages” (1 Tim 1:17) and sometimes with the pronouns “him” (Rom 11:36; Eph 3:21; 1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 4:18) or “whom” (Gal 1:5). The second element is the ascription of “glory,” “honor” (1 Tim 1:17, 6:16),” and “dominion” (1 Tim 6:16) to God, not adding glory to God, but affirming that God alone is glorious and is to be glorified. The other New Testament writers sometimes praise God more profusely, with words such as “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” (Jude 25), “blessing and honor and glory and might” (Rev 5:13), and “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might” (Rev 7:12). The third element of Paul’s doxologies is what can be called the “eternity formula,” using “forever,” “forever and ever,” and “eternal.” God and all his attributes are eternal.
In all of his doxologies, Paul adds a last element: a spontaneous response common to a believer who contemplates and is amazed at God’s glorious redemptive plan for his people. The word he uses is “Amen,” which is also used in each of the doxologies that conclude the first four books of the Psalms (Psa 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48). This is a fitting ending to a doxology, a confirmation of and assent to the first three preceding elements. This is also the reason why Reformed worship commonly ends in a song exclaiming “Amen!” once, twice, thrice, or even seven times (Aaronic benediction in Numbers 6:24-26 and Seven-Fold Amen).
The Jews shouted a doxology when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:
Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! (Luke 19:37-38)
There are also some doxologies sung and uttered by heavenly beings, as in the birth of Christ, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:13-14), and in heaven and earth, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev 5:13; cf 19:1).
The two longest and most frequently used doxologies are also used by many pastors as benedictions:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21).
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 24-25).
As early as the second century A.D., the church has used a doxology known as the Gloria in Excelsis, which is an expansion of the angelic doxology in Luke 2:14. The name comes from the first line of the Latin doxology. Except in Catholic and Orthodox churches, this Greater Doxology is mostly unknown to most Christians, even though it is theologically rich in expressing praise to the Triune God:
Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou Who takes away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou Who sits at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.
For Thou only are holy; Thou only are the Lord; Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, are most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
That which we sing every Lord’s Day, the Gloria Patri, being the short version of the “Greater Doxology” is also known as the “Lesser Doxology.” The name is from the first two words in Latin. Because it is much shorter and easier to memorize, it became the more common doxology throughout Christian history. It was used as a coda to the singing of Psalms and canticles, to emphasize the doctrine that all the praises in Scripture are truly attributed not only to God the Father, but to all three Persons of the Triune God. So in Reformed churches, it is sung frequently after the recitation of a creed and the reading of the Scripture.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico, 1423-24 (click to enlarge)
To the Trinitarian praise “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” was later on added the somewhat strange line, “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen! Amen!” This second clause was added in the 4th century to counter the Arian heresy which taught that Christ was not eternal God, but as a created Being, he had a beginning. The Latin in scula sculorum, which literally means “ages of ages,” is usually rendered “forever” in English. However, in the King James Version of Ephesians 3:21, the Greek tou aionos ton aionon, literally “the age of the ages,” is rendered “world without end.”
Thus, with these words, the Gloria Patri affirms the eternality of all three Persons of the Trinity.
The most common doxology sung in churches today, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” was written by Thomas Ken (1637-1711), an Anglican bishop in England. Ken was only 14 years old when he entered Winchester College, and four years later he began studies at Oxford. Later, he returned to Winchester College as the chaplain to the bishop.
In 1674, Ken published A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College. In this prayer manual, he urged his readers to regularly sing the “Morning Hymn” and “Evening Hymn” in their daily devotions. In the 1695 edition of his manual, he added a Midnight Hymn, and the words to these three hymns were published as an appendix. The popular “Doxology” we sing today was the closing stanza of each of these three hymns. In the 1709 edition, he revised Praise him above y Angelick Host to Praise him above, ye heavenly host, and this is the line that we sing today.
Ken’s doxology is most commonly sung to the tune “Old Hundredth”, but is also sung in other turnes such as “Duke Street”, “Lasst Uns Erfreuen”, and “The Eighth Tune” by Thomas Tallis, among others, for variety. This doxology frequently marks the dedication of offerings in praise of the Triune God. It is also commonly sung at the end of the Lord’s Day worship service to praise God for all his blessings given to the people in Word, songs, and prayers.
Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 355-6.
Orr, James, gen. ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 872.
Unger, Merrill, ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 317.
Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 180-1.
Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).