Blessed city, heav’nly Salem

Hymn #383
Text: Latin hymn, c. 7th century,
translated by John Mason Neale (1818–1866)
Music: Sarum rite plainsong
Tune name: URBS BEATA

In Revelation 21, St. John writes that he saw “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Later in the chapter, an angel approaches him and says: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” Having been carried away “in the Spirit” to a high mountain, the seer again witnesses “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” The City is a Bride; the Bride is a City. The Church, both Bride and City, has qualities that are both urban (architectural) and nuptial (organic and fruitful).

Commentator M. Eugene Boring writes: “A city is the realization of human community, the concrete living out of interdependence as the essential nature of human life. In the individualistic ideal, each person is independent, self-reliant, doing everything for himself or herself. In a city the tasks of life are divided up, each one does a part, and the beauty of life is not a solo but a symphony. As community, a city is not streets and buildings but people. Beneath John’s imagery of pillars, gates, walls, and foundations is his conviction that God’s final dwelling place is in and with his people.”

The imagery in this vision of the Church as the new, holy, heavenly Jerusalem — new, holy, and heavenly even while here on Earth — has inspired numerous hymns. The present hymn weaves in additional architectural details from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

[Y]ou are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (2:19–22, ESV)

The second chapter of the first letter of St. Peter similarly instructs us that believers are “like living stones . . . being built up as a spiritual house.”

Translated by the prolific servant of the Church, John Mason Neale, “Blessed city, heav’nly Salem” presents the first four stanzas of an eight-stanza hymn that may date back to the sixth century. The last four stanzas are presented in a hymn that is much more familiar to congregations, “Christ is made the sure foundation” (#384).

1. Blessèd city, heavenly Salem,
vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded
in the height of heaven above,
and with angel hosts encircled,
as a bride dost earthward move;

2. From celestial realms descending,
bridal glory round thee shed,
meet for him whose love espoused thee,
to thy Lord shalt thou be led;
all thy streets and all thy bulwarks
of pure gold are fashioned.

3. Bright thy gates of pearl are shining,
they are open evermore;
and by virtue of his merits
thither faithful souls do soar,
who for Christ’s dear name in this world
pain and tribulation bore.

4. Many a blow and biting sculpture
polished well those stones elect,
in their places now compacted
by the heavenly Architect,
who therewith hath willed for ever
that his palace should be decked.

5. Laud and honor to the Father,
laud and honor to the Son,
laud and honor to the Spirit,
ever Three, and ever One,
consubstantial, co-eternal,
while unending ages run. Amen.


This hymn is sung to several different tunes, including WESTMINSTER ABBEY (#780, to which we sometimes sing “Christ is made the sure foundation”) and REGENT SQUARE (which also is used for “Christ is made the sure foundation” as well as for “Angels from the realms of glory”). URBS BEATA is a plainchant melody from the English-based Sarum Rite.

The tune is presented below — with some original harmonization — by organist Michiko Miyajima.