Text: Jewish Doxology;
paraphrased by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799)
Music: Traditional melody;
arranged by Meyer Lyon (1751-1797)
Tune name: LEONI
The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon (commonly known as Maimonides, 1135?-1204) formulated a list of thirteen essential articles of faith. Some time after his death, probably in the late 14th century, his “creed” was paraphrased in a metrical Hebrew poem, suitable for singing by Jewish congregations and cantors. This hymn is known as the “Yigdal,” from the first Hebrew word in the poem, which means “magnify” or “praise.” (Similarly, Mary’s song is called the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin, which means essentially the same thing.)
Sometime around 1770, Thomas Olivers, a young itinerant Methodist preacher, heard the renowned Jewish cantor Meyer Lyon sing the Yigdal in the Duke’s Place Synagogue in London. He was moved to produce an English paraphrase. “I have rendered it from the Hebrew,” Olivers explained, “giving it, as far as I could, a Christian character, and I have called on Leoni [the cantor Lyon] who has given me a synagogue melody to suit it.”
The text and tune were published as a leaflet, “A Hymn to the God of Abraham,” in 1772. It was later included in John Wesley’s Sacred Harmony (1780), then in a popular American frontier hymnal, The Christian Lyre (1830).
Oliver’s original paraphrase included twelve stanzas; most modern hymnals include fewer than half of these.
Olivers’s Christianizing of the Yigdal is most evident in stanza 11 below, with its references to the wounds in the hands of Christ, the “slaughtered Lamb.” There are also Trinitarian references throughout the text, including the use of the name “the great Three-One” for God.
Here are all twelve of the original stanzas:
1. The God of Abr’ham praise, Who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, and God of Love;
Jehovah, great I AM! by earth and Heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred Name forever blessed.
2. The God of Abr’ham praise, at Whose supreme command
From earth I rise and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and pow’r;
And Him my only Portion make, my Shield and Tow’r.
3. The God of Abr’ham praise, Whose all sufficient grace
Shall guide me all my happy days, in all my ways.
He calls a worm His friend, He calls Himself my God!
And He shall save me to the end, thro’ Jesus’ blood.
4. He by Himself has sworn; I on His oath depend,
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to Heav’n ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His pow’r adore,
And sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.
5. Tho’ nature’s strength decay, and earth and hell withstand,
To Canaan’s bounds I urge my way, at His command.
The wat’ry deep I pass, with Jesus in my view;
And thro’ the howling wilderness my way pursue.
6. The goodly land I see, with peace and plenty bless’d;
A land of sacred liberty, and endless rest.
There milk and honey flow, and oil and wine abound,
And trees of life forever grow with mercy crowned.
7. There dwells the Lord our King, the Lord our righteousness,
Triumphant o’er the world and sin, the Prince of peace;
On Sion’s sacred height His kingdom still maintains,
And glorious with His saints in light forever reigns.
8. He keeps His own secure, He guards them by His side,
Arrays in garments, white and pure, His spotless bride:
With streams of sacred bliss, with groves of living joys —
With all the fruits of Paradise, He still supplies.
9. Before the great Three-One they all exulting stand;
And tell the wonders He hath done, through all their land:
The list’ning spheres attend, and swell the growing fame;
And sing, in songs which never end, the wondrous Name.
10. The God Who reigns on high the great archangels sing,
And “Holy, holy, holy!” cry, “Almighty King!
Who was, and is, the same, and evermore shall be:
Jehovah — Father -— great I AM, we worship Thee!”
11. Before the Savior’s face the ransomed nations bow;
O’erwhelmed at His almighty grace, forever new:
He shows His prints of love -—they kindle to a flame!
And sound thro’ all the worlds above the slaughtered Lamb.
12. The whole triumphant host give thanks to God on high;
“Hail, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” they ever cry.
Hail, Abraham’s God, and mine! (I join the heav’nly lays,)
All might and majesty are Thine, and endless praise.
Our Hymnal includes two possible tunes for this hymn. The second — COVENANT — was composed in 1889 for use with this hymn by the famed choirmaster, organist, and composer John Stainer (1840-1901). It is not sung frequently today, perhaps because it lacks the gravity and grandeur of the tune originally tied to this text. Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of COVENANT on piano.
The generally preferred tune is LEONI, named after the cantor — Meyer Lyon — who generously transcribed it for Thomas Olivers. It is one of seven tunes traditionally used in singing the Yigdal in evening services in synagogues. It is sometimes known as JUDEA or JERUSALEM, and is probably not much older than the 17th century.
Here are students from Hebrew Union College singing the Hebrew text of the Yigdal as Thomas Olivers may have heard it in the Duke’s Place Synagogue in London (although not sung by a young woman).
Our Hymnal includes a slight melodic nuance at the end of the third line of this tune. When the last syllable of that line is sung, the melody doesn’t go down to the final note right away. It remains suspended on the previous note (an F) before stepping down to the final note in the line (an E-natural). This hesitation is called a suspension, a common device to create a moment of harmonic tension. Not all hymnals include this suspension in their notation of LEONI.
In the singing of this hymn in the performance below, you’ll hear that the choir holds that suspended note twice as long as our Hymnal dictates, which makes the suspension even more dramatic. The musicians here are the choir and organist from St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano. Note that his performance is from a different hymnal, which does not include the melodic suspension on the third line.