16 October 2019

We Praise Thee, O God: a literary analysis of the Te Deum

A few weeks ago I began volunteering at a local food bank. In between conversing with clients and manning a literature table for the chaplain, I discovered there is time for other things. As I had neglected to bring anything to read, I decided to undertake a literary analysis of the ancient Te Deum, a 4th-century Latin hymn traditionally sung on great occasions of thanksgiving. As I typically pray this during my daily prayer regimen, I mostly know it by heart. Variously ascribed to Sts. Ambrose and Augustine and to Nicetas of Remesiana, its authorship is otherwise unknown.

Now I freely admit that, as an academic political scientist, I am by no means an expert in literary analysis beyond the basics. However, I have noticed a few things about the Te Deum that I thought worth passing along.


To begin with, in its original form it appears to be divided into two sections with these crucial lines marking a transition between the two:

Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ; thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

Here is the first part of the hymn, including these lines:

We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father everlasting.
To Thee all Angels cry aloud: the Heavens and all the powers therein.
To Thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy Glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise Thee.
The godly fellowship of the Prophets praise Thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise Thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee;
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine adorable, true, and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost: the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
The first part of the prayer is a trinitarian confession of faith following a chiastic structure. According to the wikipedia article on the subject, “An example of chiastic structure would be two ideas, A and B, together with variants A’ and B’, being presented as A,B,B’,A’.” An example from the Genesis flood narrative is illustrated in the article.

If we look at the section of the Te Deum above, we can see what might be called a trinitarian chiasm in so far as it touches on the Father, moves on to the Son, and then to the Holy Ghost before reversing itself and moving back to the Son and the Father, in that order. That the second mention of Son and Father occurs in the two transitional lines appears to make them an integral part of the first section of the hymn.

But these lines also belong to the second part, as seen below:

Thou art the King of Glory O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man,
thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee,
help thy servants whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints in glory everlasting.

Here we can see the biblical redemptive story laid out before us, taking us through six stages: INCARNATION, DEATH/RESURRECTION, ASCENSION, JUDGEMENT, REDEMPTION and GLORY, tacitly assuming the earlier episodes of creation and fall into sin. If there is a chiastic structure to this section, it may lie in Jesus Christ being proclaimed at the outset as King of Glory, followed by a middle part in which he is humbled to the point of death, capped by his triumph and bringing his own people to the glory which is his by right. In this the Te Deum follows the pattern of the well-known Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11, my own metrical version of which is found in several published hymnals.

A third section of the Te Deum appears to be a later addition, and I myself have never committed it to memory.

O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage.
Govern them and lift them up for ever.
Day by day we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.

These lines appear to lack an overarching structure, being used instead as a series of prayers mostly paraphrasing the Psalms.

Although the Te Deum is used especially in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran worship, it is not as well known amongst Reformed and so-called free churches, except perhaps in the partial metrical version, Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. It is traditionally prayed during the daily Liturgy of the Hours and in the Book of Common Prayer is assigned to Morning Prayer. Many composers have set it to music over the centuries. (Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Te Deum does not include the appended prayers at the end.) It deserves to be better known and more widely used in our Reformed churches, whether in prose or metrical forms. We should all incorporate it into our prayers and see what impact it might have on our relationship with the Lord and on the way we live our life coram Deo, before the face of God.

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