This post is an excerpt adapted from Praise & Honor by Timothy J. Shoup.
The Importance of the Te Deum
Why has this hymn, in Latin called the Te Deum, remained prominent and deeply appreciated by the Christian Church for 1,500 years? Before proceeding to that question, there is an interesting and significant point to be made regarding the opening line. At first passing, we assume We praise You and acknowledge You, O God, to be the Lord means we praise You, Father, to be the Lord. The Father is cited at the start of the second line and is the object of praise in the first two stanzas. However, in the Early Christian Church, other hymns began by acknowledging Jesus as God. Possibly, because the apostles and early Christians gave their lives in martyrdom for confessing “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is God,” the early hymns began with the same confession, which was so costly to many. Further, a good translation of the Latin original Te Deum laudamus is We praise You as God, rather than We praise You, O God. It is likely that the Te Deum’s first line was an introductory confession that Jesus, who is human, is God (Lutheran Service Book, hymn 939). Drawn by the Spirit, we are bold to sing, to confess it is so (1 Corinthians 12:3), even as we are reminded of those in centuries past who confessed the same with their lives and who do so in oppressed nations today.
Two Reasons to Treasure the Te Deum
And now to this introduction’s opening question—perhaps two things are responsible for the awe and appreciation Christians still hold for the Te Deum, the ancient text handed down to us from approximately AD 500. First, the hymn places attention and total focus upon almighty God. What is the difference between “We praise You, God” and “You, God, we praise”? The latter emphasizes You, the one who is being praised, not we, the ones doing the praising. The latter is a literal translation of the Latin Te Deum laudamus: “You, God, we praise,” or, as noted above: “You, we praise as God.” The pronoun te or “You” is the first word in multiple lines in the original Latin. The hymn focuses repeatedly and emphatically upon God the Father in His glorious, eternal majesty in stanzas 1 and 2, and in stanzas 3 and 4, upon the Son for having left the glory of heaven to consume all of our sin in His sacrificial suffering and death. The word order with the pronoun positioned first—You, God, we praise—places emphasis where it belongs and also prepares us for the hymn’s delineation of why it is a blessing to us to praise Him.
Second, the hymn is treasured because it deeply enriches faith. By taking us into the world unseen, where cherubim and seraphim and saints are praising God, and by proclaiming also the reaches of Jesus Christ from glory above to the manger and cross below, the hymn uncovers the infinite expanse that distinguishes human creatures from the almighty Creator. The hymn enriches faith this way:
Stanza 1 enriches faith by
- transporting us to the invisible world of the throne room of God, known to us through the visions of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and John;
- acknowledging the complete host of angels and two types of winged creatures;
- introducing the angel’s Te Deum, their song of praise to God, and signifying the time span throughout which they sing.
Stanza 2 enriches faith by
- marking next to God the living presence of the apostles, prophets, martyrs, and saints who join in the Te Deum.
Stanza 3 enriches faith by
- capturing the striking movement of the everlasting Son of God between the extreme outer boundaries of existence known to us—from the majesty and glory above, from where He departed, to the shame of the cross and tomb of death below—to where He burst forth with triumph in the power of the resurrection for the sake of all believers.
Stanza 4 enriches faith by
- imaging the Lord post ascension, seated at the highest place, at the right hand of God, from where He upholds, uses, and controls all the forces of earth and heaven;
- calling forth the truthful warning that strikes fear in any conscious mortal—that is, the One enthroned before His apostles, prophets, martyrs, saints, and angels is our Judge, and He will judge us all on the final day;
- assuring us that He redeemed us by His blood and will lift us up to be numbered with the saints, where praises never end.
Comments Regarding the Tune
This hymn is a terrific example of the Church borrowing something from the world to use for the Gospel’s proclamation. The melody for this hymn, majestic and powerful, is from the middle of one movement of an English composer’s early-twentieth-century symphony. Our author paired the melody with a translation of the Te Deum, which he wrote in verse form as a hymn. The melody is not overly complex, however, it would be helpful to approach it a phrase at a time or a stanza a week or to listen to the melody several times prior to singing, perhaps as preservice music, during the offering, or as a postlude. Without question, the words of the Te Deum call for a tune that expresses depth, strength, and joy. It has been selected as a confirmation hymn, a wedding processional, and a wedding hymn. At conferences, at our college campuses, and in some of our congregations, it is heard with trumpets, timpani, and additional instruments. We are thankful for the writing of this hymn, the accompanying tune, and its inclusion in Lutheran Service Book. The music for this hymn wonderfully assists in carrying our hearts and eyes of faith to that place where the Te Deum is sung without ceasing.
Excerpt is adapted from Praise & Honor by Timothy J. Shoup, pages 257-263 © 2019 Timothy J. Shoup, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
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