The history of the Te Deum is long and complex. To begin, the hymn’s authorship is in question. For a significant time, the Te Deum was attributed to Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose was born in Gallia Belgica: what is now partially part of Germany. He studied in Rome and in 374 became a bishop of Milan, continuing as such until his death in 297. It was said that Ambrose baptized Augustine, and it was for this event that the Te Deum was written. However, some historians now claim that the Te Deum’s author was instead Nicetas. Little is known of Nicetas and what is know is from Paulinus. Nicetas was from Dacia, now parts of Bulgaria and Serbia, where he was bishop of Remesiana. Nicetas was a missionary and scholar of Latin. Among his various writing, he wrote a commentary on the Creeds, which leads credence to the idea that he wrote the Te Deum. Regardless of who was the true author, the hymn is a beautiful, scriptural piece of literature.
The text of the Te Deum has been translated a great number of times and has seemingly been put to an even greater number of musical compositions. From Luther to Purcell, Mozart to Hayden, Handel to Stravinsky, dozens of compositions and translations have arisen since the hymn’s original composition. The hymn even appeared within the Book of Common Prayer as a chant or spoken prayer. In a later version of the text, portions of psalms were added at the end, though these are not typically found in the hymn’s modern settings.
But it was Gustav Holst who composed the tune to which this well-loved hymn is typically sung today. Called Thaxted after his hometown and applied to various other texts, the tune is found in the Jupiter section of Holst’s The Planets composition. The Latin prose translated to English was eventually paraphrased by Rev. Stephen Starke and set to Holst’s Thaxted, which is what is found in today’s Lutheran hymnals. Starke’s paraphrase was also given rhyme and meter, which was not found in the original Latin or English translations.
The Te Deum gives praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a form quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed. Additionally, the hymn expounds upon the praise given from all ages and by all hosts of people and parts of God’s creation, praising God for His majesty, glory, and honor. The Te Deum reminds us also the sacrifice of Christ and the promise of His return, which we eagerly await.
We praise You and acknowledge You, O God, to be the Lord,
The Father everlasting, by all the earth adored.
To You all angel powers cry aloud, the heavens sing,
The cherubim and seraphim their praises to You bring:
“O holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth;
Your majesty and glory fill the heavens and the earth!”
As the title states, this hymn opens with praise to our God. We praise Him because He is our God, our Savior, our foundation, our Father, our Lord who is worthy of all praise (Psa. 18:46-49, 75:1, Isa. 9:6). While it is true that things do not go well for those who do not acknowledge God – neither Israel, nations He uses for His aims, nor us Christians – He is simply due our acknowledgement for all the great things he has done (1 Pet. 3:15, Hos. 8:2, Luk. 12:8, 1 Jhn. 4:3). All of our praise should be to Him for the marvelous things He has done. But what else praises our Lord? We find also that the angles, the earth, and the heavens sings praises to our Lord of all (Psa. 8:1, 19:1-3, 33:8, 47:7, 66:4, Job 38:7, Isa. 44:23). All of creation magnifies the Lord. Together we join in praise and reverence to God (Rev. 4:8-11, 5:11-14, 7:9-17).
The band of the apostles in glory sing Your praise;
The fellowship of prophets their deathless voices raise.
The martyrs of Your kingdom, a great and noble throng,
Sing with the holy Church throughout all the world this song:
“O all-majestic Father, Your true and only Son,
And Holy Spirit, Comforter—forever Three in One!”
The first two lines of this verse continue where the last stanza left off, though in the original prose and chant there would have been no separation. These also are an extended paraphrase from Revelation that speaks on the fall of Babylon and the rejoicing of the prophets and apostles (Rev. 18:20). The verse continues with the martyrs of God and all the people of His Church singing of the awesomeness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Rev. 4:8-11, 5:11-14, 6:9-11, 7:9-17). This ending couplet best emphasizes the Trinitarian nature of this hymn.
You, Christ, are King of glory, the everlasting Son,
Yet You, with boundless love, sought to rescue ev’ryone:
You laid aside Your glory, were born of virgin’s womb,
Were crucified for us and were placed into a tomb;
Then by Your resurrection You won for us reprieve—
You opened heaven’s kingdom to all who would believe.
The influence of Scripture and the Creed is most emphasized in the next two verses, though they would have originally been part of a continuous whole. The verse begins with speaking on who Jesus is: Christ, King, and Son (Psa. 24, Rom. 1:1-5, 1 Cor. 1:9). He is eternal and forever glorified. Yet God, in His infinite wisdom, love, mercy, and grace, sought to save us, making us alive through the sacrifice of His Son (Luk. 19:9-10, Rom. 1:1-5, Gal. 2:20, Eph. 2:4-5, Col. 1:9-14). Thus, Christ came down in body, born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit yet making Himself a man, for our sake (Isa. 7:14, Mat. 1:18-23, Phil. 2:6-7, 1 Tim. 3:16, Heb. 2:14-15). Moreover, He died a suffering and cursed death on a cross that our sins might be paid for and then was buried (Jhn. 2:19-22, Gal. 3:13, Phil. 2:8, 1 Pet. 3:18-20, Heb. 2:10, Rom. 5:18-19). Yet death did not have mastery over Him, and He rose again, redeeming us from our sins and granting us the gift of eternal life that we might live forever with Him in His kingdom (Matt. 28:5-7, Phil. 2:9-11, 1 Pet. 3:21-22, Rom. 5:1-11, 6:5). What a wonderful reminder this verse is for us that we might praise our Lord and Savior again for the marvelous deeds He has done!
You sit in splendid glory, enthroned at God’s right hand,
Upholding earth and heaven by forces You command.
We know that You will come as our Judge that final day,
So help Your servants You have redeemed by blood, we pray;
May we with saints be numbered where praises never end,
In glory everlasting. Amen, O Lord, amen!
Now that He is risen, He sits at the right hand of God, returned to His glory (Eph. 2:6-7, Phil. 2:9-11, Heb. 1:3, 1 Pet. 3:21-22). We remember also that even though Christ is with the Father, all things are still held together by Him and that He has supremacy before all things (Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:3). God has control of all things on heaven and earth; we can trust in Him (Psa. 91:2, Rom. 15:13). We wait until that Day when He returns in glory to judge the earth, to restore all things, and to bring us to His kingdom where we may live with Him for ever (Acts 3:19-21, 2 Pet. 3:8-13, 1 Jhn. 4:16-18). But we ask our Lord that, since we know He will judge us on that final day, He might help us in our walk on this earth until we are joined with Him (1 Thes. 5:1-11, Jas. 1:5, 5:7-16, Pet. 1:13-21). We are weak and daily need His aid and grace. The Te Deum ends as it began with the reminder that we are God’s servants and His redeemed children. Thus, we ask that we might also be among that number who will be praising our God and King for all eternity (Psa. 89:1-8, 2 Pet. 3:11-18, Rev. 7:9-10, 22:20-21).
Blessings to you and yours,