William Kethe was said to have been born in Scotland sometime in the early 1500’s. In the winter of 1554, he joined the Marian exiles (those fleeing from Bloody Mary in the Protestant persecution) to Frankfurt and then three years after to Geneva. Though he began with the larger group of Calvinists, this second move was likely with John Knox. There had been a dispute among the exiles, though later he worked to reconcile both groups.
During his time in Geneva, Kethe worked alongside a team that translated the Geneva Bible in 1560, working mainly on the Psalms. This is how he came to write his hymn “Old Hundredth” or “All people That on Earth Do Dwell.” A year later, it appears he returned to England and in 1563 was made a minister to the English army until 1569. He was also made a rector to a parish in Dorset, England. Kethe appears to have remained in this position until just before his death, which is said to have been in the June of 1594, but it could have been as much as fourteen years later.
Though his life is mostly unknown, Kethe’s musical abilities were not without comment. Kethe was described as one who should have “a high place among to psalter versifiers” because of how well he sculpted lyrics and meter. His verses were called excellent above his contemporaries and not only his hymns and scriptural lyrics, but also his ballads.
Many of his metrical psalms, which were common among the Calvinists, were included in Psalters, such as the English Psalter (1561) and Scottish Psalter (1564) among others. The tune of this hymn, though, was written in 1551 and for a different Psalm despite its name OLD HUNDREDTH. The French composer, Louis Bourgeois, was best known from collecting Calvinist hymns during the mid-1500’s. Even though he was one of the central Calvinist composers, he was imprisoned in 1551 for changing well-known psalm tunes. He was only freed with the help of Calvin himself.
The tune and lyrics were joined together in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (1561). These Psalters were likely among the books brought to the New World in the early 1600’s. The translation that Kethe would have used for his metrical Psalms, which according to Calvin must not add or subtract from God’s Word, likely would have been taken from Luther’s Goostly Psalmes, translated into English by Miles Coverdale.
“Old Hundredth” has been modified and added to over the years. In fact, I learned a modified version of the original lyrics as “Old One Hundredth” years ago but to a different tune. The tune most know it as is the one by Bourgeois and is sung to the Doxology, written by Thomas Ken in 1674. Yet even this hymn was once part of a longer piece called “Awake, My Soul, and With the Sun.” Now the end of this later hymn was joined with the older “All People on Earth Do Dwell,” though the Doxology is just as often sung alone.
This hymn of thanks and praise to the Lord contains so much history of the Reformation and life of the Church. Despite the change that has come though the ages, let us rejoice that we have a God who has made us the sheep of His pasture and who will be steadfast throughout all generations.
All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the LORD with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
come ye before Him and rejoice.
The hymn begins its paraphrase of Psalm 100 with the first two verses (Psa. 100:1-2). This verse answers some questions for us. All people are to praise the Lord, for He alone is worthy of all the praise that mankind could give (Psa. 33:1-9, 96:4, 98:4-9, Rev. 5:12). But we are not to do this begrudgingly, but with cheerfulness, gladness, and thanks. We serve Him in like manner. This verse, like the rest of the hymn and the Psalm from which it comes is not a request but a command. The Lord is to be praised and thanked and worshiped.
Know that the LORD is God indeed;
without our aid He did us make;
we are His flock, He doth us feed,
and for His sheep He doth us take.
Again, the verse opens with a command: Know the Lord is God (Psa. 100:3). This means more than to have the simple information that the Lord is our God. It means to respect His authorship of us, to look upon Him with regard, awe (Psa. 46:10). We are not the creations of our own hands. We were made in the image of God and to serve Him only (Gen. 1:26, Deut. 6:13). We are not our own but are servants and sheep of His flock (Psa. 79:13, Jhn. 10:2-18, 1 Cor. 6:19-20). Even so, He cares for us and calls us His children (1Jhn. 3:1). Thus, our response should be to turn to Him and give thanks for all the marvelous things He has done for mankind (Psa. 95:6-7).
O enter then His gates with praise,
approach with joy His courts unto;
praise, laud, and bless His name always,
for it is seemly so to do.
As the people celebrated that first Palm Sunday as the Messiah entered the gates of Jerusalem, so too should we enter His gates with praise and thanksgiving (Mar. 11:1-11, Psa. 100:4, 134, Zec. 9:9-12). We do this because it is right and the Lord is worthy of all praise and honor. Though this is a command, we praise God in response to the gift of salvation that He has given to us (Psa. 118:19, 95:1-2).
Because the LORD our God is good,
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood
and shall from age to age endure.
This final verse of the Psalm and original hymn is a continuation of the previous one. Though we are commanded to do these things, we do so because our God is good and “His love endures forever” (Psa. 100:5, 107:1). Why would we not want to praise the Lord for such wonderful things? He loves us! Our God is enduring; His Word has stood firm since the beginning (Jhn. 1:1-14). We can trust in Him and in His steadfast love, mercy, and grace (Psa. 33:18-22, 108:1, 2Jhn 1:3). How wonderful it is to trust in the Lord (Mic. 7:18, Heb. 11:1, Phil. 4:5-7)! How wonderful to be part of the flock of God!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise Him, all creatures here below;
praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
Though this verse was not part of the original hymn, it is clear why it was added to the “Hundredth.” What better way to end a hymn about praise to God than with the Doxology? While the beginning of the hymn stated that it was us, the people of the earth, who are to praise the Lord, the Doxology states that all things are to praise the Lord. In fact, the hymn reflects the ending of the Book of Psalms: Let everything with breath praise the Lord (Psa. 148, 150). All people, all creatures, all the heavenly host, everything is to praise our Triune God (Eph. 1:3, Rev. 5:12-13, 19:5). Thus, everything in heaven and on the earth, all creatures of God, turns to their Maker with thanksgiving, honor, and praise as He is due.
Blessings to you and yours,