Words of Glory: The Meaning & History of the Doxology

Image of a woman worshipping with her hands up and picture of an open Bible next to her.

A “doxology,” etymologically speaking, is “a word of glory.”1 It is an eruptive statement of praise to the God who is worthy of all glory-words, and more.

Doxologies in the Bible

Doxologies are as old as Scripture. They punctuate each of the five books of the Psalms, as summative gatherings of the praises of the people (Pss 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48; 150:1–6). They appear at key moments in the salvation history of Israel, such as in David’s public prayer as the kingdom is passed to Solomon (1 Chr 29:10–13)—words which eventually find a more permanent home in the doxological ending of the Lord’s Prayer:

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.2

Likewise in the New Testament, doxologies herald those key moments in the most climactic of events in salvation history—the parousia of Jesus Christ. The angels sing a doxology at his birth (Luke 2:14). King Jesus has doxologies sung to him on the first Palm Sunday, during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38). And as the apostle Paul explores the theological implications of the Christ-event, he cannot help but burst out in praise throughout his epistles (Rom 11:33–36; 16:27; Eph 3:21; 1 Tim 1:17). The canonical Scriptures close in a symphony of praise (Jude 24–25; Rev 5:13; 19:1), revealing that heaven itself is a place of ceaseless doxology.

Doxologies in Christian worship

It would be very natural, therefore, and in keeping with the patterns both of the Bible and of heavenly worship, that the Christian worship tradition would develop doxologies for its worship, both in the weekly gathering and the daily prayers of the people of God. Three doxologies in particular have emerged from various streams of the church to take prominent and permanent places in global Christian worship.

Gloria Patri

The Gloria Patri, sometimes called “the lesser doxology,” appears in Christian liturgies as early as the fourth century. It is spoken or sung especially around the public reading of Scripture, and it used both as a form of Trinitarian confession and as an affirmation of the continuity of revelation between the Old and New Testaments:

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Gloria in Excelsis

The Gloria in Excelsis, sometimes called “the greater doxology,” has come to us from the Greek churches of the Eastern tradition. A hymn in use since the fourth century, this doxology eventually found prominent place in the eucharistic liturgies of both the East and West:3

Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men.

We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly king, God the Father almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesu Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The Doxology

Common to many who worship in the heritage of Western, English-speaking Christianity is the third word of praise we most commonly call “The Doxology,” which consists of four lines of praise:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The text is ascribed to Thomas Ken (1637–1711), a bishop in the Church of England who, in his early days as pastor, displayed a passion for worship, writing both a Manual of Prayers and eventual accompanying morning and evening hymns for boys in his town of Winchester.5 The music traditionally associated with this Doxology is called “Old Hundredth,” after the number of the Psalm in the Genevan Psalter from which the tune originated. This Doxology found its place in many streams of Christian worship, often now connected as a response to offertories, or the giving of tithes and offerings, in many Western and English-speaking traditions.

Students, Meet Your Smartest Tool for Seminary

The rich meaning of the Doxology

Paying careful attention to the four lines of the Doxology, we recognize that three of the four lines are a call to worship, with only the last line being a doxology proper, words of praise to God.

The call to worship

The first three lines of the Doxology mirror Psalm 150 in their breadth and scope: they summon the entire created order to offer praise to the Lord. The Doxology gathers up the worship of heaven and earth, giving each worshiper a sense that corporate worship is always more than meets the eye or ear. While any one local church might gather in a cathedral, a meeting house, a living room, or even a catacomb, the confession of every worshiping believer present is that their gathering includes all other gatherings together—as “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” as the Nicene Creed says. Even more, these lines of the Doxology recognize that when we worship, we are gathering with the saints who have gone before us, the “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12—along with the multitudes from every tribe, tongue, and nation, who stand in white-robed glory around the throne of God, ceaselessly worshiping in unfettered praise (Rev 7:9–10).

The Doxology is a set of smelling salts for the sleepy earthly worshiper, the believer who is always tempted to think less of worship than what it really is. It is, in fact, a significant theological truth about corporate worship that when we gather to “begin” worship, we are actually stepping into an already moving stream of worship somewhere at its midpoint. Every call to worship is not a call to begin worship but to continue it—to continue a worship being offered by the entire created order.

“From whom all blessings flow”

Perhaps the most important theological truth in all the Scriptures is nestled in the opening line of the Doxology. Contained in this call to worship is the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. If all blessings come from God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son, then anything we do in worship is ever and always responsive to a prior divine act. The gospel is the good news that we have been given what we could never earn, and that we have been given this freely through the life and death of Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8). The righteousness of God is revealed in Christ, who is given to us out of God’s rich love apart from any works of ours (Rom 3:21–26).

Christ is the chief, central blessing that God has bestowed upon us and upon the whole world, from whom as a result “every spiritual blessing” flows (Eph 1:3 NIV). When we “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,” we are in fact praising God for and in response to Jesus Christ and all his benefits. We are giving a heartfelt “yes and amen” to that great rhetorical question of Paul’s, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7 NIV). Here we learn, theologically, that all human worship is a response to the initiation and revelation of God through Jesus.6

“All creatures here below”

Some traditions can overemphasize the vertical—God-to-human, human-to-God—dimensions of corporate worship to the exclusion of the horizontal, the human-to-human. The Doxology provides a wonderful remedy to this anemia by forcing us out of an individualistic framework and into a communal space. We are pressed to look around and engage in the necessary and edifying work of ministry to one another as an act of corporate worship.

Paul encourages the Colossian church and us:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col 3:16 NIV)

And to the church at Ephesus, the apostle writes,

Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord. (Eph 5:18–19 NIV)

We learn that the horizontal dimension to worship, particularly through music, is a vital component of Christian worship. As we sing, pray, praise, preach, and receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we do so not only to glorify God and to hear from him, but also to build up, encourage, and strengthen our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But “praise him, all creatures here below” is even more expansive than the universal church. It summons all creation—plants, animals, and perhaps even the stones of the ground (cf. Luke 19:40)—to join in praise. We are here given a cosmic, eschatological perspective: just as all creation was made by the Word of God, so one day it will all be remade by that same Word (Gen 1–2; John 1:1–18; 2 Cor 5:17), restored to worship completely, unencumbered by the effects of the fall.

“Above, ye heavenly host.”

As mentioned, we are in Christian worship summoning not only our fellow earthly sojourners to praise God; we are bending our voices to heaven—we are commanding the angels, and all the company of heaven listed in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, to join our voices in praise.

We probably run over such a line too quickly. In our naturalistic age, we have lost a vital sense of the truth that the supernatural realm is just as real as the things we grasp with our five senses. Angels, demons, heaven, and hell are realities as sure and certain as the chairs we are sitting in. It may be that this line of the Doxology is currently the most counter-cultural moment in this compact song of praise. Through it we remember the rich truths of Scripture, including this important admonition from the apostle Paul:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12 NIV)

Not only is the heavenly realm of angels, saints, and other beings real, but the Doxology reminds us that there are meaningful points of interaction between us, the “church militant” here on earth, and all who dwell in the heavenly places. Here we faithfully mirror the language of Psalm 150:1 (NIV): “Praise him in his mighty heavens.” Gathered worship is not only a place where heaven talks to us. We talk back to heaven.

“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

This essential end takes us back to the beginning. The Christian confession is the mystery that we worship one God, eternally existing in three Persons. To name and praise him as such sets him apart as the one true God over against all others. Until this moment in the Doxology, perhaps this worship song could be sung by nearly any worshiper in any tradition. But now, with our triune confession, we proclaim the exclusive glory of our One God, who reveals himself in the Son, Jesus Christ, only by the power of the Holy Spirit.7

Related articles

Search Your Print Library from Your Digital Device

  1. Δόξα (doxa), “glory” or “praise,” plus λόγος (logos), “word.”
  2. As most Bible translations note, however, this phrase of the Lord’s Prayer in Matt 6:13 is not found in the earliest manuscripts.
  3. Robert E. Webber, ed., The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, vol 1: The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 292–93.
  4. This translation, originally published by sixteenth-century Reformer Thomas Cranmer, is taken from Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, intl. ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 265–66. It is noteworthy that, in an original move, Cranmer shifted the placement of the Gloria in Excelsis in the eucharistic liturgy from the beginning of the service to the end. For an explanation of the importance of this for the sake of the clarity of the gospel, see Zac Hicks, Worship by Faith Alone: Thomas Cranmer, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Reformation of Liturgy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 105, 166n99.
  5. Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 36.
  6. Martin Luther would call this orientation of the Christian to God the vita passiva, perhaps best translated as “the receptive life.” On this see especially the treatment of Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 21–27.
  7. Two excellent treatments on Trinitarian worship and its implications include James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 13–68; and Robin A. Parry, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).
Written by
Zac Hicks

Zac Hicks (DMin, Knox Theological Seminary) is pastor of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL. He is author of 'The Worship Pastor' (Zondervan, 2016), 'Worship By Faith Alone (IVP, 2023), and Before We Gather (Zondervan, 2023). Pastoring and leading worship for over twenty years all over the US, Zac is also a songwriter and producer, with music streaming everywhere. Zac has been married to his wife, Abby, for over twenty years, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Zac Hicks