Yesterday in church, we sang Emily Elliott’s hymn “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” This is a fairly common 19th-century hymn (see the graph at hymnary.org). I’m still puzzling out just what Elliott meant by having believers sing “Come to my heart, Lord Jesus,” but will reserve that for another post!
At the moment, I simply want to report that when I sang in the second stanza the following words:
Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming thy royal degree….
I was certain that I must be looking at a typographical error. If you had asked me to quote that portion by memory, I would certainly have said “royal decree” not “royal degree“. So, today, I looked up the hymn on hymnary.org to ascertain the correct text. Surprise! That well-run website has “degree.” Well, everyone is wrong occasionally. So I began working through the various hymnal pagescans of that song which hymnary.org helpfully provides. And to my amazement nearly every one — but not all! — has “degree”. However, some printed hymnals do have “decree,” and many online transcriptions of the text do as well. Which is it, “degree” or “decree”?
I dug around and found on archive.org the original volume of poetry in which Elliott’s poem was first published, Chimes of Consecration and their Echoes (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1875). The hymntext appears on pp. 24-25 under the title “That the King of Glory may come in” and — sure enough — the text reads “Proclaiming Thy Royal degree”!
We can easily see whence the confusion comes. One typically doesn’t proclaim a degree, one proclaims a decree. And decrees are made by governments or kings or the like, so over time, “proclaiming thy royal degree” could very understandably, due to the very immediate context of that line, become “proclaiming thy royal decree.” But the idea is not that the angels are proclaiming something that Jesus has decreed; they are proclaiming something else. Merriam-Webster’s helps us here with its definition of “degree”:
a: a rank or grade of official, ecclesiastical, or social position <people of low degree>
b: archaic : a particular standing especially as to dignity or worth
The angels’ proclamation indicated that in spite of his humble appearance and circumstances, Jesus was indeed royalty. They proclaimed his “royal degree.” This baby was “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).