Growing up I think that every hymnal I ever picked up had the song Holy, Holy, Holy as hymn #1. Those who arranged the hymns understood that the exaltation of God and his character is the key component of worship.
For the same reason, the first post in the Learning from the Lyrics series begins with part of the second verse of this great hymn.
Holy, Holy, Holy! all the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
First, a little background. Reginald Heber is the writer of the hymn. He was an Anglican who served as a priest in England before becoming the Bishop of Calcutta in India. Heber penned the hymn in the early part of the 19th century to be used on Trinity Sunday of the Christian calendar. This is the first Sunday after Pentecost commemorating the triune God.
The inspiration for the hymn is the heavenly scene recorded in Revelation 4:1-11. In that scene a song is sung that declares God to be “holy, holy, holy.”
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
–Revelation 4:1-11 (emphasis added)
The heavenly scene begins with 24 elders seated around the throne with golden crowns on their head. As the scene unfolds, all focus and honor is given to the one seated on the throne. The Lord is declared by angelic beings to be the thrice holy God. The 24 elders respond by removing the crowns from their heads and casting them at the feet of the deserving one on the throne.
Crowns, whether diadems of royalty or intertwined branches of victorious athletes, are symbols of worth. The 24 elders realize that their worth pales in comparison to the worth of the one who is to receive glory and honor and power. So they place the crowns where they belong – at the feet of the Lord.
When we sing this hymn with all of our heart, we are declaring that the Lord is the holy one and He alone deserves the declaration of worth. We take whatever good we have and cast it at his feet.