Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Watts’

Some hymns we love because they help us through especially dark times.  O God Our Help In Ages Past is one of those songs for me. Sherrylee and I had a particularly tough stretch years ago, including death of a parent, loss of friends, bitter struggles at church, and more. Every area of our wonderfully blessed life seemed to be in crisis.

When we lived in Oklahoma, I walked to the campus of Oklahoma Christian University to my office almost every morning. It was a quiet ten minutes before the storms of the day. I walked past the houses of other faculty members, across the practice soccer fields, and through the backdoor of the library to the secondary stairs to my office.

Especially in those very painful years, I often prayed as I walked, or just as likely, I sang quietly to myself. One hymn in particular reminds me of those years because I sang all the stanzas over and over again to calm and instruct my soul: O God Our Help In Ages Past .

Most know this hymn by Isaac Watts (1719) to a tune called St. Anne by William Croft. I prefer the simpler melody called St. Leonard. I needed the chant-like melody, fewer notes,  and the quiet ending. That melody carried these words into the brokenness of my spirit in those days.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

God has worked mightily in my life in the past. The mountaintops of my life are His doing, the security of the past is because of Him, so there is no reason to doubt that He is the “hope for years to come.”  In difficult times, we need to be reminded that they have a context, that the darkest days are surrounded on every side by the grace of God.

Beneath the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

I am not the first to face hard times. God’s people have often suffered—sometimes for the very reason they are God’s people, so why should I expect to avoid pain? If I had always avoided pain, then I would have never learned that His arm is not too short to help, not just to help, but to secure our defense!

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

We are not talking about a new God of our own invention.  We are not depending on an untested or unproven God. We are depending on the God who created the universe from everlasting to everlasting—who never changes. We are depending in the hour of our deepest need, not just on a God who is awesome, but on the Almighty, Everlasting God !

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

If I forget, I start trying to get God to work on my schedule. I need relief now, I want it all to stop now. I needed then to be reminded that God has a different clock. My clock is like the plastic toys we give to small children, little toys that seem real to them but don’t give the real time.  It’s an important moment to give up our toys to depend on Him who creates time.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

And I too will be borne away someday. My momentous crisis of today will be nothing at all. Today’s pain that is so real will be a curious diary entry to some great-grandchild that can’t figure out which of the old pictures is of you cause you forgot to write on the back.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Certainly, the eternal context and the temporal perspective spoke to me as I walked in pain to work each morning during those years, but, as I think back on those days, I think it was the “O God” that calmed me the most.  Just singing  “O God”  brought me into the shadow of His throne where I could find help and hope—and an eternal home.

Psalm 90: 1,2,12

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.


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The critics of contemporary Christian music often make the claim that it is too individualistic, that is, individual relationships to God seem to have greater mention than communal, or that more of the songs focus on Me than on Him or They or Us.

You who feel that way will be shocked to learn which hymn—probably one of your favorites—was the first to be caught up in this kind of controversy.

At the turn of the 18th century, most Protestants were still singing the Psalms or the slightly more modern paraphrases of Scripture.  In 1701, Isaac Watts wrote a communion hymn, which he first titled Crucifixion To The World By The Cross of Christ.  We know this hymn today as When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, still used among us as a communion hymn and considered one of the best hymns ever written.  Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would have sacrificed all of his own hymns freely if he could have written this one.

Nevertheless, this hymn stirred up controversy because it is the first known hymn to be written in first person.  To sing from one’s own heart about one’s own feelings and one’s own relationship to the cross and one’s own Savior was much too personal, too individualistic for Christians of that time.

Times and people have not changed much, have they!  But, neither has our amazement when we look on “the wondrous cross.”

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

In our fellowship, this was the moment when the voices quieted, and we paused between each phrase—“His head…His hands….his feet”– to realize the crucifixion moment.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

The following stanza is original, but even Watts suggested it might be omitted, so most of us will find it unfamiliar.

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

With almost sudden volume, this last stanza would burst forth like the resurrection—from our own death and burial to new life, with renewed recognition of what the Cross demands in our—no, in MY life!

It’s very personal, isn’t it!

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