Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hymns of the Faith

Our God, Our Help in Ages Past

This is one of my very favorite hymns. You can read the transcript of the Hymns of the Faith radio program here. You can listen to the program here.

Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, is a paraphrase of Psalm 90 by Isaac Watts, published in 1719, and is one of the best-known and most widely sung hymns in our Hymnal. This hymn, which almost has the status of a national anthem in Britain, reminds us of God’s eternity and providence. Despite our finitude and the seemingly ephemeral nature of human existence, believers face the future with a godly and certain confidence because our God reigns and rules and protects his people. Watts titled it “Man Frail, and God Eternal.”

Bailey (the Methodist Hymnologist) had a high estimation of the quality of this text: “By universal consent this hymn is one of the grandest in the whole realm of English Hymnody. It is found in practically every hymnal. No other embraces in such moving language the whole scope of history, faith in a God who realizes His purposes through history, and the solidarity of a nation which in times of crisis places its hope in the Eternal.” William Croft’s majestic tune for this hymn text “St. Anne” is named after the church (St. Anne, Soho, London) he served as organist.

The Calvin Hymnary Project (a site you really need to bookmark!) says: "Considered one of the finest paraphrases written by Isaac Watts, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" expresses a strong note of assurance, promise, and hope in the LORD as recorded in the first part of Psalm 90, even though the entire psalm has a recurring theme of lament. Watts wrote the paraphrase in nine stanzas around 1714 and first published the text in his Psalms of David (1719)." The Dutch Reformed Psalter Hymnal indicates that the original first line, "Our God, our help … ," was changed to "O God, our help… “by John Wesley in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns. (1738)." Which is why many of us will remember having sung this song that way before.

Here's the hymn text as it is found in the Trinity Hymnal:

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

This is a straightforward, but beatiful, poetic paraphrase of Psalm 90:1 "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." God is our help, hope, shelter and home. This is Watts' way of bringing home to our hearts the truth that God is our "dwelling place."

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

This stanza does not correspond directly to any particular verse in Psalm 90, but it does express vividly the idea of the believer's security under the providence of God, conveyed throughout the Psalm.

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

This stanza is a sturdy rendering of Psalm 90:2 "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."

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

Watts captures the sense of Psalm 90:4 "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night" in this stanza.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

This stanza is often unjustly skipped in even the best of hymnals. The Trinity keeps it, and lets you see how Watts conveyed the meaning of Psalm 90:10 "The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away."

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

This stanza picks up on Psalm 90:10, again, and also sets the stage for the believer to pay heed to the truth of Psalm 90:12 "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

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

Watts ends where he began, paraphrasing Psalm 90:1 "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." There is only one change from the first stanza. The final two lines are turned into a petition. So, instead of affirming that God is "our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home" we pray for him to "be our guard while troubles last and our eternal home."

1 comment:

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