Posted by: rcottrill | September 21, 2011

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

Words: William Cowper (b. Nov. 15, 1731; d. Apr. 25, 1800)
Music: Belmont, by William Gardiner (b. Mar. 15, 1770; d. Nov. 16, 1853)


Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: William Cowper’s last name is pronounced Cooper. As to the tune used with this hymn, a number of different ones have been assigned to it. I prefer Belmont, but Dundee, from the Scottish Psalter of 1615, is likely more common.

Though there are a number of hymns that infer the subject of divine providence, few poets have tackled the trick of including this three-syllable word where it fits both the metre and the sense. Another who did is Robert Robinson, in his 1774 hymn, Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee. Stanza CH-2 says:

For the grandeur of Thy nature,
Grand beyond a seraph’s thought;
For the wonders of creation,
Works with skill and kindness wrought.
For Thy providence, that governs,
Through Thine empire’s wide domain,
Wings an angel, guides a sparrow,
Blessèd be Thy gentle reign.

Even so, Cowper’s hymn is considered the best on the subject. In CH-4 he invites us to consider “a frowning providence,” assuring us that behind it is the smiling face of God. All that a sovereign God does, even when His hand is hidden from human sight, works together to accomplish His purpose. Our hymn begins:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

The English word “providence” combines two Latin words (pro video, meaning before seeing). It refers to God’s ability to see before what our needs will be, and provide for them. Like the word Trinity, the word providence doesn’t appear in our Bibles. (It is found once in the KJV (Acts 24:2), referring to the foresight of a human being. Never with reference to God.) But like the concept of the Trinity, the providence of God is found in many places.

Read through the exciting book of Esther, and you will see how the Lord worked providentially through a beauty contest, an overheard conversation, and a king’s insomnia, to deliver the nation of Israel from mortal danger. And God’s providence is the principle behind the familiar words of Romans 8:28.

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NIV).

CH-4) Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

CH-6) Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Perhaps we will see, in this life, how seemingly random or disconnected events have been woven together by the hand of God to accomplish something wonderful. But more likely it will be in heaven’s more complete knowledge and understanding that we’ll discover these things. In the meantime, we can rely upon the Lord to fulfil the promise of the Romans text.

1) What happens when we try to “judge…the Lord by feeble sense”?

2) Why does God so often hide what He’s doing from us?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. After a recent spell in hospital, I found the words of this hymn to be so apt in my situation. It is good to know that… “behind a frowning providence… He hides a smiling face!” Thank you for the post.

    • Thanks for sharing. It is a wonderful phrase–“a frowning providence.” Sometimes the blessings of God look like anything but! I’m currently preaching a series on the life of Joseph, and that certainly fits him. Kidnapped by his jealous brothers and sold as a slave, falsely accused by a wicked woman and cast into prison. Yet God was at work in an amazing way, through it all.


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