Posted by: rcottrill | January 22, 2014

O God, Our Help in Ages Past

Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: St. Anne, by William Croft (b. Dec. 10, 1648; d. Aug. 14, 1727)

Wordwise Hymns (Isaac Watts, William Croft)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This magnificent hymn was published in 1719. It originally had nine stanzas, of which CH-4, 6, and 8 are now commonly omitted. (CH-7 is too, in some hymnals, but that is a great loss.) Based on Psalm 90:1-5, some consider it Watts’s best paraphrase. His original title for the hymn was “Man Frail and God Eternal.” The tune is named for St. Anne’s Church, in Soho, where Croft was the organist.

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers” (Ps. 90:1-6).

The 90th Psalm is identified as a “prayer of Moses” in the heading. He looked back over the years, even back to the origin of his people in God’s calling of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Down through the years, he saw the Lord’s hand at work, and saw how He had been a Shelter and a Refuge for them. Many Christians today can look back on years of walking with the Lord. (For me, personally, it’s over sixty years now, since I was saved.) And we can celebrate God’s faithfulness through many twists and turns of the way.

CH-1) O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

Almighty God is our “help” in weakness, our “hope,” in times of discouragement and despair, our “shelter” in the dangerous storms of life, and our “eternal home,” now and forever (CH-1). How wonderful! Though almost three hundred years old, the hymn still has a message for today. Little wonder that it has become a standard for military services, or that it was used at the funeral of wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill.

“You have been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall” (Isa. 25:4).

CH-2) presents the Lord as the all-sufficient One, who is a sure defense for His people. And He is these things not simply for now, but forever, because He is, in Himself, a changeless God (CH-3). What He is, in His nature and character, He is infinitely and forever.

CH-2) Under the shadow of Thy throne
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

CH-3) Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

There is a marvelously eloquent contrast made in CH-5 and CH-7, concerning how the eternal God relates to time, and how we do. The Lord inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15; cf. Ps. 90:4). Human beings, on the other hand, are finite creatures of time. As far as their present mortality is concerned, they are swept along, and swept away, by the inexorable currents of time. Because of this our prayer is, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), help us to use well whatever time You give us.

CH-5) A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

CH-7) Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

The hymn ends by reiterating the opening lines, and pleading that the Lord continue to help us all our days, and on into eternity.

CH-9) O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

1) What are the most profoundly encouraging thoughts in this hymn?

2) What is there in God’s “help” in your own past that gives you “hope” for the future?

Wordwise Hymns (Isaac Watts, William Croft)
The Cyber Hymnal


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