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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: Allmächtiger Gott, by Johann Cruger (b. Apr. 9, 1598; d. Feb. 23, 1662)
Note: Because I created the Almanac in 2010, which was not a Leap Year, there was no February 29th there. I put the material for that date at the bottom of the article for February 28th.
Down through the centuries there have been many who seemed to have a special influence on the course of history, whether for good or ill.
Take a broad look across history, and see how many men and women altered the way we see the world, or act in it, in significant ways. Names such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler, or Marie Curie, Helen Keller, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, all had a lasting influence.
In the Bible, Moses, David, Peter and Paul, along with Eve, Esther, and Mary, come to mind, and there are many others. In Christian history, there is Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Wesley, Dwight Moody, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and many more. Affecting sacred music are people such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Felix Mendelssohn.
As for our hymnody, the saints of God have always been singing. The Israelites sang God’s praises, when they were delivered from the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1), and the saints in heaven will still be singing that song, along with others (Rev. 15:3). In between, we are assured:
“It is good to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High” (Ps. 92:1).
We’re aided in this by those who have written our hymns and gospel songs, John Newton, James Montgomery, Philip Bliss, and more. And three names stand out in the Golden Age of Hymnody (roughly 1700 to 1900), not only for the number of songs they produced (about 16,000), but for the many of their creations still found in our hymn books. They are:
¤ Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
¤ Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
¤ Fanny Crosby (1820-1915).
Let’s give our attention to the first of these, Isaac Watts, for a moment. A true genius, Watts learned Latin and Greek before the age of ten. He was also writing a great deal of poetry during this time. At the age of fourteen, he trusted Christ as his Saviour, and turned his attention to how he might serve the Lord.
Young Isaac grew up in a church that didn’t believe in singing hymns. They only sang poorly versified versions of the Bible’s Psalms. But as a teen, Isaac became quite dissatisfied with this. He spoke about it to his father, who was a deacon in the church. He argued that the Psalms, wonderful as they were, did not cover New Testament truth, particularly about Christ and His cross. Finally, the man agreed that he should try his hand at writing hymns.
Turning his attention to Christ, “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29), his first hymn began by pointing the way forward to what he hoped to do with the gift God had given him:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne:
Prepare new honours for His name,
And songs before unknown.
The congregation was so delighted with the new song, they asked Isaac to write a new one for each Sunday. This he did for the next four years, eventually writing over six hundred, and earning for himself the title of the Father of English Hymnody.
Isaac Watts gave us many hymns, including O God, Our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. But here is one of his lesser known creations, showing he certainly didn’t abandon the Psalms. This one, published in 1719, is a paraphrase of Psalm 18:1-6 and 15-18.
CH-1) Thee will I love, O Lord, my strength,
My rock, my tower, my high defense;
Thy mighty arm shall be my trust,
For I have found salvation thence.
CH-4) In my distress I called my God,
When I could scarce believe Him mine:
He bowed His ear to my complaint,
Then did His grace appear divine.”
CH-5) With speed He flew to my relief,
As on a cherub’s wing He rode;
Awful and bright as lightning shone
The face of my deliverer, God.
CH-7) Great were my fears, my foes were great,
Much was their strength, and more their rage;
But Christ, my Lord, is conqueror still,
In all the wars that devils wage.
1) Why is it that the Psalms, they were written before the cross, remain an important and beloved part of God’s Word?
2) What are your favourite Psalms?