Hymn of the week: O God, our help in ages past

Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90 is closely associated with Remembrance Sunday and will be sung at thousands of parades and church services this weekend. The hymn was first published in Watts’s Psalms of David (1719) under the title ‘Man frail, and God eternal’ and originally consisted of nine verses, though it is today usually reduced to six or seven. John Wesley made a number of changes when he included the hymn in Psalms and Hymns (1738), including altering the first line from Watts’s ‘Our God, our help in ages past’.

Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (1907) comments

Of Watts’s original it would be difficult to write too highly. It is undoubtedly one of his finest compostions, and his best paraphrase. In the commonly accepted form of six stanzas it is seen to the fullest advantage, the omitted portions being unequal to the rest, and impede the otherwise grandly sustained flow of thought. It has been rendered into many languages, and its use is universal.

And Companion to Hymns and Psalms (1988) states

Its great strength comes from the magnificent accommodation of the sense to the lines: the rhythm varies but never falters, and the imagery is simple but striking. Everything conspires to make the hymn a majestic statement of the grandeur and permanence of God compared with the transcience and frailty of mankind.

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

Under the shadow of thy throne,
thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their cares and fears,
are carried downward by the flood,
and lost in following years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) based on Psalm 90:1-5


About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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