“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”

"Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations" (Ps. 90.1)

     INTRO.: One of the great hymns of the ages based on Ps. 90 is "O God, Our Help In Ages Past" (#20 in Hymns for Worship Revised). The text is one of five metrical versions of the psalm written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Originally beginning "Our God, our help," covering verses 1-5, and in nine stanzas, it was produced perhaps as early as 1714 and first published in 1719 in his work The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Watts himself marked stanzas 6-8 as suitable for omission, and most books today contain no more than six stanzas. Several minor alterations were made, mostly for poetical reasons, by John Benjamin Wesley (1703-1791). These include from "Our God" to "O God" in the first stanza, from "Under the shadow" to "Beneath the shadow" in stanza two, and from "While troubles last" to "While life shall last" in the last stanza, and are found in Wesley’s Psalms and Hymns of 1738.

     The tune (St. Anne) most commonly used is usually attributed to William Croft, who was born at Nether Eatington (now Ettington) in Warwickshire, England, and "baptized" on Dec. 30, 1678. After serving as a chorister under John Blow at St. James’ Chapel Royal, in 1700 he became organist at St. Anne’s in Soho, where he remained for eleven years. In 1704 he and Jeremiah Clark were appointed joint organists at the Chapel Royal. Then in 1707, when Clark died, he became sole organist and in 1708 succeeded John Blow as organist at Westminster Abbey and composer to the Chapel Royal, a position which he occupied for the rest of his life.  Later, in 1713, he received his doctorate of music from Oxford University and in 1725 was one of the founders of the Academy of Vocal Musick. His published works include Musicus Apparatus in 1713 and Musica Sacra in 1724 which was the first edition of English church music in full score, as well as instrumental music for cembalo and recorder.

     In his early life, Croft composed theater and other secular music but in later years devoted himself entirely to church music. Of particular interest are his psalm tunes which are some of the earliest examples of the English psalm tune as distinguished from the French/Genevan psalm tunes. This one first appeared anonymously as a setting for Ps. 62 ("As Pants The Heart") in the Supplement to the New Version of the Psalms, sixth edition, published at London in 1708 by Tate and Brady. In 1715 the seventh edition of Abraham Barber’s Book of Psalm Tunes titled the tune "Leeds" and attributed it to Mr. Denby. But in Philip Hart’s 1720 London Collection of psalm melodies, Croft is ascribed as the composer, and it is now believed that Denby merely prepared a new arrangement. Croft died at Bath, England, on Aug. 14, 1727, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. The modern harmonization of the tune was made by William Henry Monk (1823-1889). It was done for the 1861 Hymns Ancient and Modern which was the first hymnbook to combine Watts’s words with Croft’s music.

     This has been called one of the greatest hymns in the English language, and has been included in almost every hymnbook printed. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use churches of Christ, it appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) but with a tune (Harvey’s Chant) by William Batchelder Bradbury, and in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 with "St. Anne" as an alternate tune, both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater with the "St. Anne" tune; and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 edited by L. O. Sanderson, where it is set to a tune by L. K. Harding and the words had to be arranged, probably by Sanderson, to fit the tune. Today, it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise, all edited by Alton H. Howard and with the "Harvey’s Chant;" the 1977 Special Sacred Selections edited by Ellis J. Crum; the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; and the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann, all with the "St. Anne" tune; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand, which has both; in addition to Hymns for Worship and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.

     This hymn praises God for His goodness and guidance.

I. Stanza 1 emphasizes God’s power
"O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home."
 A. God has used His power to help His people throughout the past: Ps. 33.20
 B. Also, He will use His power to give His people hope for the future: Ps. 146.5
 C. Thus, His people can look to His power to provide shelter from the stormy blast: Ps. 61.3

II. Stanza 2 emphasizes God’s protection
"Under/Beneath the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defense is sure."
 A. The place of God’s protection is under His throne: Ps. 47.8
 B. There, the saints can dwell secure: Ps. 4.8 (some books have "Still may we dwell secure" which sounds as if it was intended as "updated" language)
 C. The means of God’s protection is His strong arm: Ps. 44.3

III. Stanza 3 emphasizes God’s perfection
"Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her fame,
From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same."
 A. It was God who established the hills and mountains: Ps. 65.5-6
 B. It was God from whom the earth received her frame: Ps. 33.8-9
 C. This God is perfect because He is an everlasting God: Ps. 93.2

IV. Stanza 4 (Watts’s no. 5) emphasizes God’s eternal life
"A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun."
 A. Years and ages are nothing to God: Ps. 102.24-27
 B. Even a thousand ages are as the coming of evening would be to man: Ps. 104.23
 C. They would be short as the watches of the night, usually about 3-4 hours: Ps. 63.6

V. Stanza 5 (Watt’s no. 7) emphasizes man’s mortality in contrast to God’s nature
"Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the opening day."
 A. We are creatures bound by time and the antithesis of God’s never-ending life is that time for us is short Ps. 89.47
 B. Therefore, time bears all its sons away in death: Ps. 89.48 (Some modern denominational hymnbooks alter hymns to eliminate what the editors call "gender exclusive" language, and have changed "Bears all its sons away" to "Soon bears us all away" or "Bears all who breathe away." However, even Carlton Young in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal remarked that this "exemplifies good intentions corrupting a classic text.")
 C. Therefore our lives are as dreams which disappear upon awaking in the morning: Ps. 73.20

VI. Stanza 6 (Watts’s ninth) emphasizes how man’s weakness is caught up in God’s care
"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."
 A. In a repetition of the first two lines of stanza 1, God is identified as the God of both the past and the future because of His everlasting nature: Ps. 41.13
 B. Therefore we can look to Him to be our guard to provide refuge and strength while life shall last: Ps. 46.1
 C. And we can look to Him to give us life everlasting in His eternal home: Ps. 133.3

     CONCL.: The omitted stanzas are as follows:
4. "Thy word commands our flesh to dust, ‘Return, ye sons of men:’
All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to dust again."
6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood, With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood, And lost in following years."
8. "Like flowery fields the nations stand Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand Lie withering ere ’tis night."
This hymn may reflect the troubled times in which Watts lived, with severe persecution threatened against the Dissenters (of whom Watts was one), but what he wrote is just as appropriate for God’s people of all ages. Indeed, after 250 years, his words are still a timely reminder that God’s faithfulness throught the past is the basis for His sure promises of the future. Even today, we can call upon Him, saying, "O God, Our Help In Ages Past."


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