That grand old hymn, "Our God, our Help in Ages Past," has been sung so often on great public occasions — at the Funeral of King Edward VII.; at the unveiling of the Queen Victoria Memorial before Buckingham Palace; and also at the Investiture of Edward, Prince of Wales, at Carnarvon, that I felt we must have it as the subject of our talk today.
This hymn has been called "The Church's National Anthem," and it is a splendid name for it.
It is a paraphrase of the 90th Psalm. We will compare the hymn with the Psalm before we close.
Dr. Isaac Watts, who wrote "Our God, our help," is the true father of modern hymns. The first edition of his hymns was sold in 1706, the year before Charles Wesley was born. Before his time hymns were hardly used in public worship in England. Only quaint, and often very odd versions of the Psalms were sung. Young Isaac Watts, when he was only eighteen, often felt, when these old Psalms were sung, as if a rusty saw were being sharpened close to his ear. One Sunday afternoon he complained bitterly to his father, who was the Deacon of a Congregational Chapel at Southampton, of their want of harmony and good taste. "Then give us something better, young man!" was his father's sharp reply. The young man did; and on that same evening the service in the chapel was closed with a new hymn by Isaac Watts, which hymn has never since been allowed to grow old. This is the first verse:
"Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father's throne;
Prepare new honours for His Name
And songs before unknown."
From that eventful Lord's Day, Watts poured forth a continuous stream of sacred song, bringing a fresh hymn to the chapel each Sunday, until almost a volume had been produced.
Isaac Watts was the eldest of a family of nine children. He was born July 17, 1674, at Southampton [England], where his father was a school-master. He was a studious and clever boy, but very delicate, and apt at all times to work beyond his strength.
He preached his first sermon on his twenty-fourth birthday. He was chosen as assistant minister of the famous Independent Church in Mark Lane, London. Four years later he was given charge of that same church, but ill-health in 1712 obliged him to give up all regular pastoral work. He went for a week's visit to Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, at Theobalds, in Hertfordshire, and the week's visit extended into a stay of thirty-six years. There Isaac Watts lived, "the prisoner of ill-health and feebleness, but breathing forth, like a nightingale in the shade, those undying melodies, which will sing on while the world lasts."
With the Abneys he was a loved and honoured guest, free to write, or visit, or preach when well enough, as he pleased. The rooms of the poet-preacher were comfortable and well arranged. On his table lay his lute, his telescope, his books, and his Bible.
Dr. Watts was the writer of many hundreds of hymns. His great desire was to be of help to the worshipper in drawing near to God. He tried to express the breathings and aspirations of the Christian soul; its love, its fears, its hopes, its faith, its wonder, its sorrow, and its joy, and to lead it to sing the praises of God with understanding. He says: "I make no pretence to be a poet, but to the Lamb that was once slain, and now lives, I have addressed many a song, to be sung by the penitent and believing heart."
What an illustration of this we have in his hymn:
"When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of Glory died."
Some have thought this to be his finest hymn.
Many of Dr. Watts's hymns were written to be sung after his sermons, and so they are full of the teaching he had just been trying to enforce. We have an example of this in his wonderful hymn:
"Not all the blood of beasts,
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ the Heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name,
And richer blood than they.
My faith would lay her hand
On that dear Head of Thine,
While like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.
My soul looks back to see
The burdens Thou didst bear,
When hanging on the cursed tree,
And knows her guilt was there.
Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing His bleeding love."
This hymn was the means of the conversion of a young Jewess in London; who, seeing a part of it on a piece of paper round some butter which she had bought, read it. She could not shake off the impression produced by the striking words; so she obtained a Bible and read it eagerly. She soon found in Jesus her true Messiah and Lord.
If we take up any good collection of hymns we shall find that some of the choicest of them are by Isaac Watts. These are some, of the most popular of all: "Before Jehovah's awful throne" (this is a paraphrase of the 100th Psalm); "Come let us join our cheerful songs"; "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun"; "There is a land of pure delight"; "Give me the wings of faith to rise"; "Join all the glorious names"; "From all that dwell below the skies"; "Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove"; "With joy we meditate the grace"; "Not all the blood of beasts"; "When I survey the wondrous cross"; "Our God, our help in ages past"; "Alas, and did my Saviour bleed."
Dr. Watts was never married, but he was very fond of children, and some of the best hymns he ever wrote were for them. Someone has said: "No one can teach children to sing without grateful thoughts of Isaac Watts."
He is The Children's Hymn-Writer.
What can be more lovely than his cradle hymn:
Hush, my dear! lie still, and slumber,
Holy angels guard thy bed!
Heavenly blessings, without number,
Gently falling on thy head.
Sleep, my babe! thy food and raiment,
House and home, thy friends provide;
All without thy care or payment
All thy wants are well supplied.
How much better thou'rt attended
Than the Son of God could be
When from Heaven He descended,
And became a child like thee.
Soft and easy is thy cradle;
Coarse and hard thy Saviour lay
When His birth-place was a stable,
And His softest bed was hay.
See the kinder shepherds round Him,
Telling wonders from the sky;
Where they sought Him, there they found Him,
With His Virgin Mother by.
May'st thou live to know and fear Him,
Trust and love Him all thy days;
Then go dwell for ever near Him,
See his face and sing His praise.
I could give thee thousand kisses,
Hoping what I most desire;
Not a mother's fondest wishes
Can to greater joys aspire!"
Dr. Pakenham Walsh, the Bishop of Ossory and Ferns, said of his Divine and Moral Songs for Children:" One might fancy him singing them first to the little prattlers of his own home, so full are they of tenderness and sympathy." "What," Dr. Walsh continues, "can be nobler or more simple than his song of 'Praise for Creation'?"
"I sing the almighty power of God,
Who made the mountains rise;
Who spread the flowing seas abroad,
And built the lofty skies."
Amongst his children's hymns are the following. I am sure every mother will be interested to hear them. This one is to teach industry:
"How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skilfully she builds her cell,
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
In works of labour, or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do."
And, again, what a sweet hymn is this, commending early piety:
"Happy the child whose tender years
Receive instruction well;
Who hates the sinner's path, and fears
The road that leads to Hell.
When we devote our youth to God,
'Tis pleasing in His eyes;
A flower, when offered in the bud,
Is no vain sacrifice.
'Tis easier work if we begin
To fear the Lord betimes;
While sinners that grow old in sin,
Are hardened in their crimes.
'Twill save us from a thousand snares,
To mind religion young;
Grace will preserve our following years,
And make our virtue strong.
To Thee, Almighty God, to Thee
Our childhood we resign;
'Twill please us to look back and see
That our whole lives were Thine.
Let the sweet work of prayer and praise
Employ my youngest breath;
Thus I'm prepared for longer days,
Or fit for early death."
His teaching is so simple that the youngest child can understand it. For example, here are some plain words against quarrelling:
"Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For 'tis their nature too.
But children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other's eyes.
Let Love through all your actions run,
And all your words be mild,
Live like the Blessed Virgin's Son,
That sweet and lovely child."
"Whatever brawls disturb the street,
There should be peace at home;
Where sisters dwell, and brothers meet,
Quarrels should never come.
Birds in their little nests agree;
And 'tis a shameful sight,
When children of one family
Fall out, and chide, and fight."
Here is a hymn against laziness:
"'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again;
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed
Turns his sides, and his shoulders, and his heavy head."
And here is a call to gratitude:
"Whene'er I take my walks abroad
How many poor I see;
What shall I render to my God,
For all His gifts to me?
Not more than others I deserve,
Yet God has given me more;
For I have food while others starve,
Or beg from door to door."
And once more listen to his lines on "A Lord's Day Evening":
"Lord, how delightful 'tis to see
A whole assembly worship Thee,
At once they sing, at once they pray,
They hear of Heaven and learn the way.
I have been there and still would go,
'Tis like a little Heaven below,
Not all my pleasure or my play
Shall tempt me to forget this Day."
Dr. Watts's hymns for children may be thought old-fashioned and out of date, but I am sure it would be good for the children of the present day if they were given some of the grand teaching which his hymns contain.
Dr. Watts wrote much — Scripture, history, logic, philosophical essays, but he will always be best known by his hymns and songs of praise. All his life through he suffered greatly from pain and weakness, but from this "chastening" there came of "profit" and "riches" to the Church of Christ. He died at the age of seventy-five, November 25, 1748, at the residence of Lady Abney, who, after the death of Sir Thomas Abney, had removed to their other house in Stoke Newington. Here Dr. Watts spent his last days, and here he died in perfect peace, being fully prepared for the great change.
When he was dying he said: "I am just waiting to see what God will do with me; it is good to say, what, when, and where God pleases. The business of a Christian is to do the will of God. If God should raise me up again, and use me to save a soul, that will be worth living for. If He has no more service for me, I can say, through grace, I am ready; I could without alarm if God please, lay back my head on my pillow and die this afternoon or night. My sins are all pardoned through the Blood of Christ." Thus he entered into rest.
Now for a few words about his hymn, "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past." John Bright used to say of it: "It is the greatest hymn ever written in the English language."
We will compare it with the 90th Psalm, of which it is a wonderful paraphrase.
Psalm 90:1: "LORD, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations":
"Our 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
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure."
Psalm 90:2: "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever Thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God."
"Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same."
Psalm 90:3,4: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday, when it is past, and as a watch in the night":
A thousand ages in Thy sight,
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night,
Before the rising sun."
Psalm 90:5,6: "Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass that groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.":
"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."
How true this last verse is. The great stream of time rolls on, carrying with it myriads of human beings with all their cares and fears. No minute passes but some are borne away. Almost every day from among ourselves one and another go from us; one from this household, and another from that.
Psalm 90:9-14: "...We spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away... Return, O LORD... O satisfy us early with Thy mercy that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."
In our weakness and frailty, and amid all the changes and chances of this transitory life, even as a child turns to its parent in trouble and distress, so must we in our helplessness cast ourselves upon our God.
"Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our perpetual Home."
Vain is the help of man, but in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting love and sympathy, and help and strength.
Shall we not pray this beautiful hymn for ourselves, and take our Father God as the perpetual dwelling-place and home of our soul, that so among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Bright Talks on Favourite Hymns... by J.M.K. London: The Religious Tract Society; Chicago: John C. Winston Co., [1916?].