Rose: Hymns – “Our God, our Help”

Isaac Watts was born mid-July of 1674 in Southampton England. His father, also named Isaac, was a Nonconformist – that is, not an Anglican – and was imprisoned twice. Because the younger Isaac also held the same views, he was educated at a nonconformist academy. From a young age, he learned Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and was quite good at poetic verse even as a child in grammar school.

Isaac wrote a good deal of hymns during his 20’s and put them in a book called Hymns and Spiritual Songs. “Our God, our Help,” however, was written in 1708 and was published in The Psalms of David, published in 1719, in which he paraphrased nearly all of the Psalms into English verse for singing. This hymn was put to the tune St. Anne, attributed to Watt’s contemporary organist William Croft. Watts was ordained in 1702, but because of failing health, he brought on a co-pastor in 1712. Soon after, Watt’s lived with a Sir Thomas Abney and his family in Hertfordshire, England, until his death on November 25, 1748, a date on which some Anglicans and Lutherans remember him.

Watts is remembered for a number of hymns, not only “Our God, our Help,” which is based on Psalm 90 and originally included three additional verses. He also wrote the well-loved hymns “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Alas! and did My Savior Bleed.” Watts was highly influential to the hymnody many still sing today, and his works were heavily drawn from Scripture, if not complete paraphrases as “Our God, our Help” is written.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
our Shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal Home.

As Moses wrote in Psalm 90, God has been our shelter, our dwelling place since the beginning, and we can put our hope in Him (Psa. 33:20-22, 46:1, 90:1). He has never changed, for God is faithful (Psa. 26:3). He was the one whom Abraham put his trust in and He is still there for us to trust in now (Psa. 22:4). Furthermore, it is in and with Him that we will dwell forever (Heb. 4:16, 2 Cor. 1:10, Rev. 21:3). But Moses’ words are a prayer, thus we open this hymn by directly naming what God is both in praise and thanks to Him and as a reminder to us (Psa. 36:5-7, 90:1). 

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

This verse is an echo of the one before it. But not only do we dwell in the Lord, we also dwell on earth, following His Word and doing what He commands (Psa. 1, 15-16, 62:1-2, Matt. 28:19-20). We do not live on this earth or do anything by our power, but what we have, our being, and our safety solely rests on Him (Psa. 17:8, 44:3, 91:1). This is to our benefit! We would surely be without hope if we had to rely on ourselves. Instead, we are sufficiently sustained in Christ, our defender and redeemer (Psa. 19:14, 1 Pet. 1:18-20).

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

This verse not only copies the parent Psalm, but brings us to Genesis: In the beginning God (Gen. 1:1, Col. 1:17). We call God our rock, our firm foundation, but He is more than that – He is our Creator God (Psa. 19:1 & 14, 93:1-2, 102:25-27). And unlike the earth, which He formed, God does not change; He is eternal, immovable, the only God (Psa. 55:19, 90:2, Jhn. 8:58, 1 Tim. 1:17, Jas. 4:14). He alone is worthy of our praise.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

This verse echoes how God is eternal. Though He created time, He is beyond time (Psa. 90:4). Thus, we should not be impatient of His coming or of his perceived delay in His promises (2 Pet. 3:8-15). Our eternal God is with us forever, from creation to conception to consummation (Psa. 139:5-18, Matt. 20:28, Heb. 13:5-10). Thus we hope for God and His coming, which He shall do in His own time, and we wait patiently (Rom. 8:25).

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

This verse is preceded by a few others that speak not only of the continuing of time but also of our frail human flesh. Part of this Psalm asks of the Lord to “teach us to number our days” so that “we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psa. 90:12). Our life is but a breath, we are easily forgotten (Psa. 62:8-9, Jas. 4:14-15). And yet, God cares for each and every one of us (Psa. 8:1-9). Though we may be born away on the tide of time, God has in plan for us eternal life that, unlike a dream, does not die (Psa. 89:47, 90:5, Jhn. 3:16, 1 Cor. 2:9, 2 Cor. 4:16-18). 

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

Like other hymns, this one ends with a reflection of the opening verse (Psa. 90:1-2) Though we are weak, we have the help and strength of the Lord (Psa. 20:7, 109:21, 121:2). Though we are fleeting, God has in store for us eternal life. Though we walk in a dark world, God is our light and our path (Eph. 6:11-13, Psa. 119:105, 2 Cor. 5:7-8). With this in mind, we walk this world with peace, because we rely not on our own reason or strength but on Him who is faithful and will bring us to our eternal home, life everlasting, with Him (Ecc. 12:5, Rev. 21:3, Jhn. 14:1-6 & 27). 

Blessings to you and yours,

~Rose


Works Referenced

Isaac Watts. The Psalms of David

“Isaac Watts.”

“Isaac Watts: 1674-1748.”

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

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