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The invitation of an old hymn

26 September 2011

It is a rare delight to sing a classic hymn in church these days.  It is bound to be tinged with sadness, since any old hymn reminds us of the richness we have abandoned, like a prodigal in the far country. 

But the nostalgia of the ancients is not an adequate commendation for a hymn today.  What is there about the hymn which might commend it to anyone who has not been prejudiced in its favour by singing it sixty years ago as a child?   Has the hymn in its own right any chance of getting past the now widespread prejudice against it?  

Consider the hymn by Isaac Watts, from 1719.  We sang it in church today,  leaving out a couple of verses in the original  (marked here by square brackets [ ] ). 

Give to our God immortal praise;
Mercy and truth are all His ways:
Wonders of grace to God belong,
Repeat His mercies in your song.

Give to the Lord of lords renown,
The King of kings with glory crown:
His mercies ever shall endure,
When lords and kings are known no more.

He built the earth, He spread the sky,
And fixed the starry lights on high:
Wonders of grace to God belong,
Repeat His mercies in your song.

He fills the sun with morning light;
He bids the moon direct the night:
His mercies ever shall endure,
When suns and moons shall shine no more.

[The Jews He freed from Pharaoh’s hand,
And brought them to the promised land
Wonders of grace to God belong,
Repeat His mercies in your song.

He saw the Gentiles dead in sin,
And felt His pity work within
His mercies ever shall endure,
When death and sin shall reign no more.]

He sent His Son with power to save
From guilt, and darkness, and the grave
Wonders of grace to God belong,
Repeat His mercies in your song.

All through this world [Through this vain world] He guides our feet,
And leads us to His heav’nly seat
His mercies ever shall endure,
When this vain world shall be no more.

This is a hymn that reminds us of God, in creation, in the biblical history of Jews and Gentiles, in Jesus Christ our Saviour and as our guide and goal in this world.

It anchors our attention on some of the essentials in a succinct way. 

Like many hymns, it is not physically noisy, though a congregational can let itself to to enjoy singing it heart and voice; but while it speaks of the most important truths, it is not emotionally noisy and intrusive. 

It provides a spacious framework for reflection and prayer.   It includes us in its story and movement but it does not foreground us, and it makes nothing of the ubiquitous ‘I’ we find in contemporary worship songs.   It invites us to repeat in our songs the mercies of God.   It is a vehicle for the praise and adoration and love of God, but not for parading ourselves as the lovers of God.  

It is an example of poetry in the service of the praise of God and the building up of people of faith.   The poetry means that the author has done some work on the words and the patterning of the words, so that the shape of the poem not only intrigues us, but instructs and illumines.   This is seen in the artful alternation of the second half of each stanza.  

First we have,  

Wonders of grace to God belong, Repeat His mercies in your song,

then in the alternate stanzas, the precise words vary, but the basic form is,

His mercies ever shall endure, When x and y are known no more

 

What is the meaning of this?  Was it just that Watts did not want to bore his congregation by repetition?  Or does the variation mean more?

I think it reflects two major, different, but complementary ways in which Christian faith gives us to see and respond to God.  

The first way is to be grateful for God’s grace, his generous goodness, and to be amazed at his wonders.   We respond to God’s goodness by ‘repeating’ them in our song, we remind ourselves of them, and so come to appreciate them more fully and to live in them more faithfully.   This way of ending a stanza takes what has been affirmed in the first couplet and says, This is the grace of God which is active, and this is what we can occupy ourselves in building on, playing out and playing over in our lives.  It is as though God starts something off in the first part and it then rolls on carrying us with it.   There is a positive continuous drive through the whole stanza – and that is how it is with God in the world.  And we ‘repeat’.

The second way is different.   God is recognised at the beginning, some particular feature of God is picked out for attention (eg Lord of lords)  and it is affirmed that the mercies of this God will endure.   That unfailing faithfulness of the mercies of God is then contrasted with what we human beings have in this passing world and in our limited selves – we will not only come to an end in time, but we will prove insufficient for the tests that life in the world before God put us under.   So God is the Lord of lords, who rules the world, in contrast to all the other lords and kings who have their day and then are known no more.  What we need, and what the hymn points us to, is what will be there for us when all our best human efforts (like kings) give way.  

For the moment, it is true that we live with so much goodness in the earth as lit by sun and moon, but this earth will not for ever be a home for humanity.

Watts – and this is another reason for singing old hymns – had a strong sense of the passing and vain world.   We find that much harder to believe and express.  Put not your trust in princes.  Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.  So says the Gospel.  Watts,  we may say,  went too far in seeing the world and life in this perspective, and we don’t want to go back to there.  But are we right to swing so far  the other way?   We have little sense of  this world’s being ‘vain’ and we discount the manifold evidence that it is so.   We are compulsive optimists about ourselves and the world and we say it is our faith that compels us.  We do not take seriously that it is in this world, in our human world, that ‘the young prince of glory died’.    I do not think Watts and people in his time got it altogether right, but at least they took the question seriously and dared unpopular language in trying to focus the truth.   They could write,  When I survey the wondrous Cross….

To see this world as vain is not to dismiss it as valueless or lacking in goodness or not being the wondrous gift of God.   It is to see that there is a difference between God and the world,  and that the world cannot take God’s place for us.   The world is not our resting place – it is a place of pilgrimage through which God guides our feet to his heavenly seat  and to his mercies which endure when ‘this vain world shall be no more’.  

So God is celebrated in this hymn in two complementary ways:   as the Giver from whom all good things flow, and in whom we may trust and live in confidence; and as the One who stands when all the good things come to their end and the hopes they inspire need to be vindicated by Someone other than the vain world.   

The hymn is poetry that neatly, memorably, teaches us more than a snippet of systematic theology, and does so in a way which disciplines and shapes Christian spirituality.  

We can get a lot out of it even though it is old and we could never think of writing anything like this ourselves, because we are shaped by a different culture.  

Haddon Willmer

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