O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home!Isaac Watts, 1719
THE HYMN WRITER
Isaac Watts, was born in Southhampton, England in 1674 to a Dissenter (non-Anglican) family. At four years old he was quite advanced for his age, and began learning Latin. He learned Greek when he was eight or nine, French when he was eleven, and Hebrew when he was thirteen. His brightness also showed itself in his insatiable reading habits and in poetizing everything he said. In fact, his father began to prohibit his incessant rhyming and to discipline his son for being so annoyingly metrical. Upon one occasion when being disciplined, Issac cried out, “O father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make!”
When Isaac was fifteen, after complaining about how bad the singing of psalms was in the churches of his day, his father encouraged him to let those poetic powers loose and write some songs. Before the day’s end, Issac wrote his first hymn and his church sang it at the evening service. “Behold the glories of the Lamb amid His Father’s throne; Prepare new honors for His name, and songs before unknown.” Thus, the father of English hymnody was born.
As an adult, Watts was a small, frail and pale looking man, about five feet high with a large head, made even larger by his then fashionable, enormous white wig. His form, however, did not match his heart and depth of thought. It is said that a woman named Elizabeth Singer, who had never met Watts, fell in love with him upon reading his poetry. However, when she met him in person, she could not accept his marriage proposal, saying, “If only I could say I admire the casket as much as I admire the jewel.” Watts took it sweetly and remained friends with Singer, but never married.
Watts’ hymns caused quite a tempest in the church during his day. Many of his English colleagues looked down on his work, as the preferred method of worship at the time was metrical psalms. Louis F. Benson said concerning metrical psalms, “This had been a matter of conscience ever since the reformation, the idea being that the psalms of the Bible were inspired by God to serve as the hymnbook of his church for all time, and that hymns were “merely human composure,“ unauthorized and unnecessary.” Watts didn’t reject singing the Psalms, he simply thought “they ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” He also preferred that there be a New Testament light shed upon the songs that they sang. Many of his hymns were intended to be loose translations of psalms. “Joy to the World” was an adaptation of Psalm 98, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” was based on Psalm 72, and “O God Our Help in Ages Past” was taken from Psalm 90. Among the approximate 750 hymns that are credited to Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” has been described as one of the best in the English language.
Watts is also well known for various other brilliant works, including 30 theological treatises, essays on psychology, astronomy, and philosophy, three volumes of sermons, and a textbook on logic that served as a standard work on the subject for generations.
Many would say that one of Watts’ most priceless works was actually a book of rhymes and hymns that he wrote for children. “Divine and Moral Songs for Children became a ubiquitous children’s book throughout England for nearly two hundred years. By the mid-19th century, the book existed in over a thousand editions. So well-known were some of the children’s poems that Lewis Carroll parodied them in Alice in Wonderland and Charles Dickens referenced them in David Copperfield. Modern readers (or singers), however, remember Watts’ songbook not so much for its rhymes for children, but for its hymns.” (O’Bannon) In the preface to his book, Watts gives various reasons why hymns should be a necessary part of the education of children. Here are two of those reasons:
- What is learnt in verse is longer retained in memory, and sooner recollected. The like sounds and the like number of syllables exceedingly assist the remembrance. And it may often happen, that the end of a song running in the mind may be an effectual means to keep off some temptation, or to incline to some duty, when a word of scripture is not upon the thoughts.
- This will be a constant furniture of the minds of children, that they may have something to think upon when alone, and sing over to themselves. This may sometimes give their thoughts a divine turn, and raise a young meditation. Thus they will not be forced to seek relief for an emptiness of mind, out of the loose and dangerous sonnets of the age.
In 1702, Watts became the pastor of Mark Lane Independent Chapel, then one of London’s most influential independent churches. It wasn’t long into his pastorate, however, that he began to suffer from a psychiatric illness that would cause him terrible suffering for the rest of his days. He lived out the remainder of his life quietly in the home of friends, exploring a nearby arboretum and writing hymns. He died in 1748 at the age of 76, leaving behind a beautiful legacy of praise.
THOUGHTS AS YOU SING – (Can be read as a family devotional)
Do you like to play memory games? Some people remember things so well and always seem to effortlessly win these games. Others, however, seem to have leaky minds and just can’t seem to remember what they’re supposed to. In Moses’ day, the Israelites most likely would fit into the latter category. God did amazing and wondrous miracles right in front of their faces… A pillar of fire to lead them on their journey at night. Bread floating down from heaven to give them the nourishment they needed. Rocks cracking open and water flowing out to quench their thirst in the middle of a massive desert. They even saw God part the sea in two so that they could escape being slaves in Egypt! Anytime the Hebrews were in trouble or having a hard time, you would think that they would remember how well God took care of them in the past. But they just couldn’t remember. When hard situations arose for Israel, God wanted them to trust him and ask for his help. But mostly the people of Israel would just freak out and forget Him.
Not only did Israel forget all that God had done and could do for them still, but they also started to complain. They grew so grumpy and ungrateful that they told God that they wanted to pack up and go back to being slaves in Egypt! Moses was so tired of all of Israel’s grumbling and went to the Lord for help. He wrote Psalm 90 to help Israel remember all of what God had done for them and to seek the Lord for help.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
Unfortunately, today we can sound a lot like the people of Israel. Even those of us with very good memories, we often forget to trust God when we get stuck in hard situations. When we sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” we are singing a paraphrase of Psalm 90 and are helping ourselves remember to steer clear of acting like the forgetful, complaining Israelites. It is so good for us to remember how faithful God has been in the past, and that he is near and able to help when we need him!
When you are asked to do a hard chore and it seems overwhelming to you, don’t freak out! Remember, God is with you when you do hard things! Ask for his help! You can confidently sing, “Sufficient is Thine arm alone and our defense is sure!” When you feel afraid or you are sick or you are in trouble, remember to call on the God who loves you and he will help you—though he may not help exactly the way you had asked for or had imagined, he will always provide in a way that is best for you. You can sing, “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home.”
HOW WE DO HYMN OF THE MONTH
If you are new to this community, welcome! It is a great time to join in and make family worship a priority if you haven’t already. You may or may not be familiar with this hymn. Either way, we invite you to spend this month meditating on its truths.
To get you started, we’ve provided free printable lyrics, music and copywork — all found here!
Also, you can find fresh versions of the hymn on our YouTube channel that you and your family can sing along with. There are loads of fresh versions of our favorite hymns on our hymn of the month playlist.
If you are interested in fleshing out this month’s hymn with activities, coloring sheets, devotional thoughts, journaling prompts, etc. our Fall Hymn Guide, is available for a small fee on Etsy. Thank you so much for your support of Happy Hymnody’s ministry!
When we began singing hymns with our littles about 10 years ago, we kept it simple… We prayed and sang one hymn together every night at bedtime for a whole month. Everyone’s family rhythm is different, so we welcome you to gather up your families, for just a few minutes each day, to sing, discuss and memorize this hymn (following your daily time in the Scriptures and in prayer) whether it is first thing in the morning, or around the dinner table or before bedtime – whatever works best for your family. You can let us know how it’s going by posting either a video or a photo on Instagram. Just tag it with #happyhymnody! As always, if you have any questions or if you’d like to share your heart with us, please don’t hesitate to reach out! God bless you all this month as you worship and follow Jesus together as a family!
With so much love,