HYMN 55 O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: William Croft (1678-1727)
1. O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home;
2. Under the shadow of thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; Sufficient is thine arm alone, And our defense is sure. 3. Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame, From everlasting thou art God, To endless years the same. 4. A thousand ages in thy sight Are like an evening gone, Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun. 5. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day. 6. O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.
Watts’ metrical paraphrase of Psalm 90 is among the most skillfully done paraphrases in the tradition. When I was on the committee that edited the hymn texts for the Lutheran Book of Worship, (1978) we decided to update old fashioned language and update pronouns like Thee, Thy and Thou.
What I thought fascinating was how easy it was to update Watts—one could take out the thee and thy pronouns without doing much damage to the poetry. Even so, it was something I did not like to do. Although people don’t know this anymore, thee and thy, which English used as pronouns for God, are not formal plural pronouns, but the intimate and singular, like the German “du”.
English, however, had a problem. The thee and thy forms were clumsy to the modern English ear. They were difficult to say: Thou didst, thou shouldest... The Quakers “thee’d” everyone so as not to indicate a higher status for the addressee, but it did not take.
Strange. At a time when everybody is now first names, which are much more anonymous than one’s last name--Elizabeth or John Paul--we have lost a marker of some kind. The remedy for loneliness became being familiar with everybody, dimming the possibilities for being truly close with a few. We cannot go back to thee and thy, but the loss should be marked.
God wants to be thee’d. The entire story of God in Jesus is the effort to make friends with us, to dwell in us, and we in God—our eternal home. There is one place we know is safe and sound. God, the creator of all, who would be our guard while troubles last, is a sure and certain place to go for shelter. Jesus came to bring us there--for eternity. That is what I would call Sheltering at home!
After "All People Who on Earth do Dwell," this skillful paraphrase of Psalm 90 by Isaac Watts ranks as one of the most popular of English hymns. Isaac Watts came from a family of dissenters, or non-conformists--they dissented against being forced to belong to the Anglican Church, the state church. This meant Watts could not attend Oxford or Cambridge so he received his higher education at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington, a suburb of London at the time,. A brilliant student, he began rhyming at an early age. He continued through his life, writing some 750 hymns before his death.
At the time, the Calvinist notion of paraphrasing the Psalms into English forms was the fashion. Watts thought the poetry crude and unworthy of Christian worship. He began redoing the Psalms so they were “Imitated in the language of the New Testament.” His innovation and skillful poetry made him the Father of English hymnody.
William Croft was a distinguished composer and musician who followed Jeremiah Clarke as organist at Westminster Abbey. The Croft tune St. Anne with its simple steps up and down the scale made the hymn a grand one to be sung at significant occasions. It appears in hymnals of every nationality and culture. It was sung in August 14, 1941 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met on the HMS Prince of Wales to plan the Atlantic Charter. It laid down goals for the world after WWII had ended. Despite threats from U boats, a morning service was held. Churchill chose the hymns and concluded with this one. He later wrote “None who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck….We ended with 'O God our Help in Ages Past' .... Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.”
It was sung at Churchill’s funeral and is the hymn used by the ANZAC (Australian, New Zealand and Canadian) forces at Remembrance Day. It is among our greatest hymns.
Meeting of FDR and Churchill on the Prince of Wales ship August 14,1942/starts at about 2:00 minutes in
Winston Churchill's funeral about 1;25 minutes in
ANZAC Commemoration Service 2013/I think
Cambridge Singers/quite thrilling