O God our Help in Ages Past has long been associated with Remembrance Sunday, a hymn to be sung when we remember the dead of war, a hymn to be sung when we are aware of the frailty of life and we need to express a deep longing for comfort and protection. It is a hymn of contrasts; the past and the present, the shelter and the storm outside, the eternity of God against the brevity of our own, on this earth at least. It is also a hymn of community; OUR God not MY God.
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defence is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
It is ironic that this hymn should have become so much part of the Establishment since its author, Isaac Watts, was an 18th century Congregationalist minister and therefore outside the establishment of his time. He would not have been allowed to teach at Oxford even though his book on logic was on the curriculum. As a Protestant he sought to make the Bible and liturgy accessible to the ordinary person in the pew and thus paraphrased a number of psalms in the light of New Testament teaching. O God Our Help in Ages past is a paraphrase of Psalm 90; ‘Our eternal home ‘ was born of his New Testament faith.
Watts’ versions of the Psalms have stood the test of time. A hymn which speaks of the transience of life will be celebrating its 400th centenary next year. (Listen to a recording, here, made in Westminster Abbey.)
I am drawn to the hymn for the majesty of its tune and the language. It makes me aware that I am part of a much bigger picture even though my own life may be brief.
And because we sing it on Remembrance Sunday I often think of two of my great-uncles who were killed in the First Word War, one fighting for the British and the other fighting on the other side for the Austro-Hungarians and thus I think of the futility of war.
Something to think about.
How do we live so that we value the gift of life, however brief?