History of Hymns: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O God, Our Help in Ages Past"
Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 117

John Ellerton

“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 (1674-1748) captured the infinite timelessness of God in contrast to the ephemeral nature of humanity in his metrical paraphrase of Psalm 90, “O God, our help in ages past”—a classic hymn for All Saints’ Day. 

Watts is often called the “Father of English hymnody”—that is, hymns on a wider range of topics rather than metrical versions of the psalms in the English language. Before him, congregational song focused almost exclusively on singing strict metrical versions of the psalms. An example of this may be found in “All people that on earth do dwell” (UM Hymnal, No. 75), a paraphrase of Psalm 100. 

Following the Scripture closely was of the utmost importance. Metrical psalms, a product of the Reformed tradition, generally could neither add to nor delete anything from the psalm as found in the Bible. 

The result was that some rather awkward phrasings were tolerated in order to meet the strict demands of poetic meter. The first line of the metrical version of Psalm 100 mentioned above is an example of this—“All people that on earth do dwell….” 

One can find sporadic examples of hymns written before Watts, but he took a more liberal approach to the psalter and provided us with hymns on topics and Scriptures beyond the confines of the Book of Psalms. 

Watts composed three metrical paraphrases of portions of Psalm 90 which appeared in his famous Psalms of David, Imitated (1719). The version that we use is the second paraphrase, originally in nine stanzas, appearing under the title “Man Frail and God Eternal.” 

The Wesley brothers made extensive use of Isaac Watts hymns. John Wesley altered Watts’ hymns for many reasons when they were published in his collections. The first stanza of this venerable hymn contains one of John Wesley’s most significant alterations: “O God, our help...” rather than “Our God, our help...” in the original. 

From John Wesley’s perspective, the use of “our” as an adjective to God implied a narrower Calvinistic God who was the province only of the “elect.” For the Wesleys the grace of God was open to all, not just the elect. 

Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, points out that “John Wesley’s role in popularizing as well as altering the text began in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns (London, 1738) and continued into his 1780 Collection [of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists], where the text was included in seven stanzas in the section ‘Describing Death.’” 

The version found in the monumental 1780 Collection is the source of this hymn for many hymnal editors with the exception of the dropped stanza seven:

“The busy tribes of flesh and blood
With all their lives and cares
Are carried downward by the flood,
And lost in following years.”

One may read Psalm 90:1-5 and compare Watts’ paraphrase of these verses in stanzas 1-5 of our hymn. There are striking similarities, on the one hand, but some beautiful poetic variations on the other that put Watts’ version in the realm of lyrical poetry rather than methodical rhymed metrical verse. 

The antithesis between God and humanity is the primary message of Psalm 90 and Watts’ paraphrase. Returning to J.R. Watson, he correctly observes, “This is one of Watts’s greatest hymns on the human condition, setting the shortness of life and the littleness of human beings against the timeless greatness of God.... who has been our help [in the past] and hope [in the future].”
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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