Monday, November 10, 2014

O God Our Help


 The hymn, "O God Our Help in Ages Past recommended   by the Royal Canadian Legion among others, is so strongly associated with Remembrance Day it is difficult to think of it in any other context.   Yet as a paraphrase of Psalm 90, it has its roots in the time of Moses, (some commentators believe Moses wrote the words).  Whoever the author was, the fact remains that the psalm recalls a time when the Israelites were homeless, when their lives were uncertain and their future unknown.  No wonder they responded to the assurance that God is eternal, that he holds our lives in his hands, that He controls time.   
    Small wonder that those sentiments resonate still with people caught up in war and its aftermath, for those who sorrow and for those who fear.  God is eternal.  God is our home.

  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. Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
    “Return, ye sons of men”:
    All nations rose from earth at first,
    And turn to earth again.
  5. A thousand ages in Thy sight
    Are like an evening gone;
    Short as the watch that ends the night
    Before the rising sun.
  6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
    With all their lives and cares,
    Are carried downwards by the flood,
    And lost in foll’wing years.
  7. Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Bears all its sons away;
    They fly, forgotten, as a dream
    Dies at the op’ning day.
  8. Like flow’ry fields the nations stand
    Pleased with the morning light;
    The flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand
    Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.
  9. O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
    Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
    And our eternal home.
verses in italics are omitted in most hymnals

Here are Dr. Cecil Kirk's notes on this most beloved hymn.

Scripture Reading Psalm 90

            Isaac Watts is rightly regarded as the pioneer of English hymnody.  He perceived what was truly needed and provided it.  In more than six hundred hymns, Watts stressed the reality of faith and hope.  He emphasized the majesty and sovereignty of God and promoted the Church’s mission to the whole world.

            This hymn, considered to be one of the grandest in the English language, is really a paraphrase of Psalm 90.  The psalm itself has a recurring penitent note but Watts has cast the hymn as one of assurance and hope.  Of the nine original verses three have been dropped in most hymn books.

            Watts entitled the hymn “Man frail and God eternal”, a theme that runs through all the verses.  The psalm begins by focusing our gaze on the everlasting God who is the creator of the universe (Ps. 90. 1-2) and then on the transitory nature of human life (Ps. 90.3).  Human life is frail, mortal.  Human beings are born to die.  The psalmist likens his life to a passing dream and to the grass of the field which flourishes in the morning but by evening has withered away (Ps. 90. 5-6).  It is hardly surprising then that he admonishes us to “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90. 12).

            By way of contrast with the brevity and uncertainty of human life, Watts writes of the eternity of God.  He is “from everlasting . . to endless years the same”.  Time is meaningless as far as God is concerned (Ps. 90. 4).  Not so with men and women whose allotted life span soon passes (Ps. 90. 10) and the years are gone.  This is the thought expressed in the fifth stanza of the hymn where the “sons” referred to are not our sons but the sons of time, the days and weeks and years of the past.  It is these that are forgotten and pass into history as new events and new tasks demand our attention.

            It was about 1714 that this hymn was written, a time when Britain was facing a political crisis over the question of the Protestant succession as Queen Anne approached death.  Watts wrote to allay the fears and forebodings of many people.  From the very beginning there is a strong affirmation of faith in the eternal God and his sufficiency in every time of need.  The words of the hymn point us away from ourselves to fix our confidence and attention on God who is able to take care of all our fears.  Just as he has provided help for us in the past, whether as individuals or as a nation, so we can depend on his unfailing goodness to enable us to face the perils of the future.  The help we have already received is a pledge that he will not fail us in the years to come.  He is faithful and dependable.

            And, finally, God is our home, our spiritual home.  Without him we are aimless wanderers with “no abiding place”.  In him, and in him alone, we rest secure. 

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