Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 29th July 2007
“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations”
Making associations between one thing an another is part of human intelligence and, when it comes to church hymns, most of us will associate particular hymns with particular moments or memories. O God our help in ages past is a hymn that I had always associated with Ulster Loyalism. It was a hymn that evoked memories of dark-suited men in bowler hats, the sound of flute and drum bands, the tramp of feet along streets in the rain; it was a hymn that I associated with strident words and appeals to former times. O God our help in ages past was, for me, a looking backwards to an age when God was felt to have been with his people, it was a hymn that was reactive to the realities of the present time.
Reading about Isaac Watts, the writer of the hymn, I came to realize it’s a hymn about the future as well as the past. It’s a hymn about positive things, about engaging with the present reality rather than just a longing for the recovery of a lost history. Of course, God had been a help in ages past, much more importantly, he was the hope for years to come.
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton in 1674. He grew up in a deeply religious household, where there was a refusal to accept the teachings and practice of the Church of England. Watts’ father was a Nonconformist who had twice been sent to prison for his religious views. Watts attended King Edward VI School, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew and from an early age showed great proficiency for poetry.
A local doctor and other friends assumed that Watts would seek a university education and be ordained in the Church of England. This was not for Watts, a Nonconformist. His Nonconformity meant he was unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge, strict Church of England establishments, so in 1690 went to a Nonconformist academy at Stoke Newington, (which is now part of the East End of London, but in those times was much more rural). The academy was under the direction of Thomas Rowe, the pastor of an Independent congregation, and Watts assisted with the ministry. At the age of 20 he left the Academy and spent two years at home; it was during this period, between the ages of 20 and 22 that he wrote the bulk of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs. They were published a decade later in 1707-1709.
He took up a post as a tutor to a family at Stoke Newington, time which gave him the opportunity for intense study. He was ordained in 1702, but his health was never robust. In 1712, he suffered serious illness and was taken in by the Abney family, who had houses in Stoke Newington and in Hertfordshire, and he lived with them for the rest of his life—some thirty-six more years. The beautiful grounds of the Abney’s house in Stoke Newington, where Watts lived from 1736 until his death in 1748, led down to an island heronry where Watts was said to have found inspiration for many of his books and hymns.
By any modern standards, Watts’ was an extraordinary life, he seems to have been able to spend most of it in study. To have had patrons like the Abneys, who enabled him to spend thirty-six years in reading and writing, would be a dream for many modern researchers and academics. Watts was a polymath, a man of encyclopaedic knowledge and learning. A man of firm evangelical Christian faith, he was also a man who valued progress and learning.
Evangelical Christians in the 21st Century, endangered by the lure of Fundamentalism, can learn from Watts. As well as being a religious writer, he was also a philosopher. He wrote a textbook on logic that was published in 1724, it had the catchy title Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. Perhaps not a bestseller, the book did, however, run through twenty editions, becoming a standard text at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England as well as at Harvard and Yale in the United States.
The hymns of Isaac Watts are not the hymns of a man who has retreated from the world, but the hymns of a man who has sought to engage fully with the world, a man as at home in the realms of philosophy and science as in the world of theology. This is so important. The rise of Fundamentalism, the Christians of the religious Right, the Moslems of the Islamist movements, the Secularists of the Dawkins variety, threaten to divide the world up into opposing factions, to set us at odds with each other. There are Christians who would despise the exercise of human reason that Watts showed in writing his book on logic.
Watts was a true evangelical, one who sought to bring Good News of Jesus to the world, to the world as it was, with all its complexity and contradictions, and not to the world as he might have preferred it to be.
O God our help in ages past, based on the words of Psalm 90, was published in 1719 and is a hymn that engages with reality. There is a sense that if God is God at all, he must be a big God. He is not the God of any denomination or of any nation, he is the God of all eternity.
“From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.”
Watts, through his study of astronomy, has a sense of the insignificance of human time in the context of eternal time,
“A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone”.
He also has a sense of our own mortality, of what a brief and fleeting thing life is. If there were ever words that contradict all our human arrogance and that say all our politics and pride count for nothing, it’s these:
“Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day”.
I have been at services where that verse has been left out altogether, as though people were more concerned to shaping the words to what they wanted to say rather than being prepared to accept that this is the way things are. O God our help in ages past is not a hymn that can be used by any party or cause; it is a hymn based on Scripture, and Scripture is too big, and God is too big, to be pressed into the service of any political group—no matter how loudly they may beat their drums.
“O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come”
The God of all eternity, vastly beyond all our understanding, cares for us his people, in the brief moments of our past and in the eternal moments of our future.