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Hymn 123 “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”

Written by | January, 2016
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New Year

Last August, a Yahoo News headline asked, “What Causes Plane Crashes?” My immediate reaction was “Gravity?”

Can you think of anything else as reliable as gravity? Gravity is so universal in our experience and so unfailingly reliable that we never even consider the possibility that it “may not work this time.” When we pour pancake batter onto a hot griddle, we don’t cross our fingers and hope that it will go straight down instead of sideways. When we drop our car keys, we look down near our feet without having to wonder if maybe they landed on the ceiling.

Why do we trust gravity without the slightest doubt and in all circumstances? Our utter confidence in the reliability of gravity is not based on our having taken a college-level course in Newtonian physics. Rather, it is based on our unfailing, everyday experience. In Hymn 123, drawn from Psalm 90, Isaac Watts expresses that same sort of confidence in our God, and for the same reason: our God has never failed us in the past, He is unchanging, and that gives us confidence to trust Him also in the future. So Watts writes (v.1),
“Our God, our Help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Our Shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal Home!”
and (v.3)
“From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.”

Our God is more reliable than gravity. Astronauts have been in outer space, where the earth’s force of gravity is essentially negated. But even there, the “force of God” is as strong as it is everywhere else. Whether we are experiencing  “the stormy blast” of personal troubles or even (v.5) the grief of death (“Thy word commands our flesh to dust”),  God is nonetheless  “our Shelter” and we remain “under the shadow of [His] throne” (v.2). There is no place where and no time when the “force of God” cannot be utterly relied upon.

As we begin a new year, some may be tempted to look to the future with feelings of insecurity, even trepidation. But does not our
experience of God’s  “Help in ages past ” teach us to rely upon Him, even as we do upon the certainty of gravity?

Why, then, do we still sometimes feel insecure? In large part, of course, that is due to our old sinful nature. But there is another factor, one to which both Psalm 90 and Hymn 123 point. Our insecurity is partly because we are bound within the limitations of time, and accordingly, our perspective of eternal reality is distorted. Watts reminds us in this hymn that the only true and comprehensive perspective is that of eternity; it is God’s perspective. So he writes,
“A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun,”
(v. 4) and
“Time, like an ever rolling  stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day” (v. 6). We are as limited by time as a fish is by water. Time is an unbroken boundary to all our personal experience, but that boundary does not encompass the totality of reality. God has revealed to us reality beyond our experience.

Watts ends this hymn with a repeat of stanza 1, but—significantly—changes the last part of that stanza to a confident prayer for God’s protection now and His comforting presence in eternity: “Be Thou our Guard while troubles last
And our eternal home!” (v.8)

Stanzas 4 and 6 of this hymn, by the way (see above), are very direct reflections of Psalm 90, verses 4 and 5, respectively. In fact, compare verses 4-7 of the hymn with Psalm 90:4-6. That echoing of Scripture in his hymns is, perhaps, why The Lutheran Hymnal contains thirty-one hymns by Watts.

Is anything else as reliable as gravity? Yes, our God is more reliable than gravity.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.