O God, Our Help in Ages Past

Isaac Watts was a non-conformist in every sense of the word. Watts was born in 1674, twelve years after the British Parliament issued the Act of Uniformity which required a person to adhere to the doctrines and rites of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer to be able to hold public office in the government or the church.

Those who conscientiously dissented or belonged to any other Protestant denomination, besides the Church of England, were called Non-conformists. Non-conformists were often persecuted, jailed and even beaten.

Isaac Watts was a Non-conformist. Though academically gifted, he was not allowed to attend Oxford or Cambridge which were reserved strictly for Anglicans. Watts, however, still managed to study theology and pastor an independent congregation in London.

Watts was a non-conformist in another sense as well. As a young man he grew frustrated with the music sung in churches at the time. The only music allowed were the Psalms sung metrically (and painfully slow). Singing anything other than the very words Scripture was considered an insult to God.

It is reported that when Watts, as a young man, expressed his low opinion of church music at the time, his father purportedly responded, “Why don’t you give us something better?”

Isaac Watts did. He composed over 600 hymns, including Joy to the World, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and O God, Our Help in Ages Past. Today Isaac Watts is rightfully known as the “Father of English Hymnody.”

Many of his hymns, like Joy to the World were paraphrases of the Psalms written from a New Testament perspective. In other words, Watts read the Psalms in light of their fulfillment in Christ.

O God, Our Help in Ages Past is a paraphrase of Psalm 90. In the Psalm, Moses speaks of God’s eternal rule and control of all things compared to man’s relatively short life here on earth. God controls all of time and history – including our time and history.

Isaac Watts looked at God’s eternal rule of all things from the perspective of his forgiveness and love in Christ. God has and will continue to work all of time and history for the good of his people. God has and will continue to work all of time and history for your good.

Despite suffering persecution and poor health nearly his entire life, Watts could joyfully look back and see God’s powerful and loving hand at work in his life. He could look ahead with confidence to the rest of his days here on earth and to his eternal home in heaven.

As we look back on another year gone by and ahead to a yet unseen future, may we sing with confidence:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense 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.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.


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