Hymn by Hymn

STLT#281, O God, Our Help in Ages Past

My god but I love Eddie Izzard.

This brilliant, English, marathon running, gender-bending atheist is one of the best comedians living today. He shares brilliantly, funny ideas from pop culture, high culture, history, science, and everyday life – with a wit that doesn’t talk down but rather lifts up. I’ve seen him in person as well as the many terrific comedy specials. And he can act too – I love his performance as Chaplain in The Cat’s Meow. If you haven’t seen his work, go now – start with Dress to Kill, on Amazon Video. (But read the rest of this blog first.)

Now the reason Izzard comes to mind is that I can’t even think about today’s hymn without thinking about this bit:

I recommend watching the whole clip, although the moment this hymn brings to mind starts around 3:45.

If you watched, then you know my problem with this hymn – it was square and boring even before I saw Izzard, and more so now. A simple 4/4 time signature makes it march along. What if it were in a 6/8, with the extra beats extending the second and fourth notes? Just as Whitney Houston expanded The Star Spangled Banner from 3/4 to 4/4, and just as we have both 3/4 and 4/4 settings of Amazing Grace, we could easily have a 6/8 of this one. It would give us room to feel the help and comfort this setting of Psalm 90 aims to offer.

Seriously, these are not words to march through:

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

Before the hills in order stood, or earth received its 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, soon bears us all away:
we 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.

This magnificent hymn – considered by some to be the greatest hymn written in English – is nearly complete and unchanged here as late 17th century minister Isaac Watts wrote it. Only a verse of Empire is omitted- and really, you’re not missing much. Otherwise, nothing is changed.

Here’s the Psalm – number 90 in your programs; it’s a fair bit harsher than Watt’s hymn though:

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place*
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

3 You turn us* back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end* like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span* is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

11 Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
12 So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

13 Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

I want to love this hymn more than I do. I love the lyrics – they ground and comfort me, reminding me of what is transient and what is permanent. It is a hymn of letting go. It is a hymn of comfort.

I’ll love it more if it’s reset with a more expansive time signature. Because otherwise, I sing it like Izzard, and that’s probably not appropriate in the pulpit.

 

 

One thought on “STLT#281, O God, Our Help in Ages Past

  1. Thank you for posting that video! My only familiarity with Eddie Izzard was with his brilliant work in the wonderful FX TV series, “The Riches.” I didn’t know about these other sides of him — again, brilliant!

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