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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Watts a True Refuge?

Certainly not Isaac Watts--but the God He knew and about whom he wrote more than 600 hymns. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), lovingly known by many as the Father of English Hymnody, is one of my favourite hymn writers. The words to his songs have often uplifted and challenged my heart. Some of his most famous works include "O God Our Help in Ages Past" (based on Psalm 90), "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" and "Joy to the World".

We often have a tendency to restrict our congregational and personal singing to a certain selection of songs contained in the song books we possess. One of the greatest blessings that have come of being, for a time, a member of good churches outside our home country is the opportunity to see that there is so much more to solid hymns than the usual "old favourites". For Loy and I, the "usual suspects" happened to be the most famous hymns of the faith, but also more contemporary compositions produced by music groups and writers who are mostly are associated with Bob Jones University--Wilds and Soundforth, to name two.

I do not subscribe to the view that music is neutral. Neither do I think that any traditional--or for that matter, contemporary--song is good simply by virtue of the date of its composition or style (and shall post a short review of John M. Frame's Contemporary Worship Music soon). However, being in a church that is rather more traditional in its hymn selection and which draws on a much larger corpus of English hymns (especially of the Reformation era) has given me the joy of coming to know many more good hymns--even by writers whom I thought I knew fairly well! The feeling of discovering one of these during a service is akin to that of serendipitously finding a real gem while just casually browsing the bookshelves in a familiar old book store.

"God is the refuge of His saints" (sung last Sunday morning at our church in the Warrington tune) struck me particularly because of the recurring water-related imagery which could not but sound a more powerful note in light of the recent tsunami disaster. Most of us will probably face only tempests of mental, emotional and spiritual kinds. But these may not be, for their non-physical nature, any less distressing, daunting, or dangerous than physical disasters. For those of us, however, who know the Saviour--who have been called "saints"--this hymn reminds us that God is our ever-present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46). And those who do not know the God in this hymn may not be, for all their seeming peace, prosperity and security, better off than victims of devastating natural disasters. The victims of the latter know, at least, that they need refuge and aid.

(Note how the water-related imagery moves from being violent and distressing in the stanzas 1-3 to being gentle and peaceful in s. 4 and 5.)
God is the refuge of His saints,
When storms of sharp distress invade;
Ere we can offer our complaints,
Behold Him present with His aid.

Let mountains from their seats be hurled
Down to the deep, and buried there;
Convulsions shake the solid world:
Our faith shall never yield to fear.

Loud may the troubled ocean roar;
In sacred peace our souls abide;
While every nation, every shore,
Trembles, and dreads the swelling tide.

There is a stream, whose gentle flow
Supplies the city of our God,
Life, love, and joy, still guiding through,
And wat’ring our divine abode.

That sacred stream—Thy holy Word—
That all our raging fear controls;
Sweet peace Thy promises afford,
And give new strength to fainting souls.

Zion enjoys her Monarch’s love,
Secure against a threatening hour;
Nor can her firm foundations move,
Built on His truth, and armed with power.

(The Psalms of David, 1719)


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