Wayne S. Walker

“Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90.1)

INTRO.: One of the great hymns of the ages based on Ps. 90 is “O
God, Our Help In Ages Past” (#20 in “Hymns for Worship Revised”). The
text is one of five metrical versions of the psalm written by Isaac Watts
(1674-1748). Originally covering verses 1-5 and in nine stanzas, it was
produced perhaps as early as 1714 and first published in 1719 in his work
“The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.”
Watts himself marked stanzas 6-8 as suitable for omission, and most books
today contain no more than six stanzas. Several minor alterations were
made, mostly for poetical reasons, by John Benjamin Wesley (1703-1791).
These include from “Our God” to “O God” in the first stanza (which “Hymns
for Worship” follows), from “Under the shadow” to “Beneath the shadow” in
stanza two (which “Hymns for Worship” does not follow), and from “While
troubles last” to “While life shall last” in the last stanza (which”Hymns for Worship” follows), and are found in his “Psalms and Hymns” of

The tune (St. Anne) is usually attributed to William Croft, who was
born at Nether Eatington (now Ettington) in Warwickshire, England, and
“baptized” on Dec. 30, 1678. After serving as a chorister under John
Blow at St. James’ Chapel Royal, in 1700 he became organist at St. Anne’s
in Soho, where he remained for eleven years. In 1704 he and Jeremiah
Clark were appointed joint organists at the Chapel Royal. Then in 1707,
when Clark died, he became sole organist and in 1708 succeeded John Blow
as organist at Westminster Abbey and composer to the Chapel Royal, a
position which he occupied for the rest of his life. Later, in 1713, he
received his doctorate of music from Oxford University and in 1725 was
one of the founders of the Academy of Vocal Musick. His published works
include “Musicus Apparatus” in 1713 and “Musica Sacra” in 1724 which was
the first edition of English church music in full score, as well as
instrumental music for cembalo and recorder.

In his early life, Croft composed theater and other secular music
but in later years devoted himself entirely to church music. Of
particular interest are his psalm tunes which are some of the earliest
examples of the English psalm tune as distinguished from the
French/Genevan psalm tunes. This one first appeared anonymously as a
setting for Ps. 62 (“As Pants The Heart”) in the “Supplement to the New
Version of the Psalms,” sixth edition, published at London in 1708 by
Tate and Brady. In 1715 the seventh edition of Abraham Barber’s “Book of
Psalm Tunes” titled the tune “Leeds” and attributed it to Mr. Denby. But
in Philip Hart’s 1720 London “Collection” of psalm melodies, Croft is
ascribed as the composer, and it is now believed that Denby merely
prepared a new arrangement. He died at Bath, England, on Aug. 14, 1727,
and is buried in Westminster Abbey. The modern harmonization of the tune
was made by William Henry Monk (1823-1889). It was done for the 1861
“Hymns Ancient and Modern” which was the first hymnbook to combine
Watts’s words with Croft’s music.

This has been called one of the greatest hymns in the English
language, and has been included in almost every hymnbook printed–except
many that were in common use among churches of Christ in the mid-20th
century. It was found in the 1921 “Great Songs of the Church” (No. 1)
but with a tune (Harvey’s Chant) by William Batchelder Bradbury. The
1938 “Great Songs of the Church No. 2” printed St. Anne as a second tune.
It was not used in the the “Christian Hymns” series until the 1966 No.
3, where it is set to a tune by L. K. Harding and the words had to be
arranged, probably by L. O. Sanderson, to fit the tune. The St. Anne
tune was used in the 1963 “Christian Hymnal.” Today, the Harvey’s Chant
tune is found in the 1971 “Songs of the Church,” the 1990 “Songs of the
Church 21st C. Ed.,” and the 1994 “Songs of Faith and Praise.” The St.
Anne tune is found in the 1977 “Special Sacred Selections,” the 1978/1983
“(Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns,” and the 1986 “Great Songs Revised.”
The 1992 “Praise for the Lord” has both.

This hymn praises God for His goodness and guidance.

I. Stanza 1 emphasizes God’s power
“O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.”
A. God has used His power to help His people throughout the past: Ps.
B. Also, He will use His power to give His people hope for the future:
Ps. 146.5
C. Thus, His people can look to His power to provide shelter from the
stormy blast: Ps. 61.3

II. Stanza 2 emphasizes God’s protection
“Under/Beneath the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defense is sure.”
A. The place of God’s protection is under His throne: Ps. 47.8
B. There, the saints can dwell secure: Ps. 4.8 (“Still may we dwell
secure” sounds as if it came from one of those newer hymnbooks which use
only “updated” language)
C. The means of God’s protection is His strong arm: Ps. 44.3

III. Stanza 3 emphasizes God’s perfection
“Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her fame,
From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.”
A. It was God who established the hills and mountains: Ps. 65.5-6
B. It was God from whom the earth received her frame: Ps. 33.8-9
C. This God is perfect because He is an everlasting God: Ps. 93.2

IV. A stanza not in this book (Watts’s no. 5) emphasizes God’s eternal
“A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.”
A. Years and ages are nothing to God: Ps. 102.24-27
B. Even a thousand ages are as the coming of evening would be to man:
Ps. 104.23
C. They would be short as the watches of the night, usually about 3-4
hours: Ps. 63.6

V. Another stanza not in this book (Watt’s no. 7) emphasizes man’s
mortality in contrast to God’s nature
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the opening day.”
A. We are creatures bound by time and the antithesis of God’s
never-ending life is that time for us is short Ps. 89.47
B. Therefore, time bears all its sons away in death: Ps. 89.48 (Some
modern denominational hymnbooks alter hymns to eliminate what the editors
call “gender exclusive” language, and have changed “Bears all its sons
away” to “Soon bears us all away” or “Bears all who breathe away.”
However, even Carlton Young in “Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal”
remarked that this “exemplifies good intentions corrupting a classic
C. Therefore our lives are as dreams which disappear upon awaking in the
morning: Ps. 73.20

VI. The final stanza (Watts’s ninth) emphasizes how man’s weakness is
caught up in God’s care
“O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last, And our eternal home.”
A. In a repetition of the first two lines of stanza 1, God is identified
as the God of both the past and the future because of His everlasting
nature: Ps. 41.13
B. Therefore we can look to Him to be our guard to provide refuge and
strength while life shall last: Ps. 46.1
C. And we can look to Him to give us life everlasting in His eternal
home: Ps. 133.3

CONCL.: This hymn may reflect the troubled times in which Watts
lived, with severe persecution threatened against the Dissenters (of whom
Watts was one), but what he wrote is just as appropriate for God’s people
of all ages. Indeed, after 250 years, his words are still a timely
reminder that God’s faithfulness throught the past is the basis for His
sure promises of the future. Even today, we can call upon Him, saying,
“O God, Our Help In Ages Past.”

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