Hymn of the Month, October 2018
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Last month’s hymn, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” came from the pen of John Newton, the former slave ship captain known best for his hymn “Amazing Grace.” This month we focus our attention on a hymn by his friend and collaborator, William Cowper. Cowper contributed 68 hymns to their Olney Hymns, and this month’s hymn—“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”—was one of them.
William Cowper (his last name rhymes with “super”) lived a life tormented by profound grief, trauma, and depression. Six years after his birth in England in 1731, his mother died. Though he eventually excelled in school academically and athletically, he was “profoundly wretched” at his first school. He fell deeply in love with a young lady, but her father broke off the relationship. As time went on, the episodes of depression that had begun in childhood grew darker and more frequent, especially when his own father died. That said, those depressive episodes were nothing like what followed his nomination to be Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. Being examined for that post filled him with such dread and despondency that he became completely unhinged. He suffered a panic attack during the interview and tried three times to commit suicide. Under the care of a wise Christian physician, however, that depressive episode passed, but only for a time, and not entirely. For the rest of his life Cowper relied heavily upon friends, including John Newton. Cowper depended on them to provide for his needs and to help him, especially during subsequent episodes of depression. The deaths of his brother and a dear friend hit him particularly hard in later years.
Through all his suffering, Cowper also matured in faith. With Newton’s encouragement, Cowper gave voice to his growing trust in Jesus through hymns such as “There Is a Fountain,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and this month’s hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” These hymns and still others express a believer’s hope in the character and deeds of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By most accounts, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was the final hymn Cowper ever wrote. He entered his final depressive episode shortly after writing it, and reportedly never escaped. He died from dropsy on April 25, 1800.
That noted, darkness should not get the last word in the story of Cowper’s life. This opening verse from one of his hymns makes for a better end:
The saints should never be dismayed,
Nor sink in hopeless fear;
For when they least expect his aid,
The Saviour will appear.
Since its publication in Olney Hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” has been paired with a variety of tunes, most commonly the tune used in our Trinity Hymnal. The tune’s melody was first published in a 1615 edition of the Scottish Psalter. The English musician Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1582-1635) composed the harmony. This solemn, yet encouraging tune is well suited for the weighty, yet hopeful content of the hymn, allowing both believers who are hurting and believers who are cheerful to sing together with all their hearts.
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is a song of hope intended especially for those in the midst of trials. Newton and Cowper organized their Olney Hymns in three parts: first, hymns on select texts of Scripture, such as last month’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”; second, hymns on occasional subjects, such as Newton’s “Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!”; and third, hymns on the progress and changes of the spiritual life. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was included in that final part, the first of more than two dozen hymns on the topic of conflict and trials in the Christian life. As already noted, Cowper was well-acquainted with some of those conflicts and trials, and he seems to have written this hymn—the last he ever wrote—to encourage himself and his fellow believers to trust God for his grace. In fact, in Olney Hymns this hymn bears the title “Light shining out of Darkness.”
God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
This month’s hymn starts with a profound declaration that summarizes well the message of the first two verses: God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. What does that mean? It means that God, the God “who alone does great wonders” (Ps 136:4), works in ways we sometimes cannot comprehend at all. Even the understanding we do have is limited. God made that clear in his response to Job in Job 38-41. For instance, in Job 38:33 we hear God ask, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?” Mere humans can neither perform the wonders God does, nor fully understand them. Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” That, however, is not to suggest that we can truly know nothing. God has revealed many things to us through the Old Testament prophets and later his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As Moses declared in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
The second half of this verse expands on the declaration of the first half. Borrowing a pair of images from the book of Psalms, Cowper leads us in acknowledging poetically what we’ve already sung. The God whom we worship plants his footsteps in the sea (Ps 77:19: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”) and rides upon the storm (Ps 104:3: “He makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind….”). Who of us can thus presume to understand all he does?
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
In this second verse we continue to draw upon the testimony of passages such as the ones quoted above. Here we sing of God treasuring up his bright designs deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill and accomplishing his sovereign will accordingly. By these words we acknowledge God’s wisdom, in an echo of Romans 11:32-33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” God’s deeds are wise—profoundly wise—and he further carries out each of them with an authority and power that is without parallel. As Psalm 47:8 proclaims, “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”
Do you know this God? Is this what you believe concerning him? Your confidence and peace in this world hang on your answer, as the following verses will demonstrate.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Having acknowledged that God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform, and that he does so with unparalleled wisdom and authority, we go on now to call ourselves and one another to take fresh courage. No question about it, even the most optimistic of us can always see at least a few dark clouds on the horizon, poetically speaking. In this third verse we remind ourselves and one another that we may live in hope and even “laugh at the time to come” (Prov 31:25) because our God reigns over those clouds we so much dread. He reigns over them, and will make them break in blessings on our heads. Is that to suggest those blessings will always and immediately feel like blessings? No, as William Cowper would be the first to admit. Yet as Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God deals bountifully with his people (Ps 65:11), and that truth alone can sustain our hope and confidence when we see dark clouds all around, and even moreso when those clouds begin to break.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
Given that God’s blessings do not always and immediately feel like blessings, Cowper leads us in pleading with ourselves and one another not to judge the Lord by feeble sense. In Isaiah 55:8 the LORD reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” As difficult as it sometimes is, we must not judge him by feeble sense, but instead trust him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face, as Romans 8:31-39 powerfully conveys. In fact, that passage from Romans actually makes Cowper’s word choice here seem a bit weak. To say that God’s face is smiling seems like an understatement. Romans 8 famously concludes, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you trust the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ even in difficult times? Will you, as opposed to judging him by feeble sense?
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding ev'ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flow'r.
In this fourth verse of this month’s hymn we continue to encourage ourselves and one another to trust in God when his mysterious ways are not only befuddling to us, but even bitter.
The simple truth is that some of his unfolding purposes are—no doubt about it--bitter in the bud, as Cowper could attest. Naomi, the Old Testament saint, could too. In Ruth 1:20 we hear her tell the women of Bethlehem, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.” By the end of the book of Ruth, however, we hear the women of Bethlehem singing God’s praises over her: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him” (Ruth 4:14-15). God’s purpose truly had a bitter taste, but sweet was the flower.
That’s equally true for those who die with the bitter taste of God’s purposes in their mouths, as Cowper did. According to Revelation 21:4, in the new heavens and the new earth, “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
In this closing verse Cowper leads us in acknowledging the limitations of mere human reason, especially blind unbelief. Human reason apart from trust in God through Jesus Christ his Son is sure to err or go astray.
In fact, even believers have a difficult enough time making sense of God’s work! Cowper’s original has a footnote on the first line of this verse, a reference to John 13:7. In that verse we hear Jesus tell Peter, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Only later did Peter understand why Jesus insisted not only upon washing his feet, but also and even more importantly upon dying on the cross. And why was that? Why did he understand? Because God made it plain.
The sufferings of Joseph, first at the hands of his brothers and then at the hands of strangers in Egypt, serve as another example of that. Years later Joseph understood, explaining to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
Are you willing to wait for God to make the wherefores and whys of his mysterious ways plain to you? Will you humbly let God be his own interpreter? That’s as important to do as it is difficult for us proud, curious, and sometimes quite anxious people. Will you trust him for his grace in Jesus Christ his Son?