Hymn of the Month, July 2018
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is one of many hymns written by the 19th century minister Walter Chambers Smith. Born in 1824 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Smith pursued a course of preparation for ministry and in 1850 was ordained into the Free Church of Scotland. For him writing poetry was way to retreat from the burdens of ministry and refresh his soul. He published a number of volumes of poetry during his lifetime, but “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is his only poem that has found an enduring place in the hymnody of the Christian church.
As with many of our hymns, the endurance of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is due in part to the fitting tune that is closely associated with it. This tune was composed by a popular Welsh balladeer of the early 19th century, David Morris, a cobbler by trade. In 1839 a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist minister included the tune in a hymnal he published. In 1906 the editors of the English Hymnal paired the tune with a revision of Smith’s words, and the hymn as we know it today was born.
The Trinity Hymnal contains three verses of the hymn, but most hymnals today contain four—the same four verses published in 1906. The words of the omitted verse are worth quoting in full. They lead us to praise God because he, unlike us, is immortal and immutable (unchanging):
To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small,
in all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.
Will you praise this immortal and immutable God today and this month? Will you join your voice in singing of his incomparable character, with the delight and hope of one who calls him Father through Jesus Christ his Son?
Based on 1 Timothy 1:17 (“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”), this month’s hymn leads us in acknowledging that our heavenly Father is beyond our comprehension and worthy of all our all praise. In a sense, what we do in this hymn is express the inexpressible being and deeds of our God. And how do we manage to do that? By relying on Scripture, of course—the words and word pictures God used to reveal himself to us. For all his poetic prowess, Walter Chambers Smith, the writer of the words of this hymn, created an enduring hymn not by his originality, but by his reliance on God’s self-revelation, as shall soon become evident.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
Upon close examination, this opening verses consists of a single sentence. This sentence’s main subject and verb come at the very end: we praise. That noted, the focus of this opening verse is clearly on God and his being and nature according to the testimony of Scripture. He is:
Do you praise him? Will you?
Unresting, unhasting and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
We continue our praise here in this secondverse, where the writer of the hymn continues to stitch together God’s self-revelation and so lead us in praising him. Our God is:
This God absolutely deserves our highest praise and obedience!
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render; O help us to see
'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!
Here in this final verse we continue to express delight in God, but this time with praise that gives way to a plea for God’s help. After acknowledging that God is “the Father of glory” (Eph 1:17), the God of light, in whom “is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), the one whom angels adore with faces covered (Is 6:2-3), we go on to ask him to help us give him all the praise we would render (give).
In particular, we ask him to help us to see / ‘tis only the splendor of light that hides him. What does that mean? For better or worse its meaning isn’t readily evident from the hymn as printed in our Trinity Hymnal. A person has to go back to the hymn as originally written by Walter Chambers Smith:
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.
All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.
From those verses we can gather that the final line of our hymn is part of a larger prayer based on 2 Corinthians 3, where the apostle Paul talks about God’s glory being veiled to minds and hearts apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:16). Soon thereafter Paul states, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). The final line of our hymn is a plea to God to take us from blindness to sight through the gospel of Jesus Christ applied to our heart and life, so that we one day may no longer see and praise him dimly, but instead see and praise him fully (1 Cor 13:12).
Do you look forward to that? Will you make this prayer your own?