In this regular feature from Peter Lewis we get to learn the story behind the hymn.
The hymn O God, our help in ages past was composed by Isaac Watts early in the eighteenth century. Watts was the son of a Dissenter - a person at odds with the Church of England - who was in prison for his beliefs at the time of his son's birth. Isaac is known as the Father of English Hymnody, composing well over 600 hymns, including Jesus shall reign where'er the sun and When I survey the wondrous cross, in his lifetime.
So well-loved is the hymn that many consider it a second national anthem and a very fitting hymn to sing each November. Watts originally wrote nine verses but we only sing six today. What endears it to so many, with its echoes of Psalm 90, is its strong message of assurance, promise and hope: assurance in the words 'from everlasting you are God to endless years the same'; promise in the words 'our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home'; and hope in the words 'O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come'.
Dissenters were treated very badly at the time Watts was writing his hymns. Queen Anne forced through Parliament an act - the Schism Act (never enforced) - which had the aim of severely limiting religious freedoms. There were many Christians who could not accept the strict doctrines and practices of the Church of England and the hymn must have brought assurance, promise and hope to those believers at a time of great fear and instability. Verse one gives us, too, that assurance, promise and hope. God does not stop troubles coming our way; but He understands us, hears our cries for help and shelters us in His loving arms.
Time has always been an important theme in poetry and hymnwrights down the ages have contrasted the timelessness of God with mankind's short span on earth: 'A thousand ages in Your sight are like an evening gone'. And in verse five we have the beautiful image of time 'like an ever-rolling stream ' bearing all its sons away. The word sons brings to mind all those who went off to war in Europe and Asia and never came home. God surely is 'our defence while life shall last, and our eternal home'.