Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
"To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen."
(I Timothy 1:17)
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.
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.
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!
-Walter Chalmers Smith, D.D.
Our adult Sunday School this week begins a first for us - a six-week practicum in hymnody. Six weeks of six of the greatest hymns of all time. These hymns have stood the test of time: robust in their theology and rich in their harmony. Over the next six weeks, we will study the history, theology, and harmony of each of these hymns, making it our goal to praise God more fervently and more excellently in our congregational singing.
The great reformer Martin Luther urged, "I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them... Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world."
"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise" was written by Walter Chalmers Smith expounding on I Timothy 1:17. Smith was a well-regarded minister in the Scottish Free Church, serving congregations in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He was the moderator of the General Assembly in 1893 and a great churchman throughout most of his life. He wrote hymns for pleasure and wrote prolifically, but this hymn is the only one that remains in common use today. Originally published with six stanzas, it is today more often sung with just three or four.
This hymn is a rare jewel bursting forth with magnificent imagery of God's glory and of the sovereign infinite nature of our God who dwells in unapproachable light. The central image of light powerfully portrays the Great I AM in all His majesty and glory "in light inaccessible hid from our eyes." In the second stanza, the words strive to capture the eternal nature of God as the light shines forward "unresting," yet "unhasting," able to be utterly silent, and yet, seemingly without effort, to maintain rule over all the world without want or waste. Finally, the third stanza presents a powerful image of a God so bright that even the angels have to veil their eyes. And we confess our feeble desire to render praise befitting our Great Father as we conclude "'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!"
Even while the hymn is centered primarily around the theme of light, it is brimming with specific attributes of God. We see His sovereignty in that He "rules in might." And we see the pinnacle of His "justice like mountains high soaring above" covered with the clouds "which are fountains of goodness and love." We also see for a moment the adoration of angels, pointing to the transcendent and inestimable worthiness of our God as we glimpse His cosmic throne room. We are transfixed in awe and wonder.
SINGING IN HARMONY
Much of the beauty of the great hymns lies not only in their robust theology, but also in the simple melodies which are easy to memorize and easy to sing. The depth and richness of the theology is often echoed, not in difficult rhythms and intervals and trills, but rather in the fullness of the harmony created by the different voices of God's people. There is a deep and resonant beauty in the variety of voices coming together to sing complementary strains of the same great truths.
Luther expounds, "We marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress, and embrace."
On that note, let's consider the tune of this week's hymn. ST. DENIO is a Welsh tune, also known as JOANNA, perhaps based on a Welsh folk song. It is fairly easy for congregations to sing, and it's a great foray into singing harmony for the first time. If you look closely, you will note that the first, second, and most of the fourth line notes are identical. So it's worth working really hard on the first line (10-11 notes) of your part, and you'll find you're well over halfway to memorizing the entire tune!