“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

This hymn text is based on 1 Tim. 1: 17: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Such an ascription of praise and worship was expanded by the English Baptist preacher Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908) into the four stanzas of the hymn which we sing as the exit processional today. Consider the text: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes, Most blessed, most glorious, O Ancient of days, Almighty, victorious, Your great name we raise.” The first phrase, then, uses the imagery and words from 1 Timothy. The phrase “in light inaccessible” recalls Moses’ inability to look upon God directly and the Old Testament allusions to God’s face being too resplendent for human gaze. Notice also the frequent use of light/dark imagery in this hymn. The term “Ancient of Days” is an expression found three times (only in Daniel) in Scripture to refer to God’s unchanging nature.

Consider the third stanza: “In all life Thou givest, to both great and small; in all life Thou liveth, the true life of all. We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree, we wither and perish, but naught changest Thee.” One must consider the theological implication of this last phrase: “But You never change.” This concept, that God never changes, is called the “immutability” of God, and is widely discussed and debated in theological circles today. Indeed, we know that He is the same, “Yesterday, today, forever.” We also know that God the Father is the Creator of the universe, the Son is the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit is the Preserver of the faith–the nature of the Triune God does not change. Yet, we know that He spared His people when implored to by Moses, He saved Nineveh, and most Christians believe that God hears and acts on their own prayers. Yet, God’s reply to our prayers has no bearing on His nature. Further, we are reminded in this stanza of the sting of death and that ultimately “we wither and perish,” further reminding us of the difference between human nature and God’s nature. Recall Psalm 90: 5-6 (this is a psalm devoted to God’s omnipotence upon which Isaac Watts based his text “O God, Our Help in Ages Past) which states: “You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.”

The tuneful melody of this hymn comes from Wales. Its driving, cheerful, triple meter is characteristic of Welsh hymnody. An early version of this tune from the late 18th century has been found, with the original text dealing with the flight and fancies of a cuckoo bird (called “Y Gog Lwydlas.”) Perhaps the less said of this, the better!

Here is an organ setting of this hymn composed by Benjamin Kolodziej, St John’s Organist and Choirmaster: