Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on September 6, 2013

1 Timothy 1:17


Hymns of the Faith

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

I Timothy 1:17

A Presentation
of First Presbyterian Church

Jackson,
Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill
Wymond


Dr. Wymond: Good
morning! This is “Hymns of the Faith,” brought to you by Jackson’s First
Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon
Duncan. Stay tuned for “Hymns of the Faith.”….. Here with “Hymns of the Faith”
is Dr. Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you,
Bill Wymond. This is Ligon Duncan, along with Derek Thomas, for “Hymns of the
Faith,” where we talk about these great hymns that have been handed down to us
through the history of the church, which we in the English-speaking world
benefit from, whether they were written in English or written in another
language and then translated into English.

We have had the joy
of talking about some of the finest hymns ever written on this program for the
last number of months, and today we come to another excellent hymn. This is a
hymn that we often use to open a service at First Presbyterian Church, because
its praise is directed to God. It’s based right out of I Timothy 1:17 — “Now to
the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory
forever and ever. Amen.” And it was written, it was composed, authored by a
Scottish Free Church minister (Free Church of Scotland — I’ll get Derek to
explain what that is in just a little bit) back at the end of the nineteenth
century. You can tell the influence. He would have been used to singing metrical
psalms, and what he has done is he has basically gone to the Scriptures, and he
has in a poetic paraphrase, in a metrical form, set Scriptural truth to song,
and given us a lyric that is squarely based on the affirmations of Scripture,
but it is in the form of a hymn and is directed to our heavenly Father. The song
is Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.
Many of you in our listening audience will immediately recognize the tune to
that hymn, which is a marvelous Welsh hymn tune, which no doubt Bill and Derek
will talk about in just a few moments. But maybe, Bill, it would be good, just
for those who don’t know this tune, to hear it once before we even start talking
about it. [Dr. Wymond plays hymn.]

Dr. Thomas: Perfect!

Dr. Duncan:
Absolutely! Derek, tell us about Walter Chalmers Smith,
the author of this wonderful text, and then, if you could, maybe tell us a
little bit about the pronunciations of this Welsh tune and some other things
like that.

Dr. Thomas: Walter
Chalmers Smith was born in Aberdeen in Scotland on December 5, 1824, and had a
marvelous education at grammar school and the University of Aberdeen, and
studied theology in Edinburgh. He was ordained a pastor of the Scottish Church
in Chadwell Street in Islington, in London.

I suppose we need
to explain. The Scottish Presbyterians always, unto this day, have a presence in
London, which may sound a little odd. But really there was no Presbyterian
church in Wales for…well, since the time of the Westminster Assembly to this
day. There is now a small denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of
England and Wales. They have maybe a dozen, fifteen congregations — smallish
congregations.

Dr. Wymond: In England,
you’re saying?

Dr. Thomas: England and
Wales. Because Wales does have — has always had — a Presbyterian Church, though
it’s called the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, because it sprang out of The
Great Awakening, and…

Dr. Duncan:
…Methodism… which didn’t refer to polity; it referred to an approach to piety
and sanctification in the Christian life.

Dr. Thomas: So he was
a pastor then in the Chadwell Street congregation in London.

Dr. Duncan: Partly
this is because there were so many expatriate Scots who were there from the time
of the Union of the Crowns, and then much more so even after the Union of
Nations in 1707. You just had tons of Scots working in London. I mean, the
economy in London has obviously always been bigger than the economy in most of
Scotland, and so you’ve always had Scots that came to London to work.

Dr. Thomas: Right. And
the fact that they would feel the need to gather together in a clannish ethnic
sense for worship and not mingle with the rest of the British may seem a little
odd, but if you’ve worshiped as a Presbyterian for your entire life, going to
London and worshiping, say, as an Anglican…if you’re a paedobaptist there would
be considerable differences. And to this day many of the Scots who are from,
especially, the north of Scotland, when they come to work in London as civil
servants or something, they attend the Scottish Church in London. And Walter
Chalmers Smith was the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland in 1893?

Dr. Duncan: Yes, the
Jubilee Year of the Free Church.

Dr. Thomas: And help me
with the history of the Free Church of Scotland…the disruption from the main
line…

Dr. Duncan: Well, in
Scotland there had always been a legal requirement that the state and nobility
not interfere with the affairs of the church, but this had been violated ever
since the Treaty of Union in 1707, when England and Scotland became together
part of Great Britain, along with Wales and Ireland. There were provisions that
were made to protect the independence of the Scottish Presbyterian Church,
because the Church of England had always been interfered with by the state and
by the nobility. Nobility in England had always been actively involved in
appointing pastors in their particular areas and such, and Scotland wanted none
of that.

But when the Treaty
of Union went through, lots of Scottish nobility wanted to have the same kind of
advantages and influence that their English cousins to the south had. So there
was a conflict, and really every major Scottish church split that occurred from
1707 to 1921 had to do somehow with the interference of the state or government
or the nobility in the affairs of the church.

Well, in 1843,
things came to a head in Scotland about, basically, local landed nobility
interfering with the appointment of pastors, or the blocking of pastors being
appointed in their area of landholdings. There had been an ongoing battle
probably for twenty years in the church about this, and Thomas Chalmers — [and I
wonder if there’s any family relation there…I don’t know about this fellow. I’m
going to have to go back and study him a little bit more.] But Thomas Chalmers
was the very widely regarded leader of this movement, and many of the young
leaders of the Free Church had actually been educated under his ministry.

Thomas Chalmers led
what was called “The Disruption” where about a thousand ministers of the Church
of Scotland left the Church of Scotland. They walked out of the Church of St.
Andrew in Edinburgh (it’s now called St. Andrew’s and St. George’s). They left
the Church of St. Andrew, walked around the corner, went down to the Canonmills
and started their own General Assembly. Basically, they left their homes, they
left their stipends, they left their churches because they were going to lose
all those things over the spiritual independence of the church. They did not
want the state to interfere with the local church being able to call its own
minister…and with the church being able to conduct its affairs without the
interference of the state.

Dr. Thomas: And not all
of those who bravely walked out of the Assembly in 1853 were on the same page
theologically. They walked out because of the principle of the interference of
state, so that emerging church were still theologically mixed, and so more
splits would take place later.

Dr. Duncan: …later on,
that’s true. We were just talking off-air before we came on, one of the
differences was many of these men were committed to only singing Psalms, but
many of them believed that we should sing Psalms and hymns. And we were
commenting on how it was interesting that this very distinguished Free Church of
Scotland minister — a denomination that certainly predominantly practiced
exclusive psalmody (that is, only singing metrical psalms)…we commented that it
was interesting that he would write a hymn. In fact, he wrote a collection of
hymns. Now maybe that was for use in private worship in the homes, but there
were certain…I mean, you and I could immediately name a number of very famous
Free Church ministers who were hymn writers. The Bonar brothers gave us some
wonderful hymns that we sing.

Dr. Thomas: He was also
a minister, possibly before he went to London, of a very famous church in
Glasgow, the Tron.

Dr. Duncan: Tell us
what a “tron” is, Derek.

Dr. Thomas: I have no
idea! [Dr. Wymond laughs]

Dr. Duncan: Well, the
tron was the weighing device in the center of a city, so if you were selling
cabbages and such you would put it on the tron, and this would be weighed for
the purpose of sales. And so the tron was a center point in every city. It’s
where they would set up the Saturday markets and such, and all the farmers from
the countryside would come in and sell their wares. And so the Tron Kirk in
Glasgow would have been the kirk that was closest to the center city. And if you
go to St. George’s Tron today it’s just smack-dab in the middle of the city.

Dr. Thomas: I never
knew that. I never knew about those musical signs that you were talking about
earlier, and I never knew the meaning of tron!

Dr. Wymond: Shaped
notes!

Dr. Thomas: Shaped
notes! I drove around the Tron just a month or so ago — five or six weeks ago.
Very famous men, of course, in our time have been ministers there: Eric
Alexander, who’s now retired; and Sinclair Ferguson, a dear friend of ours.

Dr. Duncan: And before
Eric Alexander, George Duncan, who was famous in his own right, in his own day.

Dr. Thomas: And still a
very prestigious congregation in the Church of Scotland — not the Free Church of
Scotland.

Dr. Duncan: Our own
friends…Emily Stone, who’s now got a different last name because she’s gotten
married, are there. She’s there along with her husband, Josh. This is the
daughter and son-in-law of Bill and Gayla Stone in our congregation. They’re
worshiping there.

Dr. Thomas: And I spent
Christmas Eve with them in Glasgow, having a very British Christmas Eve dinner.

But this hymn is
perfection. There’s an interesting question I wanted to throw in your direction.
If…apart from this hymn, if you were strictly exegeting I Timothy 1:17, on which
it is obviously based

“Now to the King eternal, invisible, the only
God
be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”,

is that a reference to
Christ, or is that a reference to God the Father? Certainly the hymn is a
reference to God the Father. I’ve often wondered that, because that issue apart,
this is a marvelous way to begin a service. If the service is going to have a
hymn to God the Father, and a hymn to Christ, and an appropriate hymn of the
Holy Spirit before the reading of Scripture and preaching, and then the final
one to close off whatever one was doing in the sermon, I mean, that would be a
perfect service! And I can’t think of a better hymn ascribing praise and glory
to God. It is immediately God-centered. It takes us right to the throne of God,
which is so appropriate at the beginning of worship.

Dr. Duncan: And the
tune is majestic. Bill, tell us about this marvelous tune.

Dr. Wymond: I think this
is the happiest tune I know! I love this tune! It’s so joyful, and I think that
comes from two things. One is the meter of it. It’s set in ѕ time,
and that is the waltz time, and
so you just don’t have an unhappy waltz, as far as I know! And the second thing
is that it is made up primarily of the intervals of a third,
like [plays] 1,2,3…1,2,3… like that.

Dr. Thomas: Do you
think at all that Trinity was behind choosing this …?

Dr. Wymond: I’m not
sure. I would say probably not, on this particular tune. On one other, I would
say quite possibly. But the result of having so many intervals of third
is…it’s the happiest and the most consonant interval I know…is that you get such
a pleasant tune here, a joyful…[playing]…almost
all intervals of thirds. Those are all intervals of a third right there. And
then this is a third…then more thirds…that’s not a third, that’s a fourth. So
both the intervals and the meter just lead to a very, very happy song.

I wanted to ask you
something. This tune actually comes from a Welsh ballad. It was a secular song
at one point, and the words say something about “a hundred years from now.” I’m
not sure what it’s saying will happen in a hundred years from now in a secular
way, but can you tell us that Welsh word right there, or…?

Dr. Thomas: Right.
Well, there’s hun cant blynedd chan awron, which means a hundred years
from now. And then the tune first appeared in John Robert’s Canaidau y
Cyssegr
, which means “Songs of the
Assembly” or something like that, or as translated here, “Sacred Songs” in 1839,
originally called Palestrina. But just as How Firm a Foundation to
the American folk tune that we spoke about previously has that folksy tune, you
know this to me has a Welsh folksy element
to it. You can imagine almost a children’s lullaby, or at least a children’s
song, being set to this tune.

Dr. Duncan: But it’s
interesting that we tend to associate, at least in the Welsh hymnody that has
taken root in America…we tend to associate Welsh tunes with tunes that
have lots of feeling in them. They’re often in
a minor key; they can be incredibly robust, but still in a minor key. And this
is very, very cheerful in comparison to many of the Welsh tunes that we’re
associated with. Now, in your mind, Derek…I mean, you grew up in Wales hearing…
What’s the range of Welsh tunes that you’re…?

Dr. Thomas: Well, there
are very divergent tunes in Wales, and the ones that you’re thinking of are the
ones…O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, my great Redeemer’s praise…and you
need a thousand voices to carry that tune well.

Dr. Wymond: Or this
one…[plays]…I’m giving you….

Dr. Duncan: O the
Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
…yes.

Dr. Thomas: And they were sung, and I think set to hymns,
in a time of Welsh revival, when Welsh
churches (or chapels, as they would have been called) might have been a thousand
or fifteen hundred strong, and the Welsh love to sing, so you can imagine that
volume. And sometimes they don’t work, when a congregation isn’t prepared to
sing with gusto.

But you know
the Welsh instrument is the harp, and
therefore a lot of Welsh folk tunes are quiet and of the opposite kind. So, in
school, for example, a lot of my friends learned to play the harp — I sort of
wish I did; I love listening to harp music. And you can imagine…I’m pretty sure
that Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his setting of Welsh hymn tunes, has an
orchestration of this that is set to harps. You [to Dr. Wymond] can
imagine how that might be set out for harps.

Dr. Wymond: We’ve talked
about it before, but let me ask you once again: Why do the Welsh like to sing so
much? They sing at their football matches!

Dr. Thomas: Oh! But
this year was a special event! Six nation rugby tournament in Cardiff! You know,
just the sheer volume! I sent you a link on the internet of them singing the
national anthem.

Dr. Duncan: It was
really, really powerful!

Dr. Thomas: Eighty,
ninety thousand in the stadium, and…

Dr. Duncan: And you
would see clips of those rugby players, and there’d be tears in their eyes as
the Welsh national anthem was being sung.

Dr. Thomas: I remember
growing up and going to what was called Gymanfa Ganu
that would be held once a year
in the chapel. All the other churches in the town would close. Everyone would
gather. People who never adorned a church building from one year to the next
would go there, and they would sing just hymns — very familiar hymns, Welsh
tunes mainly. I mean farmers who you would never see in church would be there
singing hymns. I remember that as a boy, and it still takes place, though
probably less so now.

Dr. Wymond: Well, it’s
just a remarkable phenomenon. Now, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but it
just seems like a contrast in circumstances, because I think of Wales as
somewhat a rainy country — is that right?

Dr. Thomas: You’ve hurt
my feelings now… [Laughter]

Dr. Wymond: A little
bit, you know…a little bit dour in certain ways…and yet they have this robust
singing. You’d think they would go around mourning all the time instead of…

Dr. Thomas: You know,
people who are exuberant often have a dark side, too. And there’s an expression
in Welsh called Y ci du which means a black dog that sits
on your shoulder and whispers sort of very dark, somber, melancholy thoughts in
your head.

Dr. Duncan:
The Welsh are Celts, and this
is typical of all of the Celts. There’s deep emotion that is not perhaps
expressed in the sort of obvious sort of way that we express emotion in America.

Dr. Thomas:
But the Irish love to sing, and
it’s a different kind of singing. And if you go to any Irish…well, you wouldn’t
go to an Irish bar. But if you went to an Irish bar you’d hear Celtic music,
which is very much alive. There are entire radio stations devoted to Celtic
music.

Dr. Duncan:
But even in Scotland, where I
would guess that the kind of singing culture that exists in Wales has largely
died amongst the young people in lowland Scotland, but when you get up into the
Gaelic parts of Scotland, there is still some of that singing culture left, and
especially on the Island of Lewis, where the Gaelic psalms would be sung. You
get maybe a little taste of that with the Celtic roots there.

Dr. Wymond:
So for whatever reason, we have inherited a wonderful group of songs in our
hymnody here in the United States from the Celtic tradition. Thank you!

Dr. Thomas:
Well, this one…you know we’ve
talked in the past about the marriage of tunes to words, to a hymn, and it would
be sacrilege to try and sing this to any other tune! It is so perfect, and fits
these words, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from
our eyes.”

Dr. Duncan:
Looking at the text, Derek,
apart from that very interesting issue you raise about whether this text is
actually one of those great pauline attributions of deity to Christ, talk about
the focus of the hymn text itself on the person of God the Father.

Dr. Thomas:
It’s like the answer to The
Shorter Catechism
, “What is God?” “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal,
unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, justice, holiness, goodness and
truth.” And it’s as though it’s a comment on that first section. Of course,
The Catechism
is a comment on Scripture: “God is a spirit, infinite,
eternal, unchangeable…”; and here it’s “Immortal, invisible, God only wise,” so
the immortality of God, the invisibility of God, and the wisdom of God. But it’s
looking at the attributes of God, and we’ve said in the past that one of the
best antidotes to depression is read a book on the attributes of God!

Dr. Duncan:
You pointed me just this week
to a book in which there was a wonderful article on the doctrine of God in
pastoral care. In fact, I have your copy of that book and have already read that
article. I was so deeply impressed even by the opening paragraph that makes that
very point, that the doctrine of God is a source of tremendous comfort and ought
to be part of our pastoral care.

But
you know, as good as that first stanza is, the second stanza is every bit as
good:

“Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,

Nor
wanting, nor wasting..” [That is, never lacking, never wasting]

“…Thou rulest in might.”

[And I
love this line…]

“…Thy justice, like mountains high soaring above

Thy
clouds which are fountains which are goodness and love.”

Bill,
let’s hear this great hymn.

Dr. Wymond:
Today we’ll hear the hymn
Immortal, Invisible
sung by the choir of The Winchester Cathedral, with
David Hill, Music Director, and David Dunnett, the organist.

“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,

Thin 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!

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