Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith:God Moves in a Mysterious Way

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on December 30, 2007

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Hymns of the Faith

“God Moves in a
Mysterious Way”

A Presentation of
First Presbyterian Church



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

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 now with “Hymns of the Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thanks, Bill Wymond. It’s good to be
talking with you and Derek Thomas this morning about hymns, on “Hymns of the

We have been enjoying our study of some of the great
hymns of the Christian tradition. Christianity is a faith that sings, because we
have a Savior who has saved us at the cost of His own blood; and it is our joy
to worship Him with heart, soul, and song, and to do so with fifty generations
and two thousand years of believers. And one of the joys of our studies on
“Hymns of the Faith” has been to go from era to era, from time to time, from
country to country, from culture to culture, and to sing with those saints the
songs of old. And not only to enjoy singing the very word that they lifted up to
God, but to enjoy singing the very words lifted up to God to the very tunes that
they lifted those words up to God with. And having gone from the sixteenth
century to the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century to the twentieth
century, we’re jumping back now to a tune that comes from the early part of the
seventeenth century — maybe 1600 or so.

This tune shows up in the Scottish Psalter by 1615,
and William Cowper, the author of this wonderful hymn text, is from the
late eighteenth century. He’s from the sort of 1770’s, right in that era. He was
a contemporary, Derek, of John Newton, and they collaborated on hymnals. They
were involved in the production of the Olney Hymnbook, which is a very
famous hymnbook from that time.

Dr. Thomas: For about a period of twenty or thirty
years or so, Cowper (who was wholly dependent, I think, on Newton for the latter
half of his life in an unusual way)…they collaborated together on producing
some of the great hymns that we still sing.

Dr. Duncan: And the hymn that we’re going to look at
today is God Moves in a Mysterious Way. It has long been one of my
favorite hymns, but you told me this morning before we started taping that it
your favorite hymn. That’s extraordinary. Tell us about that.

Dr. Thomas: Well, because, I think, I’ve done so
much thinking on the doctrine of providence, writing my dissertation on
providence, or aspects of providence, that this hymn…my wife has to warn me not
to quote this hymn too often in the sermon, because it automatically triggers
some thoughts that, once they begin, the rest of the sermon’s over because it’s
going to go downhill… [laughter]. And you know how you have triggers in
your head. They’re like little doors, and once you open them, it’s hard to close

“God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the

And rides upon the storm.”

We’re not sure just the exact circumstances behind the
hymn; there could be many, of course, in Cowper’s extraordinary life. And it’s
an example of how God uses broken vessels, and Cowper was a very broken vessel.

Dr. Duncan: Cowper was suicidal; he struggled with
deep, deep depression. They would have called it melancholia. We would
have no doubt diagnosed it as some form of depression today and he would have
been medicated, no doubt. But he went through swings on several occasions;
attempted to take his own life, unsuccessfully; struggled with doubts about his
own salvation from time to time; and yet, in his bright periods…the poetry of
this hymn is exceedingly powerful. It is simple, it is beautiful, but it is
crystal clear in its declarations. And Cowper…we just looked at a hymn recently
that probably out of the 1200 things that he wrote this is the only one that
we’ll ever remember, but Cowper wrote a number of outstanding texts, and this
one is typical of the quality that he was able to produce. Walk us through just
a little bit about Cowper’s life, because I think it will be interesting to the

Dr. Thomas: Well, Cowper, of course, was a poet and
is known as a poet, and is studied by English literature majors as a poet.

Dr. Duncan: We should mention that his name is
spelled C-o-w-p-e-r. Americans would think of “cooper” as C-o-o-p-e-r. But this
is apparently a common spelling of that name in his own day. It looks like
Cow-per, but is pronounced Coo-per.

Dr. Thomas: He was…I suppose a “PK” is what we’d
call him today! He was born in the manse, or the rectory, in Berkhamsted, in
November of 1731. That’s just before the outbreak of the so-called Great
Awakening. One thinks of the ministries of George Whitefield (and here, Jonathan
Edwards) as beginning a few years after he was born.

He was a lawyer — a solicitor is what we would call
him in Britain. He was called to the bar in 1754. By the age of 27 or so, maybe
a little more than that…by the age of 30, he was declared to be…in the terms of
the eighteenth century, he was declared to be mad. It was not a good time to
suffer from depression, and I think all of your worst sort of thoughts about
treating folk in that condition.

He had a wretched school experience in his early
life. His experience at school was awful. I had a tinge of it in my own
experience; not much, but I remember just dreading going to school, and bullied.
I think he was always a very fragile…I’m inclined to say effeminate, but he was
a poet, and given to less…although in school apparently he excelled for a period
in cricket and football (what we would call soccer) just for a short time. But I
don’t think of William Cowper as athletic. He was always a fragile creature.

And then he fell in love with his cousin, whose name
was Theodora Cowper. And although it was within the rules of consanguinity, as
we say, technically speaking, it was still borderline to marry your first
cousin. And in any case, her father forbade the marriage. And I think that was
probably the beginning…most of his biographers seem to think that was the
beginning of the slide into melancholy. He was probably predisposed to it. I
wonder if today…you know, he might be bipolar or something like that. But he
never recovered from it. And she, I believe, never married, and secretly
attended to him in his latter years when he needed some nursing care. But he
fell headlong — as you can imagine someone with a poetic disposition — fell
headlong into love with this girl, and the marriage forbidden. And from there,
by the time he was thirty, he was declared to be mad.

He attempted to take his life on at least three — and
some biographers recount, I think, four or five incidents. The most famous one
was on the River Thames. He hired a cab (horse and buggy, I might imagine) and
was about three or four miles away. And he went to the river…it was night, it
was dark. And he jumped into the river with the intention of killing himself,
and the river was only a foot or so deep at that point. And he stood there
weeping, just with the waters around his ankles. Then he…we won’t go into all
the details now, but he tried an overdose on several occasions, at least two
occasions we know of. And how these things can live in the life and heart of
somebody who was truly a believer, and a fragile broken believer…and it was in
God’s providence that John Newton…. You could not imagine a greater contrast
between Cowper and this very masculine figure of John Newton. And they struck up
an incredible friendship.

Dr. Duncan: And yet, don’t you think that Newton’s
own recognition of his sin in his past made him such the perfect friend and
pastor to this man, who was struggling with his own inner demons?

Dr. Thomas: And I think…let me be controversial
here. Cowper and Newton were Calvinists, and I mean Calvinists with a capital
“C”! And I think for Cowper, part of his melancholia — I don’t want to
psychoanalyze him, but part of it was this enormous sense of sin. He was
a sensitive soul and felt sin deeply. And it would take a Calvinistic view of a
sovereign God who is yet gracious and effectual in His grace, I think, to meet
Cowper’s need for assurance. And I think Newton was exactly the man for him.

Dr. Duncan: The tune is just a tremendous tune
used with lots of different Scottish songs. Bill, tell us a little bit about
DUNDEE, because it’s a great tune

Dr. Wymond: I have always appreciated that tune
DUNDEE because it is so easy to sing, and
yet like other good tunes, it’s different enough that you never confuse it with
another tune. And as with easy-to-sing tunes, it just goes up and down the scale
in a predictable way [plays tune on piano]. Anybody can sing that. And
then at the high point of the poetry, the tune skips up and has an emotional
high, as it were, because it goes [plays phrase]…and then the resolution
of the poetry and the tune come easily at the end [plays phrase]. Now
I didn’t play any harmony because the Scots would have sung this without any
harmony, probably–or at least, certainly without any instruments
. But it’s a
wonderful tune: and, again, it has those characteristics of being simple, yet
distinct and creative, and suitable to the words for which it’s being used. And
as you say, it’s used for a lot of different texts, but it’s just one of the
most serviceable tunes, I think, in the Psalter.

I did want to ask Derek something — and this is a
skip from talking about the tune.

Talking about Olney, I think it’s remarkable that
this great work on so many good hymns was done in a place like Olney. Can you
tell us about that situation, that place?

Dr. Thomas: Well, I think it’s a bit like the small
farm in Kentucky that we were thinking of! [Laughter] But it’s small,
it’s country. Newton had a parish church there, but it was very rural and very
English, if that’s what you mean.

Dr. Wymond: Well, what I was thinking was, because
we revere John Newton so much, and because such creative work went on between
Cowper and Newton in getting these hymns for the Olney congregation, one would
have thought that it would have been a very large prestigious parish — one of
the “top jobs” as it were — in the church at the time. And it wasn’t at all. But
these men regarded that congregation as just as important as though they were at
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and they provided all of these original tunes
and texts for the feeding of the souls there at that church. And I always think
that that points us to the way that we should regard smaller churches. The
people in those churches are just as important as the people in any pews, and
deserve just as much energy out of their pastor, and creativity, as he can

Dr. Thomas: And of course, John Owen wrote in one of
his little treatises that the best size for a congregation was around 300, and
he said anything more and you couldn’t pastor them properly. And I think that’s
probably in God’s providence, you know, why we have so much of Newton and
Cowper, but especially Newton’s works. I mean, he had time to devote to that.

Dr. Duncan: You know, another thing that strikes me
as you mention that, Bill, is that if you look over the course of Christianity
since the Reformation in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland…over and over amongst
Presbyterians, amongst Congregationalists, amongst Church of England folk,
amongst Baptists…some of the most remarkable ministries and some of the most
remarkable products of ministry,
whether it be in terms of sermons that are
in print or hymns that have been written or other written products, have been
created precisely in this kind of environment in what is a relatively obscure
You think of Thomas Boston in Ettrick, south of Edinburgh. Even
today if you go through Ettrick, there is nothing there! It’s just a tiny little
village. That’s where he did his work, and he had a tremendous effect on the
whole of the nation and subsequent history. But, being faithful in what was not
a prominent, prestigious, large, affluent, “important” congregational

Dr. Wymond: And also — and I would like to be
corrected on this — someone told me that a lot of these works that they put
together were done for mid-week services, not for Sunday. So that’s even more
interesting to me, that it was not the most important (as many would think)
service of the church, but it was for mid-week services.

Dr. Duncan: Well, I know Newton was given to writing
texts to be sung to go along with the sermons or messages that he was preaching.
And this presumably would have been a relatively common practice amongst those
ministers so gifted in that kind of poetic composition. And I think that’s good
for us to remember, because these people were…they themselves were not sort of
stuck in the past one hundred years with a set of texts that had been handed
down from time immemorial; they were themselves creatively composing material
for the sung praise of the church all along. And I think a lot of people today
who are reacting against traditional worship and traditional hymns think that
there’s always been this static core of material that people were singing; but,
no, they were very creative, and we’ve just sifted through and have sort of the
best of the best that we have carried on in our own time frame.

Dr. Wymond: That is an interesting thought to me
because the tunes, as you say, and the texts that we now revere the most were
sifted out of literally thousands upon thousands of hymns, and so we think that
we have the cream of the crop in them; not that we don’t want to continue to
write, but only time and the church working through new creations can decide
what should remain and what should be tossed.

Dr. Duncan: And it really…it’s taken generations to
get to this particular collection of hymns that have survived out of even these
great writers, and you just don’t know…there may be a song that’s written five
years ago that people really, really like to sing, and it will be fifty years
before we know whether it’s really going to hang on and have a life after that.

Dr. Wymond: We do have a problem in putting together
hymnals, because people say ‘Let’s put the contemporary songs in there, the ones
that the young people will like,’ or something like that. And the minute you do
that, you have dated the hymnal.

Dr. Duncan: That’s so true.

Dr. Wymond: That comes from personal experience, I
can tell you!

Dr. Duncan: Well, you know, because you’ve worked on
hymnals. Better to stick those in your bulletin or use some other mechanism..
There were a couple of hymn texts and tunes that some people wanted to have
included in a hymnal that you worked on, because they were popular at the time,
and almost no one — and I’m talking about the young people — almost no young
people sing those particular songs any more. In fact, they probably wouldn’t
even know them if you mentioned them to them. So it really is one of the
challenges to try and figure out the balance between new material that’s being
written as opposed to the things that are contested.

But looking at the text of this hymn, Derek, it
really is extraordinary. It’s a confession of faith in God’s mysterious

“God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the

And rides upon the storm.”

If that is not a graphic image…I mean, that pulls up
so many things in your mind and your heart when you hear it. Then the metaphor
changes. Go ahead.

Dr. Thomas: Well, the point of course of planting
your footsteps in the sea is you can’t see them. And riding in the storm, you
can’t see Him for the storm. And it’s part of Cowper’s experience. You know,
right at the very end of his life, he lost the lady who had cared for him, and
he plunged once again into deep melancholy, wasn’t sure that God loved him, and
lacked all assurance.

And then there’s this marvelous description of him
when he died. Someone is looking at him. He has just died, and there is this
look … and the quotation is, “There was this look of holy surprise on his face.”
And just before he had died, he had uttered some words: “I am not shut out of
heaven after all.” There is that extraordinary sense, that right at the gates
of heaven Satan gets hold of him once again and robs him of his assurance,
and then as the gates open, this look of holy surprise on his face.

Dr. Duncan: Yes. The image, the metaphor changes in
the second stanza from this stormy scene of invisible footsteps; now we’re down
in a mine. [That should strike at a Welshman’s heart!]

“Deep in unfathomable mines

of never failing skill

He treasures up his bright

And works his sovereign will.”

Dr. Thomas: I think he’s alluding to Job 38 — you
know, when God hasn’t spoken to Job in his trial and tribulation. And eventually
when God does speak, “Prepare for action like a man…where were you when I laid
the earth’s foundation?”–and then it plunges into the depths of the sea and into
the mines where no man had ever been. But God had been there, is the point. And
I imagine this is probably the source for “deep in unfathomable mines of never
failing skill.”

Dr. Duncan: Then from these two images there comes
this exhortation. And it’s an exhortation to fellow saints, but you can also
tell that for Cowper it’s a self-exhortation, pointed in on himself: “Ye fearful
saints… “ [Ya’ll!]

“Ye fearful saints, fresh
courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall

In blessings on your head.”

So there again another picture.
Now we’ve gone from storm to mines to rain clouds, and this is his way of saying
so much of a profounder thing than “behind every cloud there is a silver
lining.” Much better than that, these clouds which look like storm clouds of
judgment are actually going to break big with mercy and blessings.

And then the exhortation

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.”

That may be one of the most famous lines from the
hymn: “…behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” The fifth stanza
is very famous as well, but I love the sixth stanza:

“Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.”

And there again, resigning yourself to awaiting God’s own
interpretation, which may not come, Derek, in this life.

Dr. Thomas: And may never come. We will always be
finite, even in glory. It’s a matter in this life of faith, isn’t it? We have to
trust Him, that’s the point. And God isn’t obligated to give us the reasons. We
must trust Him that the reasons are good ones.

Dr. Duncan: God moves in a mysterious way. Bill
Wymond, let’s listen to this hymn.

Dr. Wymond: Dr. Duncan, singing this hymn this
morning will be Ben Roberson…God Moves in a Mysterious Way.

“God moves in a mysterious

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in
the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

“Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up his bright

And works his sovereign will.

“Ye fearful saints, fresh
courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall

In blessings on your head.

“Judge not the Lord by feeble

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

“His purposes will ripen

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter

But sweet will be the flower.

“Blind unbelief is sure to

And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.”

Dr. Wymond: This has been “Hymns of the Faith”,
brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. The First Presbyterian
Church is located on North State Street, just a block north of the Mississippi
Baptist Medical Center. Our worship services are at 8:30, 11:00, and 6:00 p.m.
We’d invite you to come and worship with us today.

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