Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard

Why pour’st thou forth thine anxious plaint?
Isaac Watts, 1707, and Scottish Paraphrases, 1745, 1781
Based on Isaiah 40:28-31
Addressed to one another
Have you not known, have you not heardIs. 40:28
   that firm remains on highPs. 103:19; 123:1
the everlasting throne of himPs. 9:7
   who formed the earth and sky?Neh. 9:6
Are you afraid his pow’r shall failPs. 27:1
   when comes your evil day?Eph. 6:13
And can an all-creating armJer. 32:17
   grow weary or decay?Ps. 121:4
Supreme in wisdom as in pow’rPs. 147:5; Rom. 16:27
   the Rock of Ages stands,Is. 26:4
though him you cannot see, nor traceJob 37:23
   the working of his hands.Job 9:10; 38:4; Ps. 102:25; Eccl. 11:5
He gives the conquest to the weak,Is. 40:29; Zech. 12:8; 2 Cor. 12:9; 1 John 4:4
   supports the fainting heart;Ps. 73:26; 2 Cor. 4:16
and courage in the evil hourPs. 112:7
   his heav’nly aids impart.
Mere human pow’r shall fast decay,Ps. 78:39; Is. 40:30
   and youthful vigor cease;Eccl. 12:1
but they who wait upon the LordIs. 40:31
   in strength shall still increase.Ps. 68:35; 84:7; Mal. 4:2
They with unwearied feet shall treadPs. 94:18; Prov. 3:23; Zech. 10:12
   the path of life divine;Ezek. 36:27
with growing ardor onward move,
   with growing brightness shine.Ps. 37:6; Prov. 4:18; Is. 58:8
On eagles’ wings they mount, they soar—Ex. 19:4; Ps. 103:5
   their wings are faith and love—1 Pet. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:7
till, past the cloudy regions here,
   they rise to heav’n above.Ps. 73:24

The first three stanzas of this hymn counter anxiety and complaint with recollection of God’s nature. The creator of all is sovereign (stanza 1). He is also an immutable and unshakably firm rock to support his people (stanza 2 and stanza 3, line 2). His invisibility should not be taken as a sign of inactivity, for by his comprehensive knowledge of everything he always attains his will in the way that most glorifies himself; that is, he is “supreme in wisdom as in power” (stanza 3). Following Scripture, the poem speaks of God in human fashion—he has a throne (stanza 1), arm (stanza 2), and hands (stanza 3)—making the theology readily apprehensible.

Then, in the last four stanzas, we recollect God’s promises. While some hymns emphasize a promise of reconciliation (Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched) or deliverance (Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, O My Soul) or sanctified afflictions (How Firm a Foundation) or triumph (A Mighty Fortress), this hymn emphasizes God’s promise that the grace we have known will increase. Thus, we have as little reason to fear what may happen inside us as what may happen outside us. There is a progression from being supported (benefiting from someone else’s strength, in stanza 4), to being strengthened (strength within, in stanza 5), then treading and moving (active, not passive, in stanza 6), and finally mounting on wings of faith and love (indeed, “soaring,” in stanza 7). The language of “in the evil hour” (stanza 4), “fast decay” (stanza 5), and “unwearied feet” (stanza 6) resonates with that of stanza 2, lines 2 and 4. The closing lines bring us full circle, as we imagine ourselves rising to the throne on high with which the poem began.

Although it is healthy for congregations to acquire good, new tunes—and, indeed, learning them can be an act of worship—church leaders must weigh carefully the merits of each prospective addition. A tune with commonplace melody and regular structure will be easy to learn but may, in the long run, do little to help the word of Christ dwell richly in us. Conversely, an unusual tune will be hard to learn but may settle its poem permanently in our hearts. Or, if its unusualness is unmusical and irrelevant to the text, it may do nothing but frustrate.

For the first two and a half lines of the stanza, HERMON sings like many successful British and American hymn-tunes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sticking mainly to the three pitches of the tonic chord, with moderate syncopation, repeated pitches, and a short melisma. Then the extraordinary happens. Measure 5 intensifies the pattern of repeated pitches from measure 2. Two half-notes (“-lasting” in stanza 1) leave minimal room for the remaining three syllables of line 3 (“throne of him”). Therefore Measure 6 must contain six quarter notes just as measure 1 did but to opposite effect; whereas lines 1 and 2 are separate melodic units, each ending with pauses, lines 3 and 4 connect somewhat, with activity concentrated at their juncture (matching enjambments between lines 3 and 4 in most stanzas of the poem). The harmony, until now simple and slow, turns momentarily complex and quick in measure 6 before spreading out into what musicians call a plagal cadence: a conclusion in which the final tonic chord comes after a subdominant chord instead of the usual dominant. The effect is serene; indeed, it is the harmony of the “amen” that congregations used to tag onto the end of every hymn.

To summarize by way of simile, the tune resembles a watercourse that constricts and cascades just at its outlet. As in landscapes, so, too, in music the form impresses the imagination by displaying the power of basic elements in creation. Lowell Mason, we suppose, would have called it “sublime.” When ingrained in our memory with the poem above, it helps us to think about the everlasting throne, the formation of the earth and sky, an all-creating arm (and the absurdity of the notion that it could decay), and all the wonders of the increase of grace within the soul. The last note of one stanza links smoothly to the first note of the next, and, through seven short stanzas, the common cadence of measure 4 and the sublime cadence of measure 8 answer one another, over and over again, like the alternating cadences of a psalm recitation. Eventually the common cadence, which in other contexts sounds so terminal, begins to sound medial.

For all their differences, the two halves of the tune belong together. The ending is the full realization of something promised in line 1. The melody’s F on the third beat of measure 1 (on the word "you"), harmonized by a subdominant chord, descends to E-flat harmonized by a tonic chord on the downbeat of measure 2 (on the word "heard").

HERMON phrases

The trick for accompanists is to find the right tempo: fast enough to avoid stasis in lines 1–2 but slow enough to make sense of the juncture between lines 3 and 4. Every congregation has to figure this out for itself, but half-note equaling 72 will work well for most. The congregation that desires a simpler tune might learn TIVERTON, which British evangelicals currently use for this text.