I Sing the Almighty Power of God

Praise for Creation and Providence
Isaac Watts, 1715
Addressed to anyone, then to God
I sing th’almighty pow’r of GodPs. 21:13; Rom. 1:20
   that made the mountains rise,Ps. 65:6; 104:8
that spread the flowing seas abroadPs. 104:6
   and built the lofty skies.Gen. 1:7; Ps. 68:34; Is. 40:22
I sing the wisdom that ordainedPs. 104:24; Prov. 8:27
   the sun to rule the day;Gen. 1:16; Ps. 136:8
the moon shines full at his commandPs. 148:5
   and all the stars obey.
I sing the goodness of the LordActs 14:17
   that filled the earth with food;Ps. 136:25
he formed the creatures with his word,Gen. 1:24; John 1:3
   and then pronounced them good.Gen. 1:25; 1 Tim. 4:4
Lord, how your wonders are displayed
   where’er I turn my eye,Job 38; Ps. 104
if I survey the ground I tread
   or gaze upon the sky!
There’s not a plant or flow’r below
   but makes your glories known;
and clouds arise and tempests blowPs. 107:25; 148:8; Jon. 1:4
   by order from your throne;Matt. 8:27
while all that borrows life from you
   is ever in your care,Gen. 9:9–17; Job 38:41; Matt. 6:26
and everywhere that man can be,Ps. 139:7–12
   you, God, are present there.Jer. 23:24; Acts 17:27

A hymn in which we wonder at the glory of God, whether in his being or works, must be beautiful. This is most obvious in hymns about creation. Just as mountains and oceans have their ways of speaking truth, so do the corners of creation addressed on this website—congregational verse and melody—and any hymn falling short of biblical standards of communicativeness (see section 2, “Message”) will, despite good intentions, convey a mixed message: “The heavens declare the glory of God, sort of. Day to day trickles out speech.” Given the plethora of songs on the topic in most hymnals (there is no such plethora, typically—and tellingly—in praise-and-worship collections) leaders responsible for selecting congregational repertoire can be choosy. Of leaders who select, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—in many ways, fine hymns—we must ask, are your congregations saying as much as you want them to, in those four minutes? (They are long songs.) Isaac Watts crafted “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” so that the word of Christ would dwell in us richly. One can profitably study any word in the poem to see how it, more than other choices Watts could have made, enables ordinary Christians to say as much as possible in their song.

The words “I sing” make for a refreshingly direct and literal opening (like that of “God Be Merciful to Me” or “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?”), even as they suggest, by association, a rhapsodic breadth of vision (as in Virgil’s “I sing of arms and the man”) fitting the subject matter. Their repetition clarifies the structure of the first twelve lines: four on God’s power, four on his wisdom, and four on his goodness—the trio of concepts favored by systematic theologies of general revelation (see Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1). God’s power, being “almighty,” generated the biggest things on this planet and beyond. Here’s an impressive demonstration of the English-teacher’s dictum that vital verbs bring writing to life. We do not say, “God caused the mountains to be.” Instead we say, “he made them rise.” The alliterative “made” connotes force, while “rise” brings movement (as does the participle “flowing” in the next line). The verb “spread” vividly anthropomorphizes God in the best, biblical tradition; he distributed the seas the way a contractor lays carpet or the way a housewife makes a bed, but with “abroad” emphasizing the vast dimensions involved. The next verb, “built,” makes the anthropomorphism even more overt, with the adjective “lofty” again emphasizing vastness. God exerts the same control over nature that a builder exerts over a house. Note how much Watts accomplishes in four lines, in words and at a pace that a third-grader can follow.

It is not necessary that we continue in the same detail. A skeptic can read the rest of the poem and discover Watts’s brilliant craftsmanship throughout—the language of decree in the wisdom quatrain, for instance, or the filling/forming in the goodness quatrain. In the second half of the poem we praise God (directly, in the second person) for three additional truths about creation. First, that it matters personally to us, because creation reveals his glory to “me,” wherever “I” look (stanza 2, line 5, through stanza 3, line 2). Second, that the care God took in creation was not limited to the act itself but continues through his works of providence (stanza 3, lines 3–6). And third—the best thing about creation and the climactic idea of the hymn—that God himself is omnipresent in it.

FOREST GREEN sings the glory of the creator through a tuneful rendering of the most fundamental relationship in music: that between the tonic and the dominant. The melody of the stanza’s first line ascends through the tonic chord to a high fifth scale-degree (“sol,” which in this key is the pitch C, harmonized by a C chord), the Gs and the B-flat in the melody falling either on a weak beat or between beats. The repetition of the first scale-degree in measure 1 is buoyed by a bold countermelody in the bass. After this expansive opening, the melody contracts for line 2—contracts in length and in harmonic function, as the dominant harmony appearing on the third beat of measure 2 persists in measure 3 to resolve to the tonic in measure 4 (the G chords in measure 3, though prominant, are subordinate to the dominant). Then the whole thing repeats for lines 3–4. It’s a lovely exhibition of what music does most naturally, cycling from the tonic to the dominant and back again. It inhales, so to speak, in line 1, exhales in line 2, inhales in line 3, exhales in line 4, and then sings out in line 5, for “Lord, how your wonders” and “while all that borrows life.” Right from the first downbeat of that line we sing what has been the highest pitch so far, hold it longer than any prior note (except those at phrase endings), and release it only to sing an even higher pitch (D) that spills into a run of fast notes. Both the melody and the harmony of lines 5–6 hover on the dominant (C). This resolves to the tonic of measure 13, and, since lines 7–8 are identical with lines 1–2 and 3–4, we can describe the whole tune as a large-scale projection of what happens in its first (or last) four measures. Just at its midpoint, it melodically and harmonically attains C, only to settle back to F in the end. Particularly helpful is the way the initial quarter notes of line 8 lend themselves to detached articulation for the commas of “you, God, are present there.”