Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

Walter Chalmers Smith, 1867
Addressed to God
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,1 Tim. 1:17
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,Job 37:21–24; Hab. 3:4; Acts 22:11
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,Neh. 9:5; Dan. 7:9
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.Gen. 17:1; Rev. 1:8; 1 Chr. 29:11; Ps. 45:4
Unresting, unhasting and silent as light,Ps. 121:4; 104:2; 2 Pet. 3:9
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;Acts 17:25; Ps. 66:7
thy justice like mountains high soaring aboveIs. 5:16; Ps. 36:6
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.Matt. 5:45; Hos. 10:12
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,Eph. 1:17; James 1:17
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;Heb. 1:6; Rev. 7:11; Is. 6:2
all praise we would render; oh, help us to seePs. 7:17; 57:9
’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!Ex. 34:30; 1 Tim. 6:16

It is easy to focus on the communicable attributes of God. Scripture drives us there, describing God metaphorically as a Father (Gal. 4:6), with hands and even nostrils (Ex. 15:8), who grieves over his own actions (Gen. 6:6) and who changes his mind (Ex. 32:14). Moreover, there’s a danger in focusing on the incommunicable attributes of God. When we spend too much time thinking about the characteristics of God that are utterly unlike us, we find ourselves perilously close to mysticism, the via negativa, and a religion of uncertainty. Yet sometimes we must remember that God is mostly unlike us. Part of any teaching and admonition that we give one another in song must include this important aspect of our theology. This hymn attempts to describe God at the points where he is least like ourselves, but without being mystical or making impersonal the tender God of the Bible.

Indeed, the very first word of the hymn tells us of its emphasis—God is not mortal. The aspect of his immortality described most often in this hymn is identified in the next word: “invisible.” His immortality does not, however, make him invisible by virtue of nonexistence. Rather, it is his gloriousness that makes it impossible for us to see Him. He is not invisible like a child’s imaginary friend. He is invisible the way a cannon blast, hard by the unprotected ear, is inaudible—to hear it is to stop hearing forever. This blinding glory is to be expected from a being who, above all others is blessed and glorious. Since we cannot see him directly, we are left to praise, not an image of him in our minds (on what basis could we form it?), but the name by which he calls himself.

His ceaseless and steady labor is, in the second stanza, “silent as light.” But is God’s work silent? No. Nor is light. When the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork in Psalm 19 we are given a picture of light (in the form of stars and planets) “declaring” and “proclaiming,” neither of which verbs suggest silence. The poet, Walter Chalmers Smith, is being ironic. God is as silent as the loudest thing in all visual creation—the thing by which we are able to see “what can be known about God. . . in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). And yet people routinely blind themselves with light and can thereby no longer perceive its message. When this happens, one might say that it were silent. Smith will return to this image later, and so shall we. In the remainder of the second stanza, he describes God’s just rule and draws on many biblical images to do so.

The last stanza opens with God’s paternity of glory and light. Here glory and light are linked as they are throughout Scripture, for glory is the means by which God’s character is revealed and light is the means by which we attend to God’s general revelation (and, metaphorically, special revelation). Though there is nothing in Scripture that tells us that all angels veil their faces at the sight of God’s glory, Isaiah 6:2 has long been understood as a suggestion that even the angels are overwhelmed by the light of God. And if God is hidden from the angels because of his splendour, it only makes sense that he would, as the last line says, be hidden from us for the same reasons. With this in mind, it is not God who is hiding from us, but we who must hide from him like the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. “But,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

The tune JOANNA (sometimes called ST. DENIO) is well-loved and sings well even in congregations of limited ability. A straightforward bar-form tune with lots of parallel ideas, this tune is made almost entirely of arpeggiated triads (thus almost all movement is by thirds). The tune’s first line is repeated as its second and last one. Yet, for all this straightforwardness, the tune opens by delaying the establishment of the home key. The first triad to be arpeggiated is the subdominant, then the dominant. We don’t really establish the tune’s key until the first beat of the third full measure. It is almost as if the tune has begun in media res. It is not until the third line that we have the preparatory gestures which, had they been placed first, would have established the tune’s key from the onset. The tune explains itself (as God does) in good time. The effect this third line has on the final repetition of the tune’s opening line in the fourth is electrifying. We ask God to “help us to see,” singing music that makes the tune’s key very clear and then follow it with a phrase that was once tonally unsettling but now, in light of what came before, ineluctably clear.