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Time like an Ever-Rolling Stream

By January 3, 2015 No Comments

By Jim Bratt

Not much gas in the tank, this third day of the new year. The holiday drive is over, and we are cast up upon the shore of returning to the regular round. So all I can do, energy-wise, is post a hymn from good old Dr. Watts apropos of the passing of time.

I mentioned in this space once upon a time how my grandfather would read Psalm 90 on New Year’s Eve. That was before the church service that night, to be followed by another the next morning. “Christian Reformed folks, think you can party?!? We’ll see about that!” And so we were girded in with church on both sides of that fateful midnight, hearing dolorous tones as to the past and our failings therein on the 31st and ominous hints about our fate in the future on the 1st. “Another Year is Dawning,” for the latter; and for the former, Psalm 90 again, now versified in Isaac Watts’s way for his 1719 hymnal, The Psalms of David in the Language of the New Testament.

The usual tune for this song, “St. Anne,” was composed by one William Croft for another purpose in 1708. The six stanzas we’re familiar with are a reduction from the nine that Watts originally penned, faithful to the psalm text as he was. Reading them we’ll probably agree that dropping the three verses set in italics was doubtless for the best as to art, whatever the cost to the original whole. But we can also agree that, three hundred years later, a deep resonance still sounds between the sense of Watt’s poetry and the mood that the changing of the year must stir in every perceptive heart.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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