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Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

posted Aug 13, 2017, 1:35 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Aug 13, 2017, 1:35 PM ]
How do you express the inexpressible mystery of the Creator? How do you sing about the One who is ineffable — beyond all words? Rev. Walter Chalmers Smith attempted this in "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise."


Smith was a pastor in the Free Church of Scotland when he wrote this in 1867. Though he wrote many hymns, only a dozen have survived, and this is the only one still frequently sung.

Its central metaphor of light suggests the transcendence of this "invisible" one whose identity is obscured by brightness, yet our attention is called to the actions and attributes that give us some indication of who this being is. The first verse is based on I Timothy 1:17:

To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

In the second verse we sing God rules with justice, goodness and love; the third acknowledges the Creator’s nature as the source of all life; while the last reveals the Holy One is adored by angels — and suggests we should follow their example and render our praise.

The tune, ST. DENIO, is derived from a Welsh folk song "Can Mlynned i ‘nawr’" ("A Hundred Years from Now"). It was first arranged for use as a hymn tune in Canaidau y Cyssegr, 1839 (Hymns of the Sanctuary). This melody was then paired with Smith’s words in The English Hymnal of 1905-1906, edited by Gustav Theodore Holst. The tune title refers to St. Denis, the patron saint of France.