Words: Walter Chalmers Smith (b. Dec. 5, 1824; d. Sept. 19, 1908)
Music: John Roberts (b. Dec. 22, 1822; d. May 6, 1877)
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all life thou givest to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish but nought changeth thee.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render: O help us to see
‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
Walter C. Smith a pastor of the Free Church of Scotland, in the late 19th century composed his great hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” in 1876 as part of a collection entitled Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life. The opening line of this fine hymn is based on First Timothy 1:17, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.” It identifies the One the hymn is intended to praise. Not some mere mortal, or some lesser god, but the eternal, almighty, ever victorious God over all, “who alone” possesses these and a multitude of other qualities.
The hymn gives praise to God who is our King eternal, immortal, and invisible. He is “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. It tries to express the inexpressible –– the nature of God –– and so it uses words like this: “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes” ¬¬–– that are mysterious as well as beautiful. “Light inaccessible” –– why would anyone refer to God as “light inaccessible”? The scriptures, particularly the Psalms, speak of God as light: God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear” (Psalm 27:1). “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord” (Psalm 4:6).
But why “light inaccessible”? Perhaps because, if the light of God were to shine upon us full force, it would consume us. Perhaps because we could not stand to see the full glory of God until we see him face to face in heaven.
There are other interesting phrases –– “silent as light.” I think of light as bright or dim or as expressing a particular color, but I had never thought of it as silent –– but, of course, light is silent. This hymn speaks of God as “Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.” How can God be unresting and unhasting on the one hand, but silent on the other? That line reminds us that God is always at work in our lives –– always –– but that God’s presence in our lives is often so subtle that we can fail to perceive it.
He is “King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16). God in His essence is invisible and, in Smith’s word, “inaccessible” to us. By His incarnation, God the Son was translated into a form that human beings could see and know. But, even then, when He revealed Himself in His glory on the Damascus Road, Saul (later called Paul) was struck blind at the glorious sight.
He “alone has immortality” in the sense that it has always been, inherently, a part of His nature while, in the believer’s case, immortality (everlasting life) was give to Him, through faith in Christ (Jn. 3:16).
Walter Chalmers Smith, was in Scotland, on Dec. 5, 1824. He entered the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland in 1850. As an author, his written works include The Bishop’s Walk of 1860, Olrig Grange of 1872, Borland Hall of 1874, Hilda Among the Broken Gods of 1878, North Country Folk of 1883, Kildrostan of 1884, A Heretic, and Other Poems of 1891, and Poetical Works of 1902.
This song uses Biblical imagery in an unbridled expression of praise to God the Father.
Stanza 1 praises Him as all wise: Jehovah is “God only wise” because He alone has wisdom and knowledge that are infinite: Ps. 139.1-5; As such, He dwells in light inaccessible so that no man can approach and see Him: Exo. 33.20, Jn. 1.18, 1 Tim. 6.16, 1 Jn. 1.5; Therefore, He is the Ancient of Days, who always has existed and always will exist: Dan. 7.13
Stanza 2 praises Him as our Ruler: Jehovah is the one who reigns over the whole universe: Ps. 91.3; As our ruler, His justice soars higher than the mountains and clouds: Ps. 89.14; Yet, His fountains are full of goodness and love: Ps. 103.8-18.
The phrases “unresting, unhasting,” and “nor wanting nor wasting” are wonderfully expressive. The eternal God is always at work (“He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep,” Ps. 121:4). But God is never in a hurry, in the sense that He is caught off guard and must rush frantically to catch up.
And the Lord neither lacks anything essential to sustain Him, nor does He waste anything. Normally we’d think of the latter phrase as it relates to ecology and the conservation of earth’s resources. But we can say the same of personal experiences the Lord takes us through, and the difficulties He allows to touch our lives. He has a wise and loving purpose in such things, and will work in them for our good (Rom. 8:28). The last two lines of stanza 2, taken from Psalm 36:5-6, are poetic images of God’s abounding provision and righteous judgment.
Stanza 3 reminds us that God is the Source of all life -the Lifegiver: Jehovah is the one who has given us life and in whom we continue to live: Acts 17.24-28; Yet, though we blossom and flourish with this life, eventually we wither and perish as leaves on the tree: Jas. 1.9-11, 1 Pet. 1.24; However, the one who has life to give never changes: Heb. 1.10-12.
And while aging, corruption and death are a fact of this mortal existence, God is utterly changeless in His nature and righteous character. “We blossom and flourish,” then “wither and perish,” but nothing like that touches the eternal God. He says, “I am the LORD, I do not change” (Mal. 3:6; cf. Isa. 40:6-8; Heb. 1:10-12).
Stanza 4 praises Him as the Eternal One: As the Eternal One, He does not change from today to tomorrow: Mal. 3.6; Because He is not subject to time, He is not subject to the vicissitudes of physical life: Ps. 121.4; This same eternal quality is characteristic of His Son, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever: Heb. 13.8
Stanza 5 praises Him as the Father of glory: The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989 changes the first line to “Thou reignest in glory, Thou dwellest in light,” presumably to make the language “more inclusive,” and satisfy the claim that women may feel “left out” when God is identified only in masculine terms like Father. The problem with this is that the inspired word of God itself constantly uses masculine language to describe the Lord. He is “our Father in heaven”: Matt. 6.9
As our Father, He is adored by the angels in heaven: Rev. 5.11-13; Because of His Father’s love, He wants to take the veil from our faces and the vile from our heart: 2 Cor. 4.3-4, Heb. 10.19-22
Stanza 6 praises Him as the Almighty: some hymnbooks changed the word “laud” to “praise,” but many modern books restore the original term to exalt the one who is Almighty: Gen. 17.1; This Almighty One has revealed His glory through His Son Jesus Christ: Jn. 1.14, Heb. 1.1-2; And His purpose in this is so that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith: Eph. 3.17
You will find that some hymn books make “a few other changes…in the process of updating the text.” The Elizabethan pronouns have been changed to “You, Your, and Yours.” This is a matter of personal preference, and if people wish to write new hymns with modern pronouns that is fine with me, but I do not see any particular reason why we should go back and rewrite the great hymns of the past. Those with a good Biblical background should have no problem with singing the song the way it was originally written. Also the first line of stanza 6 was altered to, “All laud we would render; Oh, lead us to see The light of your splendor, Your love’s majesty!” probably to make the second line rhyme with “see” without using “Thee.” While this hymn has not been used very much among us, it is a great hymn with which to praise Him who is “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”