I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, my God;
I will sing praise to you with the lyre, Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you –
I whom you have delivered.
– Psalm 71:22-23
Good writing either expresses ideas and emotions that we’ve never really been able to put into words, or takes familiar things and helps us to see them in a fresh and dynamic way. Great writing, like ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’, does both! Written as a poem in 1773 by William Cowper, there’s no other hymn like it in the English language. If you’d like to read the full text, just click here. If you’d like to listen to it, here’s a home-made version:
– thanks to Andy, Rosie, Fay, Sarah and Sarah for their help.
The song begins with a vivid, memorable image of an allpowerful God, master of the wild expanses of earth and heavens:
‘He plants His footsteps in the sea and He rides upon the storm.’
This is the Lord Jesus who commands the elements, calms storms and walks through the high winds on Galilee to save His terrified disciples. As CS Lewis put it:
‘He isn’t safe. But He’s good!’
In the following lines, Cowper moves on to paint a strikingly fresh picture of God at work:
‘Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will’.
Every word here counts. God’s depths are ‘unfathomable’ to us:
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts your thoughts’
– Isaiah 55
His skill – the intelligence and purity of His workmanship – is ‘never-failing’. His designs or plans are ‘bright’, glorious and full of light. His ‘sovereign will’ cannot be checked. He actively works to bring about the designs He cherishes or ‘treasures’. The living Lord has ‘wonders to perform’.
If God is the perfect designer in the first verse, He is presented from another angle in the final verse:
‘God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain’.
The promise and hope for the believer is that our Lord will one day take the apparently meaningless jumble of our fears, disappointments, heartaches and put them back together in a way that makes sense.
He’ll let us see, clear as day, the stunningly intricate pattern we’ve never even glimpsed before. Like a good ‘interpreter’, He’ll help poor, limited creatures like us to understand.
We all know that Christian believers can be mocked for having a blind, easy, unthinking faith.
That’s definitely not the case with Cowper.
The threat of ‘clouds’ and ‘dread’ in the second verse reflect his own experience of depression – faith is not at all easy for him. He has a keen awareness of his own, and all humanity’s, ‘feeble sense’. In spite of these heavy burdens, he clings to the word of God, particularly Jesus’ great words of re-assurance in John 13:7 –
‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’.
So, Cowper sees beyond this present darkness and understands that those clouds ‘Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head’. In his loveliest line, Cowper reveals the great truth that, ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face’. The writer has come to know not only the all-powerful God of the first lines, but also the heavenly Father whose
warm, welcoming smile speaks of endless love and mercy. This is why Cowper can ‘trust Him for His grace’ and why ‘Blind unbelief is sure to err’.
I’d love to have time to explore the strength of the rhymes; the simple, natural language of ‘ripen… bud… flower’; the contrasts running through the lines – ‘bitter/sweet… frowning/smiling’; and much, much more.
As you finish this article, read the full text of the poem/song or listen to it, Cowper has one final piece of encouragement in these troubled times:
‘You fearful saints, fresh courage take…’
– This article by Mark Keown originally appeared in Issue 3 of the BPC Newletter