Dr. Walter Chalmer Smith was a respected minister in the Free Church of Scotland when he published his book of hymns in 1876. The only one that is still regularly sung in churches today seems to have been his favorite. He took his cue from a spontaneous doxology expressed by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to Timothy:
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17)
Smith worked on the lyrics for more than forty years and, finally, settled on these four stanzas:
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 like leaves on the tree,
Then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.
Thou reignest in glory, thou dwellest in light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All praise we would render; O help us to see
‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!
Like Paul before him, Smith was trying to express the inexpressible about God, who can’t be described with words. The best motif he could come up with was light, and he uses it repeatedly. In the first stanza, he speaks of God as being invisible to us because he is “light inaccessible” that our eyes can’t discern. In the second stanza, he uses the enigmatic phrase “silent as light.” The fourth stanza adds more dimensions of light through the word glory and the mention angel worshipers. In the final line of the poem, he returns to the light theme with the affirmation “‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!” This seems to mean that, when we try to take God in fully, to wrap our awareness totally around who he is, we are blinded because there’s too much light, just as we experience temporary blindness when we try to look directly at the sun.
The third stanza is important because it shows us where we fit into this picture. The metaphor changes from light to life. God is acknowledged to be the source of all life, in its many forms and its bounty. And here, in a tiny corner of life, are we humans. We “blossom and flourish,” but then we soon”wither and perish.” Yet God remains his glorious, luminous self: “but naught changeth thee.”
In researching this hymn, I discovered some of the lyrics Smith left out of his final version. This particular couplet caught my attention, probably because of the clever juxtaposition of veil and vile:
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from my face, and the vile from my heart.
So, as we try to see the unseeable, visualize the invisible, catch a glimpse of even the hem of his glory garment, may our prayer be, “Take the veil from my face, and the vile from my heart.”
— Pastor George Van Alstine