The hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” lays before us an unabashed and Scripture-filled statement of God’s glory. Admittedly, it does carry an air of stuffiness today. Much of this comes from the elevated language being used, but some from trying to express intelligent thoughts with so many rhymes in such a compressed space. Though it dates from the 19th century, it is a more recent entry into the repertoire of the churches of Christ. It stands as an interesting contrast to some of the “fluffier” songs of praise we frequently see today.
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.
The opening and titular line comes from 1 Timothy 1.17: ” Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” God is not bound by time, has always been and will always be. He is a spiritual, rather than physical being. Inaccessible light is a reference to 1 Timothy 6.16. I might have preferred unapproachable to inaccessible, though both give the sense and inaccessible rhymes just a little bit better. We cannot see Him directly, though we can see what He has done and His influence on the world. The “Ancient of Days” is a reference to Daniel 7.9, 13, but it speaks again to God’s eternal nature. As a result of God’s greatness, we praise His name.
Aside from the direct references to 1 Timothy in the first half, there is a conceptual connection to Exodus 33, when Moses asked to see God’s glory and the Lord responded that no one could see His face and live. There, God said He would pass by Moses as Moses was in a certain spot and cover that spot with His hand so that Moses would not see God’s full glory, but would see His back (part of His glory) after He had passed by. God’s glory is so great that man simply cannot comprehend it fully. However, what we can comprehend, we can praise, and we can “ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name” (Psa 29.2).
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 naught changeth Thee.
The opening portion of this verse is simple enough. God gives all life, as Paul noted in Acts 17.25, and as is recorded for us in Genesis 1. The following thought, “In all life Thou livest, the true life of all,” gives us a little more pause. Simply considering physical interpretations in line with the rest of the verse, this almost has a pantheistic sound. Most, however, take this to be a statement about spiritual life. That is, God gives all physical life, and any spiritual life we have—any righteousness—is a reflection of God, just as the light from the moon is but a reflection of that generated by the sun.
The second half of the verse is a familiar reference to passages like 1 Peter 1.24–25, though the reference is typically to grass, not to trees. However—and particularly at this time of the year with the changing of the seasons—the leaves of the tree paint a more vivid image. It is amazing how quickly we can go from the green leaves of summer to the multicolored leaves of fall and eventually to the falling of those leaves. We face our own seasons of life, as Solomon described for us in Ecclesiastes 12. However, the Bible is abundantly clear that God Himself does not change (Mal 3.6).
Great Father of glory, pure Father of 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.
While we tend to look at “fatherly” language as one of familiarity (and there is a sense of that), it also conveys the ideas of source and exalted position. “Father of light” comes from James 1.17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow.”
The angels veiling their sight is a reference to Isaiah 6, where the seraphim covered their faces in the presence of God.
This verse is actually a common composite of two of Smith’s original verses. It combines the first half of each of the component verses. I confess, however, that I find the final thought (“‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee”) to be an unsatisfying conclusion. I think it’s the “only” that throws me off, giving me the image that if we would just close the window blinds, we would be able to see God. Part of the problem (as we’ll see in a minute) is that since these are really opening lines to a verse, they originally weren’t intended to be a finishing thought, but rather designed to lead to a yet-unsaid conclusion.
In spite of the resulting broken meter, a far more fulfilling thought (to me, at least) is the now-discarded
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.
This plays off the angels veiling their sight, albeit imperfectly. The reference is to 2 Corinthians 3.16 and the veil being taken away when one turns to the Lord. The contrast in that chapter is to the veil that Moses had to put over his own face so that the people could look at him after he had been in the presence of God. God taking the vile from our heart is an echo of Psalm 51.10, for God to create a clean heart in us. Regarding the use of grace in these lines, it speaks to the broad nature of God’s grace, of which salvation is just one facet.
The other half of the verse from which our closing lines come is:
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.
This, too, is a satisfying conclusion. The splendor of light makes God unapproachable/inaccessible. How do we overcome that? Christ in our hearts. We read in 1 Peter 3.15 that we are to sanctify the Lord in our hearts. Paul said in Galatians 2.20 that Christ now lived in him. And so God’s glory imparts Christ to our hearts through the gospel (“Christ in His story”).