Walter Chalmers Smith set out with lofty goals when he sat down to write the words to “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” Although it later became his most famous hymn, he was hesitant to complete it, and spent almost forty years revising, reconsidering, and researching before it reached its final form.
During those years of meditating on what it means for God to be both immortal and invisible, Smith ministered at five different churches throughout Europe. As he honed his preaching skills, he also practiced his skills as a poet. His prolific collection of poetry reflects on the depths of human sin and the heights of God’s inexpressible greatness (Bailey 456).
Smith’s love for poetry emboldened him to explore his desire to know the unknowable. He used phrases like “light inaccessible hid from our eyes” in an attempt to describe the indescribable. Job used the same kind of paradoxical phrases to explain the reach of an eternal God, who “fixed the weight of the wind” (Job 28:25).
Through his struggle to express the inexpressible, Smith created a unique hymn. He invited his parishioners to join him in singing about the deep mystery of a God who is both intimate and ineffable.
Smith’s forty-year journey to settle on lyrics for this one hymn is a profound testimony to the mystery of our immortal, invisible God. Even as we spend years of our lives meditating on His character, may we never cease to be awed by the Ancient of Days.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
Walter C. Smith
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!
Bailey, Albert Edward. The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations. New York: Scribner, 1950.