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This is part of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.


Psalm 88 is surely the gloomiest of all the psalms of lament and a fitting description of poet and hymn writer William Cowper’s life (1731-1800). Verse 15 says, “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.” This verse describes much of his experience, even as a Christian. Cowper is regarded as one of the best early Romantic English poets and also wrote some of the best English hymn texts, often in collaboration with his friend and mentor John Newton. But despite his literary success and friendship with one of the most warm-hearted pastors in church history, Cowper struggled with severe depression most of his adult life. Despite a powerful conversion he never enjoyed a continuous assurance of salvation and often struggled with thinking himself under God’s wrath. His life is a testimony to God’s sustaining grace and willingness to use weak vessels to glorify himself and bless others.

Cowper wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” in 1773 before he fell into a deep depression. In the mysterious providence of God this hymn has brought comfort and hope to countless believers who, like Cowper, struggle through the long dark night of the soul. In this way Cowper fulfills what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:12, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” The hymn lyrics remind us that God’s ways are not our ways and that things are often not the way they seem. He often works most powerfully in apparent weakness, those who may feel abandoned by God may in fact be beloved children, and there are wise and loving purposes in the suffering he ordains for his people. As Cowper writes,

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

I am highlighting Bob Kauflin’s arrangement of Cowper’s hymn. Bob, director for worship at Sovereign Grace Ministries, wrote new music and added a refrain after the tsunami disaster in 2005. He wanted to proclaim the truth of God’s sovereignty in the midst of catastrophes and help the church to respond in faith. May Cowper’s life and this hymn encourage you to trust in God’s sovereignty in your life and to cling to Christ in all your trials and sufferings.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm
Deep in His dark and hidden mines
With never-failing skill
He fashions all His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

So God we trust in You
O God we trust in You

O fearful saints new courage take
The clouds that you now dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

So God we trust in You
O God we trust in You
When tears are great
And comforts few
We hope in mercies ever new
We trust in You

God’s purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain

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14 thoughts on “Hymns We Should Sing More Often: God Moves”

  1. Lindele says:

    This is possibly my favorite Sovereign Grace song (and that’s saying a lot). We tend to sing it two or three times a year at my church. I hope more folks will become familiar with it! Thanks for this series on underused hymns!

  2. lwesterlund says:

    This hymn possesses what so many of the hymns we sing lack–excellence in poetry! Each verse develops a fresh image–the essence of poetry! And Cowper develops the image well, because he is a gifted poet. Images make us feel–they connect with our emotions; abstractions do not, no matter how theologically sound they are. C. S. Lewis knew this and wrote about it. And God gives us a Word full of metaphors, to bring the Truth home.

    But why highlight the contemporary version which adds a refrain? How do these words improve this poem? Not only does this insertion not improve a magnificent poem, it derails it. It shifts the emphasis of this glorious hymn, which is all about God and His ways, to us.! Why is this necessary? Can we not focus on God and be blessed thereby? Can we not focus on God without getting ourselves and what WE will do in the picture? And does this not play into the narcissism that so plagues our culture and the humanism that infects our contemporary theology? To truly worship is to focus on God Himself as Cowper so brilliantly does in this poem. Therein lies all our comfort and all our hope. In our God, not in ourselves..

  3. Brett Miller says:

    Great hymn! I really like this song. I don’t think the chorus that SG has included is man-centered if it celebrates God as trustworthy in times of trials. As several Johns (Calvin and Frame) have noted, we better know God when we better know man, and God’s glory is highlighted in man’s weakness. That being said, I prefer it without the chorus as well. Jeremy Riddle did a great version of the song that made the first half of the 2nd verse into the chorus, and it was well done.

  4. Neville Briggs says:

    So we learn from Cowper that ” behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face ” Does the scripture teach that God is two faced. I think NOT.

  5. Brett says:

    Providence = circumstance. A “frowning providence” refers to a life situation that seems to be totally against you. #exegesis

  6. lwesterlund says:

    To Brett: Thanks for your comment on the chorus. “We” is grammatically the subject of the sentences in the chorus; there is nothing about God in the chorus statements, only about what we will do. But, some will argue, this is the language of the Psalms–and indeed it is, e.g.,Psalm 108:1, “I will sing and praise you with my whole heart.” I admit that my antenna’s being way out on this is a matter of emphasis and balance. In the Psalms, the voiced responses are always appropriate in the context. So many great hymns of the past now have a chorus inserted in them that it begins to feel like a necessity. I think this touches on a larger point: we must respond in obedience and adoration to God, but does our response have to be sung about? If we are singing with our hearts, as we are called to do (Ephesians 5:19), the very act of singing about God and how his mysterious ways are always full of blessing is to come to Him, to fill our minds with images of his love and power, in an act of worship and submission. As we do this, making the choice to think on Him, the Holy Spirit will use our enlightened minds to warm our hearts and motivate our wills. Faith is a gift. We do choose to trust Him, but when that is hard, and we need help, we meditate on the God we are trusting. and we are strengthened thereby. That’s how it seems to me.

  7. Brett says:

    Agreed lwesterlund! Focusing on our focus on God is not the goal. Haha I don’t think the chorus is explicitly or implicitly doing that though. Granted that it’s not as sophisticated as the verses, it does make the song more accessible to those not yet experienced with the great hymns. I’m glad SG has brought the song to the attention to more people.

  8. Trillia says:

    One of my favorites. Thanks for writing this.

  9. ThatOneGuy says:

    “My God, how perfect are thy ways! But mine polluted are; Sin twines itself about my praise, And slide into my pray’r. When I would speak what Thou hast done To save me from my sin, I cannot make Thy mercies known, But self-applause creeps in. . . This heart, a fount of vile thoughts,
    How does it overflow, While self upon the surface floats, Still bubbling from below!” (William Cowper)

    I like Cowper’s writings and lyrics. He not only had an excellent grasp of our ‘simul iustus et peccator’ existence, but himself struggled terribly with it with guilt and depression. The state of our ‘church music’ is sad indeed when: “earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal” (repeated ad infinitum) is preferred to the hymnals.

  10. fragile heart says:

    Cowper would have been rebuked, rejected and chased out of many reformed churches today. Teachers like Paul Washer who say that depression is caused by sin and rebuke is the solution have so much to answer for. I find it highly ironic that some who claim to love the ministry of Spurgeon so much would have put their hand to removing him from office had they been there.

  11. Bob Kauflin says:

    To lwesterlund: Thanks for being concerned about what we sing! When you say that the chorus has nothing about God, I’d have to disagree. “We hope in mercies ever new” is an allusion to Lam. 3:22-23 and speaks of God’s mercies being new every morning. I wrote the chorus to give those who sing it the opportunity to verablize their faith and trust in response to what is true about God. As you pointed out, many of the psalms do exactly that (Ps. 13:5, 25:2, 28:7, 31:14, 52:8, etc.). I was especially thinking of Ps. 56:3-4: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.What can flesh do to me?” In any case, I’m with you in making sure that our expressions of praise don’t end up being more about us than God!

  12. Paul says:

    It’s better to limp along the narrow road that leads to life than rush headlong down the broad road that leads to destruction. Dear Cowper and his hymns, what an encouragement to my soul.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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