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Hymn Writers and Their Hymns: William Cowper

January 5, 2015

My God! How Perfect Are Thy Ways!

I’ll never forget being at a pre-show Q&A for a band that plays hymns. I asked what they thought was a good biography of William Cowper and they promptly corrected me that his last name is pronounced “coo-per” not “cow-per”, as I had said. I also learned that George M. Ella wrote an excellent biography of Cowper.

Following the trade of his family, Cowper started out his adult life in the field of law, but when nominated to appear before the House of Lords and show himself qualified, he panicked. Not wanting to shame his family, he did not voice his fear but instead attempted suicide – several times – the night before he was to appear. I guess “panicked” is an understatement. The sound of his body collapsing to the floor drew his uncle into the room where he found Cowper on the floor at 3:00 in the morning with a sheet around his neck. At the request of his family, Cowper agreed to move to an asylum run by Dr. Cotton who would leave Bibles around the campus.

At this point, Cowper was not truly converted though he had attended Westminster, and his family, though mostly nominal, were confessing Christians. He opened a Bible on the campus and fell upon Romans 3:25 when the seed of his true conversion was sown and soon after his sanity began to restore. He eventually moved to a community called Olney where he and John Newton became great friends. They served in ministry together and wrote many hymns published by the namesake Olney Hymns, where in the preface, the hymn book is compiled to be a monument to their friendship.

There was a second time, while at Olney, Cowper began to feel insanity and depression coming back on him. At these times, Newton would give Cowper electric shock therapy to treat his depression! I was shocked when I learned this (insert rimshot)! I enjoy learning about these events in the lives of historical figures that so often are made out to be larger than life. Cowper’s hymn, My God! How Perfect Are Thy Ways! is an example of honest experiences Christians have to deal with:

My God! how perfect are Thy ways!
But mine polluted are;
Sin twines itself about my praise,
And slides into my prayer.

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.

Divine desire, that holy flame
Thy grace creates in me;
Alas! impatience is its name,
When it returns to Thee.

This heart, a fountain of vile thoughts,
How does it overflow?
While self upon the surface floats
Still bubbling from below.

Let others in the gaudy dress
Of fancied merit shine;
The Lord shall be my righteousness
The Lord for ever mine.

This hymn is titled “Jehovah our Righteousness” in Olney Hymns. Here, Cowper is expounding Jeremiah 23:5-6, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” This is Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant in which God’s children will be saved through the Lord’s righteousness alone and through none other.

The sin that Cowper is here confessing is that of self-righteousness. It is a sin that lurks in our flesh and stays as long as we are in the flesh. Ralph Erskine once said, “It is not easy to get the law killed. Something of a legal disposition remains even in the believer while he is in this world. Many a stroke does self and self-righteousness get, but still it revives again. If he were wholly dead to the law he would be wholly dead to sin; but so far as the law lives, sin lives. They that think they know the gospel well enough betray their ignorance. It will take all his lifetime to get a legal temper destroyed.”

Cowper speaks of how our sin corrupts everything we do. It is what bubbles from below and floats on the surface. Christ is our sole righteousness, the redeemer of even our prayers, praise, and testimonies. This hymn leads us to confess and repent of specific sins rather than settling for a general, “I’m sorry that I sinned again”, or jumping straight into, “Thank you for forgiving me” without ever mourning our sin. This hymn models for us a deeper repentance. Real talk: there are sins we repent of one day then commit the next. God grant us all deeper repentance!

May we rest assured that once we are the Lord’s, the Lord is forever ours!

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