Walter C. Smith composed his great hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” in 1876 as part of a collection entitled Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life.
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 hymn, especially when sung to its traditional tune, St. Denio, is a triumphant song of the glory and transcendence of God Almighty. Thankfully, this theme of the glory and majesty of God is not one that has been relegated to history; modern hymn writers have also picked up on the idea. Many praise songs composed in the past few years have been written as celebrations of God’s majesty. One of the most popular of these in recent years has been “Indescribable” by Laura Story.
You placed the stars in the sky and You Know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untamable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God
I have sung this song in churches, in chapel services and on retreats and, for the most part, I like its statements of the matchless character of God. There’s only one word that gives me pause. Normally, this wouldn’t be a gigantic problem, but it is when that one word is the same as the title of the song: Indescribable.
(As a quick note, I am assuming that “Indescribable” has more lyrical thought put into it than Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”. That song, popular a few years ago, seemed to contain each and every 4-syllable word that the songwriter could think of. I do think that “Indescribable” is more thoughtfully written than simply being a collection of 4- and 5-syllable words in a 6/8 time signature.)
In one sense, it is true that God is indescribable in totality. If we could describe everything there is to describe about God, he would no longer be God. I am certain that the lyric was written in this sense. In fact, it is because of this perspective that I do not have a problem singing the song in worship; I am able to remind myself that no man has fully seen God and no mind has fully comprehended him.
In another sense, however, it is dangerous to assert that God is “indescribable”. God has certainly given us a vocabulary to describe him. We may not be able to describe him in his fullness, but he has given us the means that we may know him. We have been given the scriptures, he has come incarnate in the person of Jesus and those of us who believe have been given the witness of the Holy Spirit. If God was completely indescribable, we wouldn’t be able to sing all of the other affirmations of the song, lyrics describing him as the great creator, the all-powerful king, the all-knowing Lord. If God was completely indescribable, we couldn’t make the affirmations of “O Worship the King”: God is the ancient of days, our shield, maker, defender, redeemer and friend (to simply name a few). We cannot completely know God but we can know him as he desires to be known: through the scriptures, through prayer, through the person of Jesus, through the sacraments, through the Holy Spirit.
[Edit: Thanks to my friend Tim Sharpe who pointed out that Faith Hill sings "This Kiss", not Shania Twain. (Of course, not knowing who sings country songs out of Nashville probably gives me more credibility rather than less.)]