God Moves in a Mysterious Way


-Drew Bundy


“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper. is one of the most unique songs we’ve reviewed yet on this site. The titular line has become quoted so frequently that people often assume it is actually from Scripture! The author, William Cowper, is an interesting character in the history of hymnody. He was good friends with his pastor, John Newton, who also wrote many hymns such as “Amazing Grace.” Before his conversion, Cowper had risen to world-wide acclaim as a poet. His works were widely published, and he achieved great success. However, his life was also plagued with despair, depression, and several attempts at suicide. It was in one of these states, after attempting to take his own life, that Cowper heard the gospel from a minister visiting the sanitarium in which he was being kept. This gospel message would change Cowper’s heart, mind, and writing focus, but he would continue to struggle with depression until the end of his life. 

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is one of the last, if not the last, hymn that Cowper wrote. It followed another suicide attempt. The words alone provide much food for the questioning soul, but understanding the context their author was in as he penned them allows this song’s impact to be felt even deeper. Cowper was processing the lows of his faith and his mental state as he reflected on how hard it can be to understand what God is doing.

This song is unique from songs that have been reviewed so far in that it doesn’t have a section set aside for praise or spell out great truths of scripture, but instead, much like a psalm, it is the processing of a believer’s mind and heart. Because of this unique structure, this song doesn’t fit well into the categories we normally take a look at at HelpfulSongs.com, and before we get further into this review I want to state that just because this song scores lower than others that we have written about, it is not a bad or unhelpful song. In fact, I think this is a very good song. Few songs have the ability to provide so much comfort and bolster faith in difficult times while being so honest and transparent. This really is a testament of Cowper’s poetical abilities. I hope that this disclaimer will help you in understanding the following discussion. The “Is it Helpful? Chart” asks very specific questions that generally help to differentiate between less helpful and more helpful songs, but sometimes there is a song that doesn’t neatly fit these categories, and this is one of them.

The Gospel

The gospel is not spelled out in this song as it is in others, but if it wasn’t for Cowper’s underlying understanding of the gospel, he would not be able to put such trust and hope in God during confusing times. He does encourage the singer to trust God for his grace and reminds them that God is full of mercy. These concepts are full of gospel truths.

Names of God

There is a sparing use of the names of God, but many pronouns that refer to Him. The names are God and Lord, but the whole song is about God. It is important to note that in a time when Cowper could have easily written a very introspective or self-focused song, he instead wrote words that are almost entirely focused on God with the few exceptions of instruction to his singers (and by extension himself).

Heavenward Focus

Much of this song is directed to a singer who is questioning the validity of God’s sovereignty and goodness. This means that a good portion of this song is focused on heaven and the situation at hand simultaneously. There are many occasions when the singer lifts his eyes to God’s providence and heavenly nature. In verse five Cowper writes, “His purposes shall ripen fast, unfolding every hour;/ The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.” 

Theological vs. Doxological

Though this song doesn’t declare theological truths like other songs do, it also doesn’t focus mainly on praise and responding as other songs do. This is due to the situational nature of this song. However, I think that the words do describe truth and present ideas more than give opportunity for praise, so I would say it is theological.

Why Did it Get Its Score?

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” received a 73% from the “Is it Helpful? Chart.” For a song that defies many categories and doesn’t easily answer the questions from the chart, it still does well. The chart has subcategories, and this is only one point away from the “green” category. This means that though it is in the “Use Carefully Scales” category, it is a top-scorer in that category. I want to emphasize again that this is a good song, and should be used and sung in churches today.

Utilizing it in a Service

I think that this song can impact hearts the most when the singers are informed of the story behind it. If there is time in your service, talk a little about William Cowper and the context in which he writes these words. Cowper’s poetic language is different from what many church-goers are used to, so it can be helpful to not only provide this context but also explain what some of the language means. 

Check out what Hymnary.org has to say about this song.

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See how this song compares to others in our Reviewed Songs.

Drew Bundy