Hymn of the Month, February 2015
Researched and written by Shelby Breedlove and Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “How Firm a Foundation.”
Our Trinity Hymnal lists neither the author of the hymn nor the composer of the tune. There is a bit of mystery surrounding both. Here is what we know: Dr. John Rippon, pastor of Carter Lane Baptist Church in London, compiled and published A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors in 1787, including this original hymn. Rippon attributed the authorship, along with several other hymns, simply to "K-----". Later speculation attributed the text to Robert Keene, a close friend and song leader at the Carter Lane Church from 1776-1793. Six tunes in Selections were attributed to R. Keene, but no texts. The tune sung in England with the text of “How Firm a Foundation” was Adeste Fidelis, best known as the tune of the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
By 1792 the popular Selection of Hymns had made its way across the pond, and was published in the U.S. in 1820. The tune of Foundation, an anonymous American folk tune, was married to this text in Joseph Fund's 1832 Genuine Church Music.
This beloved hymn is known to have been a favorite among the soldiers, generals, and presidents of the Civil War era of both armies, North and South. As the favorite hymn of General Robert E. Lee, it was sung at his funeral. Andrew Jackson requested the hymn be sung at his deathbed. It was a favorite hymn of Theodore Roosevelt. It was also the theme song for the “Thru the Bible” teaching ministry of the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee.
Dr. C. Michael Hawn, a professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, summed up this authorship mystery perfectly: “Regardless of authorship, we know this hymn was written by a Christian who was extremely knowledgeable of the promises of God found in Scripture, who had most likely called upon these promises for strength in times of tribulation.” May we do so as well!
Sources: Challies.com (http://bit.ly/1y3AlF8), historichymns.com (http://bit.ly/15PTseP), and gbod.com (http://bit.ly/1H7sn7r).
If you pay close attention, you will notice that the vast majority of our hymns are directed to God. This hymn is unique in that it is directed to us. When we sing it, we sing to ourselves. That may sound odd, even wrong—shouldn’t we be singing to God? Not necessarily. God calls us to teach and admonish “one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). In other words, we must teach and admonish one another, and one way we do that is through the songs we sing.
In “How Firm a Foundation” specifically, we joyfully remind ourselves and each other of the promises God has made to us in Scripture so that “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18). Let’s consider each of these verses in greater detail.
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Buildings are not the only things in this world that need a foundation; our faith—indeed, our whole life—needs a foundation too. Jesus made that clear in the parable of the wise and the foolish builders (Matt 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49). At the start of this hymn we remind ourselves that our faith has a foundation. That foundation is laid in God’s excellent Word, and it is a firm foundation. In fact, could God have made it any firmer for us who have fled to Jesus for refuge? Think about all the promises he has made to us!
"Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
For I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I'll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
This verse is drawn nearly word for word from Isaiah 41:10. It is a magnificent promise from God to his people in every age. The God of heaven and earth calls us not to be afraid or dismayed in our everyday lives, because he will be with us, strengthen us, help us, and uphold us.
Is God up to that task? After all, our lives are complicated, and each of us has a knack for making things worse. Can God actually do much of anything to help us? Absolutely. He is omnipotent, meaning all-powerful. The far bigger question is this: since God is so just and righteous, how can he make this promise to rebellious creatures such as you and me? Keep that question in mind.
"When through the deep waters I call you to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with you your troubles to bless,
And sanctify to you your deepest distress.”
Much like verse 2, this verse is another promise of God drawn from Scripture. This verse, however, draws on at least two different passages.
The first passage is Isaiah 43:2. God’s promise there was a great encouragement to the people in Isaiah’s time, and it still is for us today. Each of us has felt as if we were mere inches away from drowning in deep waters of trouble and sorrow. God, however, has promised that these waters will not overwhelm us. He himself will be with you and with me.
In addition to that, he is calling us to go through these deep waters on purpose. We know this from Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Here at the end of verse three, the hymnwriter rephrases those words and has us sing them to ourselves and each other so that we might remember also that God is leading us ultimately to bless us.
"When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be your supply;
The flame shall not hurt you; I only design
Your dross to consume, and your gold to refine.”
This verse continues to encourage us with the promise of God from Isaiah 43:2. Most of us know from experience what fiery trials feel like. Many of us have felt the heat of temptation, stress, and conflict. Thus it comes as a relief to hear God’s assurance that the flame shall not hurt you.
The hymnwriter then draws our attention to two reasons why. First, we have the declaration of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, the flame shall not hurt you because God’s all-sufficient grace will sustain you.
Second, we know from 1 Peter 1:6-7 that God intends to use these fiery trials to refine us, consuming our dross (impurities) and purifying our hearts for our joy and God’s glory.
"E'en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.”
This verse is drawn from Isaiah 46:3-4. There we hear God tell his people he had long carried them and would continue to do so to the very end of their lives, “even to grey hairs.” He would carry them, and also save them. Even down to old age they would prove or experience his sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love.
This is a wonderful promise, both for those of us whose heads are adorned by hoary hairs (that is, white or grey hairs), as well as those of us who aren’t quite there yet. That said, this and the previous promises prompt us to wonder how God could say this. Since God is just and righteous, how can he promise this to rebellious creatures such as you and me? How could he possibly carry us—old or young--like lambs?
"The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake."
Here’s our answer. Drawing upon passages such as John 6:35-40 and Romans 8:31-39, we take upon our lips God’s clear and firm promise of salvation through Jesus Christ his Son. As Jesus declared in that passage in John, whoever comes to him he will a) never cast out and b) never lose. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross and rose from the dead to reconcile sinners to God, and he lives now to call them and shepherd them so that each of God’s chosen people will one day dwell with God. As the closing words of Romans 8 state, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ his Son. The final line of this sixth verse highlights the rock solid certainty of that promise with a series of negatives: that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake. God has given us many precious and very great promises (2 Pet 1:4), and each of them is yes and amen to us through Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20).