Tim Challies recently wrote on one of my favorite hymns, How Firm a Foundation. Here are the lyrics:
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?
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
This reminded me of David Powlison’s excellent chapter in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God where he goes through the hymn line by line. His words and the hymn were my companions during a very dark time. Here’s how he introduces it:
First, one of the subtle charms of this hymn is that it is anonymous. Only God and the author know who wrote it. In a world obsessed with taking credit and receiving payment for achievements, this hymn is only an unknown person’s honest offering to God. What significant sufferings had that person faced? We don’t know. But every stanza breathes firsthand experience with God’s hand in life’s hardships. Was the author male or female? Young or old? Married or single? Black, brown, or white? Rich, poor, or middling? Baptist, Presbyterian, or Anglican? We have no idea. Whoever the person, whatever the affliction, we hear timely words from the God of intervening grace. What is written will speak into your significant suffering. The anonymity adds appropriateness to the invitation to make this hymn your very own as a means of grace.
Second, though we might not notice this, every hymn adopts a point of view, a “voice” identifying a listener and a speaker. Most often we sing to God, making requests or expressing praise: “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” Often we sing about God and what he has done, bearing witness to others and reminding ourselves: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Sometimes we sing to each other, exhorting and encouraging: “O come, all ye faithful.” Occasionally, just like Psalm 103, we sing to ourselves: “Be still, my soul,he Lord is on thy side.” Each of these voices expresses our faith in a dif- ferent way.
Most of “How Firm a Foundation” operates in an unusual voice. Only in the first stanza do we express our faith by exhorting each other to listen to what God has said. Notice what’s different about the last five stanzas. Each begins with a quotation mark. Why is this? God is doing the talking. Though we sing the words, we are placed in the role of listeners. God is talking to you. You sing this hymn by listening. What does he talk about? Interestingly, he speaks directly into significant suffering. He tells you who he is and what he is like—pointedly with respect to what you are going through. He tells you his purposes. He promises the very things you most need. Most hymns express our faith to God, to each other, and to ourselves. This hymn is more elemental. God’s voice invites faith. He’s calling to you.
This is particularly appropriate when it comes to suffering.