A Song for Suffering Saints

Well, I have had terrible morning sickness and been a) behind on my reading, and b) not blogging it even when I am managing to read it!  What should have been finished in March is just now wrapping up, on that score.

But I wanted to turn back into an English major for a minute here and extol the virtues of what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hymns: How Firm a Foundation.

As a good cradle Baptist ;), I grew up singing this hymn—to the point that I can recite the lyrics without struggle.  Apparently, however, I never really listened to them, and very mistakenly thought the hymn was about the usefulness of the Bible.  “How firm a foundation…is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!”  And I suppose I tuned out the rest of the verses, and failed to consider that Word here means Jesus, not the Bible, and the song is about comforting the suffering, not “yay, we believe the Bible.”

Anyway.  Enough about my inattentive errors.  Onto the song.

First fascinating thing: it was brought into the public eye by no less than John Rippon, the Particular Baptist pastor who succeeded John Gill, wrote the biography thereof, and was eventually followed along himself by Charles Spurgeon.  Rippon made up a very influential hymnal, known widely as “Rippon’s Selection,” which was used in combination with Isaac Watts’ hymnal in Particular Baptist churches until the late 19th century.

Considering what a popular hymn it  has become, it is curious that no one is quite sure who wrote “How Firm a Foundation.”  Possibly Rippon’s church’s worship director.  Rippon credited it merely as “K.”

I first really noticed the song last Wednesday, in the car, trying to drive and not throw up.  Tiny sufferings, even by my experience, and yet meaningful enough to drive the beauty and theology of the words home.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Even 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 its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

What more can He say than to you He has said?  Such a gentle, encouraging rebuke to one struggling: God already assures us, flee to Him and be comforted!

Then it switches to God talking, words echoing Scripture.  “Fear not!”  And why do we not fear?  Is it because God will pluck us out of our trials?  No—“I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”  He doesn’t remove us from our trials, he strengthens and upholds us through them.  Because God never gives us more than we can handle?  No, because God is omnipotent and can uphold us through  more than we can handle!

So by now the suffering hearer is wondering—so You promise to uphold me, and You can, but… why the trial?  Why the suffering?  And the hymnwriter addresses this, too—“when through the deep waters I call thee to go…” and even more, that He will “sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”  Who is ordaining and leading the suffering?  The sovereign God!  And what is accomplished? That even this suffering will become holy to us.

But why?  The hymnwriter has even more biblical answers for the sufferer, and even more comfort, straight out of 1 Peter 1:7:

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

And Psalm 66:10-12:

For You, God, tested us;
You refined us as silver is refined.
You lured us into a trap;
You placed burdens on our backs.
You let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but You brought us out to abundance.

Or as the hymn-writer puts it, “the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy God to refine.”  The metaphor is in Scripture many more places than this.  And the comfort—“My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.”  It’s enough!

Still the hymnwriter promises no removal from suffering, yet closes in the most resoundingly comforting stanza imaginable: “the soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not, desert to its foes!”  “Though all hell should endeavor to shake” it, God will “never, no never, no never forsake.”  Hebrews 13:5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Genesis, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Isaiah—this hymn is so like Isaiah 43—

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.

The final comfort is the Word, that He will never leave us, that He is always sufficient, that no matter what the suffering, no matter how extreme, that it never hurts us—just our dross—but that it refines us, that it has purpose, for His glory, for our good, and that we will even learn to praise God for the suffering!

In short, this song is a great sermon, abounding with really useful, Christ-centered theology and an absolutely keen practical application.  I find myself humming it often now, and am thankful for the reminder of the biblical truths therein.