Devotion for the Week of October 22, 2017 - The Theology Behind the Hymn – “HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION”

The Theology Behind the Hymn – “HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION”

This week we’ll look at one of most theologically deep hymns I know of- “How Firm a Foundation.”  May God grant me wisdom and words to show you His glory and may this be done in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior.   Amen!

Just to keep this in an historical vain; outside of the great hymn writers, few names are more familiar to a student of hymns than that of Dr. John Rippon.  He was pastor, from 1773 to 1836, of a Particular Baptist church in London.  He had great reputation and influence both as man and as pastor; but of all the things he accomplished, the one best remembered is the hymn book he edited.  He and his people were alike devoted to singing the psalms and hymns of Dr. Watts. Neither had any wish to supersede them, but Dr. Rippon had come to feel that hymns were needed on some subjects and occasions omitted by Dr. Watts. And hence he was led to publish, in the year 1787, a hymn book with this title: “A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts’ Psalms and Hymns. By John Rippon, A. M.”  This hymn was General Robert E. Lee’s favorite.

The author of “How Firm a Foundation” is unknown.  Various hymnals credit it to different authors, but history remains unclear on exactly who wrote it.  It is an amazing hymn, though, as we’re about to see.  It starts off like this:

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?

When I hear the words “how firm a foundation”, I immediately think of Jesus’ example in:

Matthew 7:24-27 (KJV), “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.  26  And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”

The next line “…is laid for your faith in His excellent word…” The song says that our firm foundation is laid in the word of God and this brings to mind Paul’s instructions to Timothy:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV), “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17  That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”

Paul says that Scripture is profitable for a whole list of things- doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction so that the man of God may be complete and ready for every good work.  That fact that I’m sitting here basically repeating Paul’s instructions, word for word, is exactly what the author of this hymn is saying when he writes “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”  What more can I say that what is already in Scripture?  It’s all there!  Scripture contains everything we need to know about The Important Stuff.

Our last line in this verse reads “You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”  The “you” in this line is referring to the “saints” of the first line.  While it’s common among some religions to refer to only those special and hard-working believers as “saints”, the Bible doesn’t do that.  In the Bible, all believers are saints and all share in the priesthood common to all believers.  There are certainly levels of “saints” in that some are elders and some are disciples and so on, but all are saints of the Lord.  Anyone who has fled “unto Jesus for refuge” is a saint.

Now, ask yourself, “what is this refuge?”  Why should I flee unto Jesus for refuge?  Refuge from what?  You remember in the Old Testament, the Jews put the blood of an unblemished lamb on the doorway of their household and this caused the angels of the Lord to pass over that household as he was executing God’s wrath on the Egyptians.  Likewise, it is the atoning sacrifice of Christ on our behalf that saves us from the wrath of God which we deserve, thanks to our sin and disobedience to God’s commands.  We can see this clearly in:

Romans 5:8-10 (KJV), “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. 10  For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”

So, it’s from God’s own wrath that God has saved His saints through the sacrifice of Christ who is God Himself in the flesh.   Now, that is an amazing thing, if you ask me.

I’m going to skip to the 3rd verse of our hymn and it reads:

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.

Many of you are familiar with Psalm 23, of which v 4 reads:

Psalm 23:4 (KJV), “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

But there is another Bible verse that reads even closer to this passage and it is:

Isaiah 41:10 (KJV), “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”

This is a prime example of what a hymn should be.  It’s God’s own words being sung back to Him.  In doing this, we recognize and acknowledge how totally sufficient His excellent word is.  Since man was created to glorify God, this acknowledgment fulfills man’s purpose and simultaneously fulfills God’s purpose in creating us.   Perhaps this is why singing theologically rich hymns is such a satisfying thing.

The next verse of “How Firm a Foundation” goes like this:

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.

Many of you may have suffered in your Christian life and you can see that theme in this verse.  This theme is continued in the next verse, which is a verse that I used in the series on suffering.  Here it is:

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.

What a great verse this is!  I have this one memorized.  Notice that it say “when through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie…” and not “if….”  The line “my grace, all sufficient, shall by thy supply” reminds me so much of Paul’s thorn in the flesh from:

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (KJV), “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  8  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  9  And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The section in the hymn which says “the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine” brings to mind these three passages:

Zechariah 13:9 (KJV), “And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God.”

Isaiah 48:10-11 (KJV), “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.  11  For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another.”

Psalm 66:10-12 (KJV), “For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried.  11  Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins.  12  Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”

There is no question that troubles and trials are both fiery and painful and there’s no question that they also challenge our relationship with God.  If our faith is true and pure, that relationship is improved as dross comes to the surface where it can be removed.

And now we get to the last verse in the hymn and my favorite:

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.

In the Bible, whenever things are repeated, it’s for emphasis.  Thus, when God says “Abraham, Abraham…”, He’s emphasizing the closeness of their relationship.  There are few places where a word is repeated thrice and two of them are when the heavenly host call God “Holy, holy, holy.”  This repeated phrase is the ultimate emphasis.  Likewise, we see in this verse that, regarding the soul leaning on Jesus, God will not, will not desert to its foes.  Jesus says:

John 10:27-29 (KJV), “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28  And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.  29  My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.”

And Paul says:

Romans 8:38-39 (KJV), “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If we lean on Jesus and trust in His security, we are safe.  We are truly lambs in the arms of the Great Shepherd.  And, as our hymn says, “though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!”   This song isn’t Scripture, of course, but the writer is using the Biblical tool of triple repetition to give the ultimate emphasis.  God will never forsake us.    This truth can be seen in:

Hebrews 13:5-6 (KJV), “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.  6  So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”

And in:

Psalm 37:28 (KJV), “For the LORD loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.”

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 a comforting verse that one is.  As we come to the end of this week’s devotion, I ask you- have you leaned upon Jesus for repose?  Do you have a firm foundation, built upon the faith that is given by God and not created by man?  When the storms hit, only the faith built upon the rock will stand.  Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly.  You can fool me, and you can fool yourself, but you can’t fool God.  Lean upon Jesus and even all hell cannot shake you loose from God.

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