How Firm a Foundation

How Firm a Foundation

Liturgy Lessons: January 13, 2019
Call to Worship: from Psalm 29 with additional responses
Prayer of Invocation
Opening Hymns: Speak, O Lord; Creation Sings
Call to Confession: Jer. 23:29 and Hebrews 4:12-13
Song of Confession: Jesus, Lamb of God (Agnus Dei)
Assurance of Pardon: Hebrews 10:12-17
Hymn of Assurance: O Great God
Catechism & Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: TBA
Doxology: #733
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: My Soul Longs for the Lord; My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness
Closing Hymn: How Firm a Foundation (#94)

I, who live by words, am wordless when
I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.

– Madeleine L’Engle

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
– John 1:1

How Firm a Foundation
Text: Unknown, attributed to “K”, 1787
Tune: Anonymous American folk tune

The promises of scripture are a deep well of encouragement. Indeed, they are living waters. The stories in the Bible have inspired the most transcendent art and music in the history of the world. The greatest story of all is that of Christ’s rescue and redemption of mankind. Indeed, this is the central theme of the Bible. All the words of scripture point to the Word made flesh. Every God-breathed syllable sings of His glory.

This exceptional hymn is a 230-year-old strong oak grown from the soil of the scriptures. For over two centuries Christians have basked in its shade, finding renewed hope and strength in these verses, which echo God’s promises. “How Firm a Foundation” was sung at the death bead of President Andrew Jackson and at the funerals of Robert E. Lee and Theodore Roosevelt. It was reportedly sung by both the North and the South during the Civil War. It is included in hymnals of every denomination and has been translated into countless languages. It is one of the most popular hymns in the English-speaking world, particularly in the protestant branches of the North American church. It is the favorite hymn of both of my parents, holds a pretty secure spot on my top-ten list, and will most likely be sung in the angel choir’s hymn medley that will accompany Christ’s return.

In 1787, a minister in London, named Dr. John Rippon, published a book with a rather bland title, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors. It was intended to be a supplement to Isaac Watts’ classic Psalms of David (1719). The book was an immense success. Rippon must have had a keen eye for quality, because there was an inordinate number of hymns curated by him in this collection that became classics. Among these was a new hymn, which he entitled “How Firm a Foundation.” Its authorship was listed simply as “K.” This most likely was a reference to Robert Keene, the song leader in Rippon’s church, who may have assisted in preparing the compilation. However, there has been much debate about the veracity of this claim, so the true origin of the hymn remains unknown.

The fact that history remembers the minister, but not the musician, is a gross injustice. Be assured that we here at CHIME (Committee for Hymnwriters Inclusion and Musical Equity) are committed to the recognition and rights of all creative people who have been historically oppressed or marginalized in churches. They will not be reduced to an initial! We resolve that from henceforth their full names will be listed and remembered! Down with toxic anonymity!

In all seriousness, I’m sure that Mr. “K” is quite okay with the anonymity, since the true origins of this hymn text find themselves in the pages of scripture. Perhaps the most noteworthy and appreciated feature of this hymn is how closely it resembles the words of the Bible itself (which is fitting, given that its theme is the solidity of the word of God). Consider these scriptures (bold) in relation to their accompanying verses of the hymn (italics):

No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor. 3:11)
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, in whom I take refuge.
(Ps. 18:2)

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,
To you, who for refuge, to Jesus have fled?
(Verse 1)

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
(Is. 41:10)

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.
(Verse 2)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
(Is. 43:1-3)

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply
(Verse 3 and 4a)

I will refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name, and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’
(Zech. 13:9)

The flame shall not hurt you, I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
(Verse 4b)

Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
(Is. 46:4)

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.
(Verse 5)

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers,
nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Rom. 8:38-39)
I will not leave you or forsake you.
(Josh. 1:5)

The soul that on Jesus hath 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! (Verse 6)

That last verse is so climactic! I love its threefold defiance of our enemies. It’s as if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each get a chance to stand and say “Satan, if you want my beloved child, you’ll have to go through me!”. This is a lyrical depiction of Psalm 138:3: “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased”. As your chest expands to sing this hymn, may your strength of soul expand as well.

This hymn made appearances in both The Sacred Harp (1844) and Southern Harmony (1854). In both cases it was paired with the same tune, which was listed under the title PROTECTION. It is a tune with only five notes whose style and simplicity would seem to suggest that it is a grassroots American folk melody and not something composed exclusively for the hymn text. Like so many of the folk melodies that we hold in our hymnal, there is something both common and uncommon about it. It is seemingly ordinary, unrefined, with a simple strength, like a reliable hammer. And yet when it is wielded in the hands of the faithful it has a remarkable ability to shatter the rocks of fear and doubt. This is what happens when we sing God’s word. Jericho. Strongholds fall. Hearts of stone begin to crack and break. After all, these lyrics were crafted from the kryptonite of scripture, and when faced with such radiant love and power, no icy fortress of solitude stands a chance. As the Psalmist reminds us,

The voice of the Lord is powerful!
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars (like the one that fell in the CPC’s front lawn last weekend).
It strips the forests bare, and in His temple all cry, “Glory”!

Here concludes the Liturgy Lesson.


Sheet music