This Sunday (October 28) is Reformation Sunday. Of course, we’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (EIN’ FESTE BURG), as well as “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (OLD HUNDREDTH, representing the Genevan Psalter tradition) and “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” (CRIMOND, representing the Scottish Psalter tradition). But one of the hymns we’ll be singing isn’t a Reformation-era hymn at all. It’s an 18th Century hymn, usually sung to an early American tune: “How Firm a Foundation” (FOUNDATION), because the text is so appropriate for the day on which we celebrate, among other things, Sola Scriptura.
This hymn, written by that most famous of poets, “Anonymous,” first appeared in a 1787 collection edited by a London Baptist minister named John Rippon, entitled A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors. The hymn asks the question, “What more can he (God) say than to you he has said?” In other words, “Listen to God’s promises to you from the Scriptures: is there anything else you can think of that he forgot to promise you?” Indeed, what more can he say?
The first stanza introduces the concept of the surety of God’s promises to us. The remaining stanzas are paraphrases of several of those Scriptural promises. I was unable to find any source that identified all of the Scriptural allusions in the hymn. I’m sure there is such a source, but I couldn’t find one this week. (Routley doesn’t even mention the hymn in A Panorama of Christian Hymnody, and Routley was my best hope.) But with a little intuition and a big ol’ copy of Young’s Analytical Concordance on my desk, I was able to trace them all down.
After each stanza (with the exception of Stanza 1, of course) I’ll print the verse(s) upon which that stanza is based. (Stanzas 3 and 4 are based on the same passage.)
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.”
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. (Isaiah 41.10)
“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.”
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through 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. (Isaiah 43.2-3)
“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.”
So even to old age and grey hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71.18)
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green. (Psalm 92.14)
“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.”
For [God] has said,
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13.5)
[Jesus said,] “All that the Father gives me will come to me,
and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6.37)
As Dr. Kistemaker points out in his commentary on Hebrews (and he pointed this out in class too, if you were paying attention), the author of this hymn must have known his Greek. It’s evident in the last stanza. Hebrews 13.5 in Greek contains five negatives. Double negatives are a no-no in English (much less quintuple ones), but in Greek, the more the merrier. The more negatives a writer can pile on, the more emphasis is given to that negative. So the hymn writer wisely interprets “I will never leave you nor forsake you” as “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” It’s not vain repetition: it’s bringing out something that’s actually in the text.
(All Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.)