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How Firm a Foundation


“How Firm A Foundation.”   This is a one of the best Lutheran hymns ever written by a Baptist.  This hymn text was possibly written by John Rippon and was certainly first published in his A Selection of Hymns, from the Best Authors intended to be an Appendix to Dr Watts Psalms and Hymns (1787.)  Rippon (1751-1836) was an Englishman who graduated from Bristol Baptist College and in 1772 began preaching in London.  This same year, he was asked to guest-preach at Carter’s Lane Baptist Church, Tooley Street, for a few months. . . this few months turned quickly into 59 years and ended only with Rippon’s death.  (Much as Lord of Life’s organist agreed only to play organ for three Sundays in June, 1993. . .) 

            This hymn text probably was not actually written by Rippon.  He only collected some of the best Baptist hymns of the past and present and published them in his volume.  Most ascriptions of authorship were left blank.  Rippon’s hymnal was published in many editions.  It sold so well that Rippon himself even became rather wealthy.  He is buried in the Dissenter’s cemetery of Bunhill Fields in East London, where also Isaac Watts, John Bunyan, William Blake and Daniel DeFoe are buried.  LoL’s organist did not realize Rippon was buried here until he literally stumbled over his grave whilst walking on the SW side of the cemetery one. Let us consider the text: 

How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord,

Is made for your faith in His excellent Word.

What more can He say than to you He has said

Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

One of the fundamental concepts of the Reformation has been the sola scriptura (“scripture alone”) principle.  This idea is viewed differently in different denominations.  Baptists view this to mean that church traditions not directly mandated by scripture ought not be done.  Luther viewed this as meaning church traditions that were not forbidden by scripture could be done.  Regardless, we observe in this first stanza this sufficiency of scripture:  “What more can He say than to you He has said?”  God’s revelation sufficient for salvation is found in the Bible.  This, then can be the only foundation upon which we build our faith. 

            The second and following stanzas shift the focus from the narration of the hymnwriter to the commands of God:  God speaks to us from Isaiah when He says “Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed, for I am your God.”  As is typical with penultimate (next-to-last) stanzas, the focus is on sufferings or adversity:  “When through fiery trials your pathway will lie, My grace, all sufficient, will be your supply.”  (See also “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress” for similar language in the third stanzas.)  The fourth stanza emphasizes sanctification:  “Throughout all their lifetime my people will prove my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love. . .”  Perhaps here we can determine this was not written by a Lutheran, for a Lutheran, especially of this era, would not write about people proving God’s love.  Yet, do we not go about daily living as Christian examples to those around us?  Should not God’s love be evident through us daily and in the most mundane actions?  If Lutherans do not do this, perhaps we should learn from the Baptists.



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O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”  Written by Claudia Hernaman (1838-1898) and paraphrased in the version we sing today by Gilbert Doan (b 1930), this hymn is based on Luke 4 in which “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.”  The stark simplicity with which this hymn conveys its message evidences the fact that it was originally published in the Child’s Book of Praise (1884), a collection of Sunday School songs. With such in mind, our children’s choir this morning has memorized and sings the first two stanzas of this hymn.  With this hymn we begin our penitential observance of Lent.

            In the Early Church (from Pentecost through the persecutions which ended in the mid-fourth century), Easter was the primary celebration of Christ’s life.  There was no observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Advent or Pentecost.  Easter was seen as the climax and focal point of the year, and it was on Easter Eve the catechumens (those studying for entrance into the Church) were baptized.  Such a major yearly event in the life of the Church required some preparation time, and this was variously set from 6-8 weeks before Easter, and this became Lent.  As late as the 5th century, Lent was still set at eight weeks, but did not include Saturdays (which were Sabbath Days) and Sundays (which are Lord’s Days), but which still allowed forty weekdays of Lent.  We still maintain the tradition of not observing Sundays of Lent, but rather Sundays in Lent.  Therefore, the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays. 

            The Early Church Fathers did not choose the number forty randomly; rather, its theological significance had spanned the ages:  the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses was on Mt Sinai for forty days, and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.  In the Early Church, this Lenten time was devoted to study and to devotion and to penitence—certainly there was no celebration involved.  Eventually, canon law was added that forbid the eating of meat during Lent and forbid all be unaccompanied singing in church.  In the Roman Catholic Church, these strictures where only loosened in the 1960s. 

            “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is faithful to the gospel text from Luke as it recounts the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  The first half of each stanza recounts a fact, the second half of each stanza prays for this fact somehow to be inculcated into our lives.  We sing, “O Lord, throughout these forty days, You prayed and kept the fast,” a factual recounting of the narrative.  But, in the second half we pray, “Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.”  We likewise pray that God would give us the “nerve, Your skill and trust in God’s eternal Word” that we might likewise successfully counter Satan’s schemes.  The third stanza speaks to the Lenten season when we pray, “So teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love.”  Our penitence and privations during Lent (should we choose to observe them) are not done from the perspective of the Law, and we know they do nothing to earn our own salvation.  Most religious traditions—particularly those involving denials of some sort—tend to degenerate into legalism.  Yet, they don’t have to.  We can follow the church year which outlines the life of Christ, allowing us to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmas, the hope of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent and Good Friday, and the resurrection joy of Easter.  Or, we can just celebrate Easter, surrounded with fifty-one Sundays devoted to preaching/singing about topics of interest.  We don’t have to follow the liturgical year for our salvation, but doing so helps us relate to Christ incarnationally—He was a man who experienced the same temptations, sorrows, and joys as we do, and knowing this enriches our own faith.  We don’t have to follow the lectionary every Sunday. In many churches, a pastor preaches on his favourite (and simplest) Bible verses repeatedly.  With the lectionary, we are confronted with reading a great majority of the Bible each year.  Doing so does not earn our salvation, but it helps us to stay grounded in scripture and not the opinions of merely-pious theologians.  We don’t have to follow any particular liturgy or ritual.  All that is really required (according to the New Testament) is that we worship in spirit and truth, singing, praying, and learning.  But how much do we lose when we are not able to sing the words of scripture back to God in our liturgy, or sing of God’s works through Word and Sacrament?  In all these cases, our practices enhance our faith and our continual process of sanctification.

            If the gentle readers of music notes choose to give up something for Lent, they know it is because they will be improved by it. We can be, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, “Imitators of Christ” who spent forty days in the desert preparing for the events of Holy Week and Good Friday.  He had much more to prepare Himself than we do!  Yet, we can pray during this Lenten season the words of stanza four:

 Be with us through this season Lord, and all our earthly days,

That when the final Easter dawns, we join in heaven’s praise.



Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

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