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How Firm a Foundation

 

“How Firm a Foundation”  The origin of this hymn text is obscure, first being included in John Rippon’s (1751-1836) A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to Be an Appendix to Dr Watts’ Psalms and Hymns (first published in 1787, but which was reprinted in dozens of editions throughout the nineteenth century.) Rippon was an English Baptist minister, having studied in Bristol, after which he was assigned to the Baptist church in Carter Lane, London. Most biographical sources assert his unwavering support for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, and indeed the Baptist College of Providence, RI, bestowed upon him the Doctor of Divinity degree in 1792.[1] This hymnal became so popular in English Baptist circles that Rippon earned a healthy income from royalties. “How Firm a Foundation” is ascribed only to a mysterious “K” in this hymnal, and who that might have been is beyond our scope to study here.

Rippon’s belief in the importance of congregational song underlay his editing of so many versions of this hymnal. In the preface to the 1790 edition, Rippon encourages singing when he writes, “It is generally allowed, that of all the Services in which good men on earth can be engaged, none is more sublime and elevating than singing the praises of God.” He continues lamenting that “. . . propriety, seriousness, and devotion, in singing, have been almost entirely out of the question."[2] The tunes included in this collection are generally robust, musically interesting, folk-like, and inspire a congregation’s hearty participation.

This hymn text encourages us to place our trust in the “firm foundation” through replete and thorough use of scripture:

How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord, is laid 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?

 In a day in which manifold voices claim to speak for, to, or about God, it is incumbent upon one to determine on what one will stake their faith. Here the answer is given: His Word, reflecting II Timothy 2: 19, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.’” What a proclamation of the proper relationship between faith and works! Confession, profession of Who God is, as manifest in the Trinity, the Incarnation—essentially, all that we profess in the creeds—is crucial for right faith—orthodoxy. But, in so believing, we have a basis for orthopraxis, right living that eschews sin.

 “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.

 The experience of the English Dissenters must have been foremost in the author’s mind. Despised by Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike, it is hardly any wonder the Baptists were on the vanguard of support for the freedom of religion to which the colonies aspired. All those experiencing persecution for their faith can take comfort in Isaiah 41: 10, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Sometimes a hymn writer’s genius is best displayed in knowing when not to alter scripture, as this stanza is nearly verbatim scripture. This is of no surprise, as the English Dissenters (as exemplified in the psalm metrifications of Isaac Watts) were slow to adapt to “hymns of human composure.”

 “The soul that on Jesus has 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.

 We recall here II Cor. 12: 9 in which Paul writes, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This is certainly a counter-cultural thought, as it seems these days each special-interest group lobbies for cultural power against the corruption of those already in power, in turn becoming as corrupt as those they seek to replace. This is not a scriptural prescription.

 “When through fiery trials your pathway will lie, My grace, all sufficient, will be your supply. The flames will not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine.

 By the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, and many in the industrializing sections of London would have understood this metaphor much more fully than we do. In molten metal, the solid impurities that form on the surface are called “dross,” which can then be skimmed away, leaving the pure liquid metal below. Although not all suffering is God-pleasing—and much suffering can be brought about through our own foolishness—trials that result from our Christian faith can be used to strengthen and “refine” us. Paul speaks of this in Romans 5 when he states, “. . . we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

 “Throughout all their life time my people will prove my sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love; And then, when gray hairs will their temples adorn, like lambs they will still in my bosom be borne.

 Humanity is capricious, indecisive, inconsistent. Our whole earthly experience is fraught with failures caused by our humanity. But this is not God’s nature, as James states, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (2: 17) This hymn addresses God the Father, but we know, too, that Jesus Christ is “. . . the same yesterday, today, forever.” (Hebrews 13: 8)

 It is important to realize that most of the hymns in Lutheran Service Book—indeed, most of the best hymns in all denominational hymnals—are of high quality not because of their musical character, or that they are popular or beloved, but because they derive from scripture.

 [1] For a thorough biography see “Rippon, John” in the Dictionary of National Biography. (www.oxforddnb.com)

[2] John Rippon, ed,  A Selection of Hymns Psalm and Hymn Tunes from the Best Authors. . . (London: Carter Lane Church, 1790), preface.

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