|From ev’ry stormy wind that blows,||Ps. 57:1; Matt. 8:25–26|
|from ev’ry swelling tide of woes,||Ps. 88:17|
|there is a calm, a sure retreat;||2 Chr. 20:9; Ps. 27:5; Phil. 4:6–7|
|’tis found beneath the mercy seat.|
|There is a place where Jesus sheds|
|the oil of gladness on our heads,||Ex. 29:7; Ps. 23:5; Is. 61:3|
|a place than all besides more sweet;||Lev. 16:12–13; Ps. 84:10; 141:2|
|it is the bloodstained mercy seat.||Lev. 16:14–15; Heb. 9:7|
|There is a spot where spirits blend,|
|where friend holds fellowship with friend,||Acts 1:14; 21:5|
|tho’ sundered far; by faith they meet||Ezek. 11:16; 1 Thess. 2:17; Rom. 1:9–10; 2 Tim. 1:3|
|around the common mercy seat.||Acts 2:46|
|Ah, whither could we flee for aid,||Ps. 60:4; Is. 20:6; John 6:68|
|when tempted, desolate, dismayed,||1 Cor. 10:13; Ps. 25:16; Is. 41:10|
|or how the hosts of hell defeat,||Mark 9:29; Eph. 6:12, 18|
|had suff’ring saints no mercy seat?|
|There, there, on eagle wings we soar,||Ex. 19:4; Is. 40:31|
|and time and sense seem all no more,||Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16|
|and heav’n comes down our souls to greet,||Ex. 25:22|
|and glory crowns the mercy seat.||Lev. 16:2–3; 1 Kings 8:10|
|Oh, may my hand forget her skill,||Ps. 137:5–6|
|my tongue be silent, cold, and still,|
|this bounding heart forget to beat,|
|if I forget the mercy seat.||2 Chr. 16:12|
I’m not exactly sure how it is that some people—maybe most people, including you and I—come to think the Christian life dull. But I am sure of this: that a thoroughly biblical concept of any one of the fruits of God’s grace ought to dispel this thought in a hurry. Take prayer, for instance. In a scenario more fantastic than that found in the most imaginative science fiction, we children of dust obtain an audience with God Almighty, King of the Universe, anytime we like. It’s fantastic, but true. We cease to marvel at prayer only because we grow accustomed to it or because we neglect it. The hymn above is useful for the way it employs the Bible’s own symbol for the wonder and the cost and the glory of our meeting with God. This is the “mercy seat” or “atonement cover” described in Exodus 25:17, 37:6, and Hebrews 9:5.
The mercy seat was a solid gold lid on the ark of the covenant. It was a kind of throne, where God would hear prayer, flanked by golden, winged cherubim who reverentially lowered their faces. It had to be kept behind a veil, for God’s appearance kills violators of his law—the law represented by two stone tablets kept in the ark. Only the high priest could come into the Most Holy Place (he was anointed for that purpose) and then but once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to cover the mercy seat with sweet incense and to sprinkle it with the blood of sacrifice. The blood was a type for Christ’s better sacrifice (Heb. 9:23). In him the veil is removed, every believer is anointed with “the oil of gladness,” and “heaven comes down our souls to greet.”
Through its typological use of the mercy seat, “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows” complements the other hymn about prayer studied in this web site; Newton’s “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare” incites believers to boldness in prayer, but it’s easy to mistake glibness for boldness. Stowell’s image of the mercy seat draws the distinction nicely. Each stanza of “From Every Stormy Wind,” in its turn, teaches some important aspect of prayer—the place of repose it provides, the fellowship we gain through it with God and with other believers, the help that it provides in times of trouble. These are the same attractive aspects covered in other familiar hymns about prayer, such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” But, here, the poet ordered the train of thought in each stanza to conclude with the recurring awesome symbol of the mercy seat, in a melody (RETREAT) that slows down in wonder at it: the glorious throne of God made accessible through the blood of his Son.
Not only the symbol but the very words “mercy seat” recur cyclically at the end of every stanza, just as prayers were offered toward the mercy seat cyclically at the tabernacle and temple with every sacrifice and at regular hours. The form of the poem implies the necessity of persistence in prayer. “Pray without ceasing,” commanded the Apostle Paul. A sense of relentlessness in prayer emerges gradually, and structurally, as we sing this song, with its unbroken chains of perfect iambic rhythm (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) and its insistent rhymes. (It could get tedious for twelve lines to end with the same sound, but, in this case the words that rhyme with “seat” are significant—“retreat” in st. 1, “sweet” in st. 2, “meet” in st. 3, and “greet” in st. 5—so the rhyme underscores the point of the stanza.) Then, fittingly, the hymn ends with an oath never to forget to meet with God in prayer.
Even alliteration contributes to the poem’s relentless nature. In stanza 1, consider how the S sounds in lines 1 and 2 occur at the exact same place in the line. In stanza 3, consider the S sounds and the F sounds. The first line is all S’s, the second is all F’s. The third summarizes the same progression from S to F (“tho’ sundered far; by faith they meet”), framed now with alliterative TH’s. In stanza 4 we meet alliteration too, with “desolate . . . dismayed” and “how . . . hosts . . . hell.” Here, as it often does, alliteration creates a forcefulness to poetry. It is not for nothing that it was central to the early poetics of our language, when times were harder and so were poets. The poem has a muscle to it as good prayers should.
The tune, likewise, is relentless. Indeed, it is almost asphyxiating. The obvious places for breaths—after each poetic line—afford only a third of a beat for that purpose, and then the singer must begin the next poetic line. After four lines that nearly run together, when the singer needs air most, the rhythm changes to long notes for a cadence on the awesome symbol, the “mercy seat.” The tune makes the fourth line of the stanza half again longer than the other lines! If ever there’s a tune that accompanists must sing through before settling on a tempo, RETREAT is it. An instrumentalist’s idea of a contemplative tempo (with ritardando at the end, no doubt) will asphyxiate the congregation. We recommend that the eighth note equal 126, with a slight pause between phrases to help the congregation get enough breath.
It’s worth the effort since the tune is lovely—and not just for its awestruck halt at “mercy seat.” The sweeping descent of the melody in the third line of the stanza contributes to its communicative potential—at “there is a calm, a sure retreat” for sure but especially in the fourth stanza, at “and heav’n comes down our souls to greet.” Here theology, poetry, and music work together to demonstrate that prayer is anything but dull.