How Firm a Foundation

Exceeding Great and Precious Promises (2 Pet. 1:4)
Anonymous, identified only as “K” in Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787
Addressed to one another
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,Ps. 119:152; Matt. 7:24
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!Acts 26:6
What more can he say than to you he has said,Deut. 1:32; John 16:13
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?Heb. 6:18
“Fear not, I am with you, oh, be not dismayed;Is. 41:10; Jer. 30:10–11; Hag. 2:5
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;Ezek. 34:31
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,Is. 40:29; Ps. 115:9–11; 37:24
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.Ps. 48:10; 145:14; Rom. 14:4
“When through the deep waters I call you to go,Ps. 42:7; 66:12; Is. 43:2a; Jon. 2:3
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;Ps. 32:6
for I will be with you, your troubles to bless,Rom. 8:28; James 1:3
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.1 Pet. 1:7
“When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,Is. 43:2b; Ezek. 22:21
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;2 Cor. 12:9
the flame shall not hurt you; I only designDan. 3:25
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.Is. 1:25; 48:10; Jer. 9:7; Zech. 13:9
“E’en down to old age all my people shall provePs. 92:14; Is. 46:4; Jer. 31:13
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.Is. 40:11
“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,John 13:23–25
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;Ps. 81:14
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,Rom. 8:38–39
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”Heb. 13:5b

Here is the model hymn of the type in which congregants teach and admonish one another (see “Biblical Model,” section 3). It’s a pastoral exhortation to live by promise and not by sight. We ask each other rhetorically, “What more does your faith need, beyond what God promises in the Bible? What more could he promise?” Then we follow up with proof texts from Isaiah (41:10; 43:2; and 46:4) in the stanzas printed in quotation marks. Thus the hymn is a means by which ordinary Christians press a thoroughly biblical and urgent lesson on each other. Sometimes when people talk about God’s promises, they take them out of context and try to apply to everybody pledges that were made to particular individuals or communities—Jeremiah 29:11, for example—but this hymn quotes only promises explicitly directed to the people of God in general. His assurance of efficacious support in stanza 2 applies to every possible trial, poetically pictured in stanzas 3–5 by three of the most fundamental forces in the universe: water, fire, and time. To anyone who reads his Bible, these are well-known images of human trouble. The waters of chaos, which God confined on the second day of creation, picture confusion and despair (Ps. 18:4). Consuming flames picture the presence of a holy God (Num. 11:1). The world that in Noah’s day was cleansed by water will someday burn up (2 Pet. 3:6–7). It’s only a matter of time: the third trouble in the list, which (as Watts put it) “like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away” (Eccl. 12:1–5).

The poem “How Firm a Foundation” is written to insist in vivid and comprehensive terms that God blesses all our troubles—whether sorrow, injury, or death itself—in Jesus. The key to the hymn’s meaning comes in the last line to be sung before the quotations from Isaiah (stanza 1, line 4) and returns in the first line after them (stanza 6, line 1). The security and divine friendship here described is for those who have fled to, and leaned on, Jesus. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). To those who do not trust in Jesus, the Bible makes quite different promises (Ps. 1:5–6), which will have to be taken up in another hymn.

The anapestic rhythms of the text keep it moving forward, advancing us from proposition to proposition and from promise to promise. Each is expressed in biblical language but embellished with poetry that makes it even more memorable (if that were possible). In the second stanza, as we recall the promise that God will give us strength, we change from line-long ideas to short bursts. This suggests syntactically the help from all sides that we receive from God in times of need. In the fifth stanza, the conceit that connects the white-headed with the tender lambs is masterful and helps us to see how age works on the body to make it better conform to the sheep-like role we’ve been given. The sixth stanza uses John’s posture at the last supper to picture what, back in the first stanza, was described as fleeing to Jesus for refuge.

The rugged, pentatonic shape of FOUNDATION (there’s not a “fa” or a “ti” anywhere in the melody) goes well with such a direct text. The first three notes (a two-quarter-note pickup ascending from “sol” to land, on the downbeat, with a half-note “do”) are a musical symbol of firmness. A repetitive short–short–long rhythm, sung eight times for lines 1–2 of the stanza, momentarily changes at the beginning of line 3 to long–long, and the range of the melody expands, at the very point when the text, in most stanzas, intensifies. Finally, the melody of line 4 is the same as that of line 2, so that in stanza 6 the verbal repetition in lines 2 and 4 (“I will not, I will not desert to his foes” and “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake”) coincides with a similarly emphatic repetition in music.