|When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,||Is. 48:18; 66:12|
|when sorrows like sea billows roll;||Ps. 32:6; Jon. 2:3; 2 Cor. 6:10|
|whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,||Phil. 4:11|
|“It is well, it is well with my soul.”||Ps. 25:13; 3 John 2|
|Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,||2 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 5:8; 4:12|
|let this blest assurance control,||Heb. 10:22|
|that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,||Matt. 9:36; Eph. 2:1|
|and has shed his own blood for my soul.||Rev. 5:9|
|My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—|
|my sin, not in part, but the whole,||1 John 1:9; 2:2|
|is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;||Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20; 2:14; Heb. 9:28|
|praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!||Ps. 146:1; Luke 1:46|
|O Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,||Rev. 22:20; 2 Cor. 5:7; 1 John 3:2|
|the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,||Is. 34:4|
|the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,||1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 10:7|
|“Even so”—it is well with my soul.||Rev. 1:7; 22:20 (KJV)|
The Reformed catechism approved by the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563 begins with the practical question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The Christian does not answer, as one might expect, by pointing directly to God’s sovereignty or even to the brevity of this life and the sweet passage that death affords him. Instead he answers thus:
That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
The answer goes on to describe sovereignty and the promise of heaven, but note that the first comfort for the Christian is his belonging to Christ and Christ’s redemptive work. The hymn above, penned by Horatio Spafford, is a poetic version of the same response.
It opens with a contrast. Spiritual contentment is a lesson we are learning from the Lord in all circumstances, from the surest peace to the most upsetting sorrow. What makes the contrast palpable are the aquatic similes by which it is phrased. The vagaries of human experience can be no less extreme than the waters sailors navigate. Sometimes their way is as ordered as a river, sometimes as disordered as the open sea in a storm. The point is that Christian wellbeing does not depend on what happens to us or how we feel.
But on what, then, does it depend? Were it merely God’s sovereignty we looked to in our hour of need, it would be no comfort. A sovereign god with whom we are at enmity can afford us no comfort by virtue of his sovereignty. Indeed, the buffets of Satan which open the second stanza are often aimed at revealing to us God’s power without showing us his love. It isn’t Satan alone who does this. God, sometimes using Satan as his instrument, brings trials into our lives (st. 2, ln.1b) to strengthen our faith in Him. The reason it is well with our souls, despite buffeting and trial, is announced in the second half of the second stanza—Christ bled for us. It takes another stanza in its entirety to complete this idea.
Our experience verifies that the exuberant third stanza, with its Pauline-like self-interruption in the first line, is sung with more vigor than any other part of the song, notwithstanding the eschatological last stanza. This is evidently because Christians of all sorts, from little girls to elderly men, take comfort, in the face of a full life or at the brink of death, in the propitiation of their sins more even than in the promise of heaven. As easily, however, as the promise follows the propitiation, so the last stanza follows the third. The image of clouds being rolled back can be taken literally, as the first heaven will pass away, but also figuratively, as our sight will no longer be impaired by cloudiness—when, no longer merely believing in a coming glory, we will see it for ourselves.
And then there is the refrain. Like watchmen patrolling the streets of a medieval city, calling out something like “twelve o’clock and all is well,” we periodically declare that it is well with our souls. Given the context of the hymn, we are preaching to ourselves and declaring to others that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
It’s unimaginable to sing this hymn to any tune besides Philip Bliss’s VILLE DU HAVRE (named after the ship on which Spafford’s first four daughters died). The scalar descent for “peace like a river,” the minor chord in line 2 for “sorrows” (st. 1) and “sin” (st. 3) and “clouds” (st. 4), and the heightened repetition in line 3 belong to this poem. But most successful of all is the refrain. Drawing material from the repeated notes which close the body of the tune (and which in all but one stanza set the same text as the refrain) we move to the refrain by means of descent. Upon singing a G for the third time, we sustain it for a duration which is the longest regularly to be found in congregational song (compare it to “Were You There” or “At the Name of Jesus”). No melodic gesture could suggest peace so well as a repeated and then sustained note, approached by descent from the top of the voice to the middle of it, exposed at first in unison. The tune finishes by returning to the material which closed its main body, ending with a triumphant climax befitting the implications taken on by the refrain. It is not for nothing that the tune ends on high “do.” Neither of the tune’s opening two lines conclude on C in either octave (see measures 4 and 7). Meanwhile, texts that speak of sorrows, trials, and sin, are set to music that pulls us away from the tonic note. The tune’s final gesture, both in its body and its coda-like refrain, make clear the tonality of the tune—a fitting gesture that turns faith to sight just as the fourth-stanza’s text does.