Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me

A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World
Augustus M. Toplady, 1776
Addressed to God the Son
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,Ex. 17:6; Is. 26:4; Zech. 14:4–5
let me hide myself in thee;Ex. 33:22; Is. 2:10
let the water and the blood,1 Cor. 10:4
from thy riven side which flowed,John 19:34; 1 John 5:6
be of sin the double cure,
cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.Jer. 33:8; Rom. 6:6
Not the labors of my handsRom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16
can fulfil thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.Tit. 3:5
Nothing in my hand I bring,Eph. 2:9
simply to thy cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;Gen. 3:21; Rev. 3:18
helpless, look to thee for grace;Ps. 10:14
foul, I to the Fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.Lev. 15:31; Ps. 51:2
While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyelids close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,Dan. 7:9–10
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

This is the song to sing when weary and heavy-laden sinners decide they’ve had enough of their own “righteousness” and turn to Christ, persuaded that he is both willing and able to save on the basis of his own perfect righteousness. For nearly two centuries it was sung in every major Christian tradition of the English-speaking world—Calvinist, Arminian, High Church, Low Church, and even some Roman Catholic communities—before disappearing from a few mainline hymnals (ABC and PCUSA) in the 1970s, presumably because of its insistence on human bankruptcy and the need for vicarious atonement. Consider the end. Many, many hymns conclude with a reference to the glory or worship of heaven:

heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
Oh, that with yonder sacred throng
   we at his feet may fall
there forever purified, in thy presence to abide
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
   bright shining as the sun
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow

but when we imagine heaven at the end of “Rock of Ages” the picture is somewhat different; we see the Judge, presiding on his throne. The longings for justice that have marked us from childhood can be traced to an awareness of that throne, and here alone will we find an answer to those longings, though it be an answer we cannot endure. The more clearly we see the absolute morality of God the more clearly we see ourselves as part of the evil we have come to hate, so it will not do merely to appeal to God for justice. Nor does mounting a defense get us anywhere. What we need is a redeemer. In “Rock of Ages,” the singer confesses, and is comforted, that in life, death, and eternity his standing before God depends entirely on the merits of Christ—the only safe place, or rock, where lawbreakers can hide from the curse they have brought upon themselves.

And what a rock he is. Consider the immensity of the first line and the syllables the poet chose for stress: Rock of A-ges, cleft for me. In J. R. Watson’s analysis,

The first two suggest hardness and permanence: but suddenly, with “cleft,” the rock is opened to provide a refuge. The line itself enacts the thought, moving from the hardness of “Rock” to the softness of “me” through the astonishing “cleft,” representing . . . the majesty of God and the frailty of humanity: “And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by” (Exodus 33:22). (The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study [Oxford University Press, 1997], page 274)

The poet invents a helpful double-reference. Whereas “cleft” in Exodus 33 is a noun, in the hymn it is the past participle of “cleave” (to hew asunder) thus connecting Exodus 33 to Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10. Jesus is the Rock struck to save those who were perishing. Reflection on his passion naturally follows, and, before we know it, Toplady has masterfully woven together half a dozen texts from the law, prophets, gospels, and epistles. Water came from the rock. The two fluids that came out of our Redeemer’s side prove that he really died and thereby make certain the two basic elements of our salvation: that our sin is pardoned (justification) and that it will have no dominion over us (sanctification).

The fluids in the first three stanzas make for an ironic comparison, since there can be no meaningful parallel between our bitter tears (even if, as stanza 2 puts it, they were to flow forever in self-righteous remorse—a terrifying prospect) and the abundant water or “Fountain” that God brings from the Rock in stanzas 1 and 3. The intensely physical imagery of fluids that issue from a corpse (stanza 1), manual labor, tears (stanza 2), clinging, nakedness, washing (stanza 3), and eyelids (stanza 4) helps singers to conceptualize their spiritual frailty and their corresponding need for the Rock. Most noteworthy are the climactic lines 5–6 of stanza 3, “foul, I to the Fountain fly; / wash me, Savior, or I die,” where sound and sense interact to produce one of the best couplets in the hymnal.

Thomas Hastings designed TOPLADY so we could sing both instances of the words “Rock of Ages cleft for me, / let me hide myself in thee” (at the beginning of the first stanza and again at the end of the last stanza) to the same melody. It emphasizes, or even mimics, the cleaving of the rock by popping the word “cleft” out of nowhere on a high, accented first scale-degree. Then, the melodic shape of “let me hide” suggests the act of pleading, as when the speech of a supplicant or begging child or any desperate person rises in pitch and draws out key words: “Please, Sir, I neeed your help. You must help me.” The melody of “let me hide” proceeds to cadence emphatically at “in thee.” All this works beautifully with the words sung at corresponding places in lines 5–6. In stanza 1 we sing the pleading gesture for “cleanse me.” At the same place in stanza 2 we sing it for “thou must save” (and the emphatic cadence for “thou alone”), in stanza 3 for “wash me, Savior” (and the emphatic cadence for “or I die”).