The Story Behind The Hymn

Ryan Goodwin


          Martin Luther once said of music, “I have always loved music. . . Music is a fair gift of God, and near allied to divinity. I would not for a great matter be destitute of the small skill in music which I have. Whoso condemneth music, as all seducers do, with them I am not content; next to Theologia, I give the place and highest honour to Musica. For thereby all anger is forgotten; the devil is driven away; unchastity, pride, and other blasphemies by music are expelled.”  

          It is, indeed, a great gift from God to be able to come before Him in song and poem, to express in melodies deeper than human words the anguish of loss, the peace of prayer, and the joy of salvation. From the very beginning of the nation of Israel, music was an important part of worship. As the chariots of Pharaoh are being consumed by the Red Sea, Moses takes up a song before the relinquished people in Exodus 15:1-2, “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and the rider He has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise Him; my father’s God, and I will extol Him.”

          Throughout the generations of believers since the days of Moses, through the days of Deborah who sang a song of praise in Judges 5, to the time of David who used to sing peace itself into the depraved mind of King Saul, through the first-century Christians, and all the way into this modern age, God has commanded and enjoyed appropriately presented music.

          There is an exhortation given by the apostle Paul, though, in 1 Corinthians 14:15. He writes, “I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.” He places absolute importance on knowing just what it is he is singing, so that he sings not just to evoke emotions, but to encourage the growth and function of the mind. We must always be careful that we know what we are singing, so that we do not sing songs of falsehood unwittingly. Although certain songs may be pretty or poetic, we must always be cautious not to let poetic freedom interfere with truth. “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). It becomes very clear that the purpose of our worship songs is two-fold; we are to sing to God, first of all, praising Him; and we must also use these songs to teach one another and admonish one another. I certainly cannot teach you anything worthwhile if my song is filled with doctrinal error.

          I hope that the lesson today will help all of us learn to look at our songs more closely, appreciating them for the beautiful constructions that they are. We will spend our time together with four songs that are well-known, understanding some of the history behind these hymns, examining the lyrics and making some spiritual applications. These songs are meant to teach us and admonish us, so let us make the most of that Divine purpose.

It Is Well With My Soul


When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea-billows roll, what ever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blessed assurance control, that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, O, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, thou clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, “Even so” it is well with my soul.


          “It Is Well With My Soul” is one of the most well-known hymns of our time. The music was composed by Philip Bliss in 1876, after having heard the story of the man who wrote the lyrics. In 1874, a French steam liner, the “Ville de Havre,” was on its way back to France from America, with a large number of passengers. “On board the steamer was a Mrs. Spafford, with her four children. In mid-ocean a collision took place with a large sailing vessel, causing the steamer to sink in half an hour. Nearly all on board were lost. Mrs. Spafford got her children out of their berths and up on the deck. On being told that the vessel would soon sink, she knelt down with her children in prayer, asking God that they might be saved if possible; or be made willing to die, if that was his will. In a few minutes the vessel sank to the bottom of the sea, and the children were lost. One of the sailors. . . found Mrs. Spafford floating in the water” (My Life And The Story Of The Gospel Hymns, Sankey, 190).

          Mr. Spafford soon received a wire message from his wife in England, which simply read, “Saved alone.” He immediately made the trip to England to pick up his wife and bring her back to the states. Standing on the deck of the ship heading across the Atlantic, Horatio Spafford soon saw with his own eyes the very spot where his four daughters and 226 other people drowned (Amazing Grace, Osbeck, 202). Only because of his faith in God was he able to write, “When sorrows like sea billows roll. . . it is well with my soul.”  

          The lesson to be learned from this beautiful song is that no matter what happens to us in this life, no matter the pain and suffering the sorrows or joys, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Consider it this way; either God is using His power to make something to us, perhaps only providentially; or God is allowing something to happen – something that He could easily stop if He wanted to do so. In any case, God is in control. There are times when bad things happen to Christians. Often, those bad things are not because of our sins, or because God makes them happen – some bad things happen just because (indeed, “time and chance happen to us all” according to Ecclesiastes 9:11). And when those things happen to us, how will we respond? Will we blame God? Will we lose faith in God? Or will I simply say that it is well with my soul?

          Let us consider a Biblical example. Jeremiah had plenty of reasons to get discouraged. He was beaten by mobs, cast away from society, hated by kings and princes, rejected by his own people, and even cast into a deep pit of mud and refuse (Jeremiah 38:6). But through all of it, he spoke some comforting words in Lamentations 3:32-28. Notice especially the last phrase, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?” And do we not also read that God causes the rain to fall on both the evil and the good man?

          Through all of the evil and all the suffering that this world has to offer, let us never forget that God is always there to hold our hands. Even though children may die from accident, through no act of God at all, or we may lose a job, or a house may burn down, or illness may afflict our frail human bodies, we will always have the comfort and hope of God to lead us through the trials. It reminds me of what was written in Psalm 37:23-24, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord; and He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.”


What A Friend We Have In Jesus


What a friend we have Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. O, what peace we often forfeit; O, what needless pain we bear; all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care! Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer. Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer; In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, Though wilt find a solace there.


          There is no other friend like Jesus, and when we consider all that He does for us, and every way that we can never pay Him back, it makes our relationship to Him more special than any that we can ever have with our fellow man. That is why Joseph Scriven wrote the lyrics to “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” Scriven was born in 1820 in Dublin, and moved to Canada at the age of twenty-five. He was born into a wealthy family, received a fine education, and was even ready to be married. But on the eve of his wedding, Scriven’s fiancée drowned.

          Having no where else to go, and his best friend gone, he found comfort in Jesus Christ, realizing that human relations die and falter, but a relationship to the Savior will never disappoint. With a renewed understanding of the Lord, he moved to Port Hope, Canada and spent the rest of his life subsisting on humble means and doing good deeds for everybody around him. “One afternoon he was seen walking down the streets of Port Hope, where he lived, dressed as a plain workingman and carrying a saw horse and a saw on his mission of help. A citizen, noticing that a friend recognized him, said: ‘Do you know that man? What is his name and where does he live? I want some one to cut wood and I find it difficult to get a sober man to do the work faithfully.’ ‘But you can’t get that man,’ was the reply. ‘That is Mr. Scriven. He won’t cut wood for you.’ ‘Why not?’ queried the gentleman. ‘Because you are able to pay for it. He only saws wood for poor widows and sick people’” (Sankey, 334). He never married – Jesus Christ was the only friend he ever needed.

          We can be friends of the Savior, too, if we live a life that is in his shadow. There are three things we must do: first, we need to come to an understanding of the kind of friend that Christ is to all of us. Consider Romans 5:6-8. And also remember what Christ says in John 15:13-14, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” As can be assumed by this verse, we must learn to show obedience to the Word, which is given for all mankind. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Finally, once we have made our lives right with God we need to extend the same friendship to our brethren. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

          Let us never forget the friendship that we have with the Lord. No other person has done as much for you and me as Jesus – He came to this world, having left His Father’s right hand, and He suffered greatly. Paul sums it up well as he writes to the Corinthian church, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).


Just As I Am


Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid me come to Thee, O, Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot, O, Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O, Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched blind; sight, riches, healing of mind, yea all I need in Thee to find, O, Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome pardon, cleanse, relieve; because Thy promise I believe, O, Lamb of God, I come, I come!


          “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). Part of the road to salvation leads right into confession and repentance. Coming to grips with our sinfulness is essential if we expect to go before God on that last day and hear the words of joy. If we think we are sinless than the grace of God is not ours, and we have only the expectation of eternal darkness.

          Truly, Christ did not come into this world to save self-righteous fools who do not take responsibility for their mistakes. Anybody who doubts this needs to read about the difference between the Pharisee and the sinner in Luke 18:10-14. While one man came before God thinking he was clean, the other came before God with his eyes low and his voice crying for mercy. God is not willing to save those who think they do not need Him!

          That is the point behind “Just As I Am,” the words of which were written by a woman named Charlotte Elliot. We must be careful not to misinterpret the meaning of the hymn – although one can never know just what was going through the mind of Miss Elliott as she penned the lyrics. Based solely on what we have before us in this song, we cannot say that a sinner need only call on God and expect salvation. There is much more expected of him than just that. Turn to Ephesians 2:1-6. Notice that these verses are written in the past tense – we “were dead in our transgressions,” we “formerly walked” according to the sinful ways of the world, our nature used to be as children of wrath. All of this means that we must first stop sinning before God will cleanse us. If we want to wear the name of God, we must abstain from wickedness (2 Timothy 2:19).

          As we read the lyrics of this song, let us always remember that we cannot make ourselves perfect. We may try to remove all the sins from our lives, but even the best of us – the strongest, the most faithful, the most righteous – can never be justified before God without the blood of Christ. We are basically helpless without Christ. See Colossians 1:21-22. When we are able to understand that Christ’s blood is the only thing that is able to remove our imperfections, we can truly appreciate the free gift of God! “During a service of song. . . John B. Gough was asked by a man in the pew with him what was to be sung, as the announcement had not been heard. The questioner was most repulsive in appearance, because of a nervous disease that disfigured his face and form. When the singing began, Gough was driven almost to frenzy by the harsh and discordant tones of the singer by his side. But when they came to “Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind,” the wretched creature lifted his sightless eyes to heaven and sang with his whole soul. [Gough] said, “I have heard the finest strains of orchestra, choir, and soloist this world can produce, but I never heard music until I heard that blind man sing, ‘O, Lamb of God, I come, I come’”” (Sankey, 209).


Come, Sinner, Come


While thru His word He calls you, While we are praying for you, Now is the time to own Him, Now is the time to know Him, come, sinner, come!

Are you too heavy laden? Jesus will bear your burden! Jesus will not deceive you, Jesus can now redeem you, come, sinner, come!

O hear His tender pleading, Come and receive the blessing! While Jesus now invites you, While we are praying for you, come sinner, come!


          Mr. W.E. Witter said of his song “Come, Sinner, Come,” “One Saturday afternoon, while bunching the hay which had been mown along the roadside, the words of this little hymn seemed to sing themselves into my soul, and with music almost identical with that to which they were later set by the sweet singer, Palmer. I hastened to the house and, running upstairs, knelt beside the bed of a brother, for whose salvation my mother was in constant prayer. There, upon my knees, I transcribed the words to paper” (Sankey, 144). This lovely little song has been used since 1877 as one of the most profound invitation songs of our time.

          It is customary for preachers to offer an invitation at the end of their sermons. It gives an opportunity to any people in the assembly who have been pricked by the words of the Gospel to come forward and confess their sins, calling on the name of God, and accepting baptism as the one and only way to become a Christian. It is also a time for unrepentant Christians to come before their brethren and make a public promise to transform their lives into the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Invitations are not new, though. Consider this; God has, since the beginning of time, invited His little ones into His grace. In one form or another, He has never ceased to ask us and even implore us to repent. Much preaching took place in Genesis 6, during the construction of the ark which took one hundred years. Surely, in that great span of time, the invitation to repent was always there. And in Deuteronomy 11:26-28, there is set before the people a grand invitation. And it is made clear in Joel 2:12-13 that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness. And in Acts 2:40-41, the apostle Peter exhorted the people with many words, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” To this day, the invitation to salvation is still available.

          We must always beware, however, for another kind of invitation form another source. Satan invites us to follow him, too, although the devil’s path leads only to death and eternal perdition. Notice how Peter describes both invitations in 1 Peter 5:8-10. Listen not to the rotted words of the father of evil – resist him and stand firm in the hope something better. Eternal glory!

          The invitation is simple. If you have heard the message tonight, and believed it with all your heart – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 3:23); if you will confess that believe before God and man (Romans 10:9-10); if you repent and live a life that is renewed and in the strength of God (Luke 3:8); and if you will be baptized for the removal of your sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6), then why will you not obey the invitation? God calls to us from His Word, just as it says in our invitation song. Listen to Him. Heed Him. Obey Him.

          “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).