"When Peace Like a River"
Sometimes, the best way for us to express ourselves, and particularly our emotions, is to do so through music. Many of the great musical masterpieces of history are reflective of a troubled or a moving time in a composer's life and their music was an outlet for them to express what they were feeling in those moments. The hymnody we sing in church here is certainly much the same. Although I would suggest, our hymnody goes a step beyond a writer expressing the emotions and feelings of their heart to a place where they are expressing the deepest words and thoughts of faith in the words and the music which we now sing.
This is why we pride ourselves, still today, in the singing of songs of praise and hymns in our worship. We're singing the songs of faith. We're lifting back to God the same words He's first given to us through the holy writers of Scripture. The hymns we sing help us in receiving and in turn expressing the Divine truth which the rest of our worship is gracefully giving us.
With these thoughts in mind, I wish to direct your attention to a hymn that is truly one of the best: "When Peace Like a River". For some of us it just sticks as a favorite or near favorite hymn. For others we know it as that "it is well with my soul" song. For me, it has stuck as an expression of a man's faith who is dealing with great earthly loss while also rejoicing in heavenly gain. In that sense, it seems the perfect hymn for the celebration of All Saints. We, each of us here have experienced earthly loss through that enemy we call death. Even so, we also rejoice in the heavenly gain of the saints whose names we have commemorated this morning. In this hymn, I think you will find why each of us can readily say, in faith, why "it is well with my soul."
This hymn was authored by Horatio Spafford. There is a fair chance you’ve never heard of him. That’s okay. I didn’t either, that is, until I learned about why he wrote this particularly wonderful hymn. Mr. Spafford had been a successful lawyer and business-man up until a series of events which would turn his life inside out. In 1870 he lost his only son to Scarlet Fever. In 1871 he was financially ruined because of the Great Chicago Fire. In 1873 he planned some travel to Europe. He was held up in Chicago but sent his wife and daughters ahead on a ship. The ship sank. His four daughters were lost at sea, his wife barely survived and sent him a now famous telegram saying, “Saved alone…”
It would be hard to imagine having been dealt all of these different blows. We may be tempted to question God’s fairness. Yet, it was in the aftermath of these tragedies that Mr. Spafford penned his great hymn. In fact, it is said that as Spafford sailed to Europe to meet his grieving wife he wrote the words of the hymn as the ship passed the very place where he had lost his daughters. And he wrote:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
He writes with words of great humility. "Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know." This is the outlook on life that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6 Jesus spoke "which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life ... why are you anxious" (Mt. 6:27-28a). While we make so many plans for this life and have such great hopes of things we'll see, places where'll go, we are readily reminded, its ultimately not in our hands, is it?
Now something I want you to zero in on with me is what do the words "it is well with my soul" really mean? What is well with our soul? That bad things happen? That loss should be accepted? That God is teaching us? That God is good? That we should just feel all happy inside? What should we take as the meaning behind these words?
I believe Spafford points us to it as the second verse comes to its end and the third verse begins: "That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul. ... My sin — oh, 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!"
That's the Gospel true and true my dear friends. Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, you can hear in his words an excitement as he writes, it brings shivers throughout body and soul I every time I hear it. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord. Can you even begin to imagine the relief that this Gospel truth brings us? The relief this reality means for us? When we know that, then we truly can say "it is well with my soul." For what else makes us well, what else brings us peace than the grace of God in taking our sins to the cross?
Consider also the lesson Spafford is giving us in the human experience as he pens these words. Consider what he is not writing about in this hymn. We've heard the tragedies he'd experienced. We can only begin to empathize with the hurts he must have been feeling. And what we don't hear him writing about is himself, or his troubles, or all the woes he must have been feeling. The hymn is not his own personal pity party. Instead, he shows us what knowing the grace of God and His love in such difficult times truly means for us. How could anyone after such horrific losses say "it is well with my soul" unless they know the true and loving grace of the Crucified Savior in their heart and mind.
It is with this saving truth that Spafford leads us to now look forward with him. In finding peace in God’s grace for the tragedies of the past, he also shows us the Scriptural mindset for us as believers to also anticipate tomorrow. I share with you some more words from his hymn, though some of these are from an original verse not found in our hymnals. This is what he wrote:
But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal; …
And then he moves into that most amazing final verse:
And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so it is well with my soul.
The image he paints for us of Jesus’ return is as though it came straight from the words of Holy Scripture. The image of our Lord returning in just the way He ascended, “the clouds be rolled back as a scroll and the trumpets sound.” It is an awe-inspiring thought. But He describes for us also what awaits us. “Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight.” We feel this longing for our eyes of faith to see the things in which we believe. And this is precisely what God has promised us. It is as though we are hearing the words of Job 19 quoted here in Spafford’s hymn.
For this is what Job once wrote: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me.! (Job 19:25-27)”
That is our prayer, that is our hope. We look forward to that day when we will join the saints who have gone before us in rejoicing in that heavenly joy, and with our own eyes, seeing our Lord in the flesh. Lord, hasten that day indeed.