I’ll never, no, never forsake.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Hands-down, one of my favorites right here. Yes, I know I say that about every hymn….

Hymnologists have not been able to identify the author of this hymn: it was first published in a 1787 hymnal in London by John Rippon, with the only identifier as “K”. In subsequent editions, it was attributed to “Kn,” “Keen,” and “Kirkham.” Now, Rippon had a close friend named Robert Keen(e) who served as a song leader for him from 1776-1793, but other hymns ascribed to him were attributed “R. Keene,” and had this one been penned by him as well, one would think the attribution would have been similar.

Regardless of the authorship, we can be sure this hymn was written by a Christian who was very knowledgeable of the promises of God found in Scripture, who had most likely called upon those promises for strength in times of tribulation. And because the text of this hymn comes directly from scripture, we can find the same solace as we sing it over 200 years later.

You can find this one in our hymnal at #529. The first stanza identifies this as a hymn of promises directly from Jesus:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Stanza 2 quotes Isaiah 41:10 almost verbatim: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” (KJV)

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
for I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Stanzas 3 and 4 come from Isaiah 43:2, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

We see echoes of Zechariah 13:9 at the end of stanza 4: “And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God.”

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

The final stanza draws upon several sources but is especially influenced by Deuteronomy 31: 6, 8: “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee…. he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.”

“The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

One of my favorite things about this hymn is how true it stays to the scripture it references. We’ve talked before about the metrical Psalms, and how for many years, they were the only permitted singing in church– the thinking was, if you’re not singing scripture, it’s a slippery slope and soon we’d be singing any kind of theologically/morally corrupt subject. There was no belief that a contemporary song’s text could have been divinely inspired, (though it was commonly asserted that a priest/pastor’s sermons were divinely directed of the Holy Spirit. Songs didn’t “count” in the same way that sermons did.)

From all that I’ve read, it seems that these dogmatic rules regarding song texts were primarily driven by the suspicion of the power of music. And it’s a good thing to be cautious about the words we sing! Music breathes life into words in a powerful way. It’s important to be sure about the words that we set to music, for this very reason.

But I’m a little conflicted: on the one hand, I am glad that these days we recognize the validity of spiritual songs that aren’t direct paraphrases of scripture. On the other hand, there are a lot of songs today that stray so far from scripture that they are 1) simply not theologically correct; 2) not theologically substantive; or 3) both. I can’t say that these church leaders of old were totally wrong in limiting song lyrics to scripture. It certainly made it easier for them to be sure of what the church was singing, if they knew the church would only be singing from the Psalms.

At the point in history when today’s hymn was written, though, the church was well into the revolution in England called “The Great Awakening,” the movement that among other things established hymn-singing as an indelible part of Christian worship, and achieved the general acceptance of the spiritual value and the divine inspiration of hymn texts that weren’t direct scriptural paraphrases. And this opened the floodgates for a hymn-writing explosion in England, and later, America. The Wesleys’ “Methodist Movement” was well underway by this point as well, and their non-Anglican friends were writing and singing hymns, too, inspiring the church to a new, passionate worship that reinvigorated the church for the 19th century.

And in the middle of all of this, this unknown author of How Firm A Foundation went back to scriptural paraphrase, to write one of the greatest hymns of the 18th century (in my very humble opinion.)

The thing with this hymn is: the melody demands that you sing with gusto, and the text has you singing parts of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Zechariah in full voice, as you affirm the goodness of the God of Israel, the same God we’ve gathered to worship today. It’s accessible to the young-in-faith, who are still exploring and understanding their relationship to God, and for whom the text’s words of assurance will resonate. And it has enough meat-and-potatoes substance for the mature-in-faith, who can engage with the context of the words and find the same level of solace in the scriptures as the author did.

What more could you want?

Two other fun tidbits about this hymn:

1) The first tune associated with this hymn was ADESTE FIDELES, familiar to us as the melody of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Try singing this text to that tune. It’s really weird! The tune to which it’s set in our hymnal was an anonymous American folk tune first published in the States in 1832, and that was the melody that quickly became indelibly associated with this text.

2) This text and tune was beloved in both the North and the South before the Civil War: it was a favorite hymn of Theodore Roosevelt; Andrew Jackson requested it be sung at his deathbed, and Robert E. Lee asked it be sung at his funeral.

The next time you flip past this hymn, pull out your Bible and find the scriptures it references. Does it change your perspective to see the words of the hymn in the context of the scripture? Do you think you could learn these scriptures by heart if you learned the words of the hymn?

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