Sunday, February 24, 2008

Water from a stone

And the LORD said to Moses ... “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” Exodus 17:6 [ESV]
When I was a kid, the phrase “you can’t get water from a stone” was the definition of impossibility. (Today, “blood from a turnip” seems more common). The metaphor was obviously informed by if not drawn from the story of Moses leading the Israelites in the desert, and finding water at Meribah.

This is the reference to water that was quoted by Augustus Toplady in his famous hymn:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
The linkage was explained to me in a wonderful article by Christopher Howse in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph (via Titus OneNine). Howse (or his editors) titled the article “Rock of Ages and the rebel pilgrims.” Howse explains how this hymn appears across a wide range of Christian hymnals:
Toplady was a thoroughgoing Calvinist. In an article for the Gospel Magazine he calculated that the number of sins committed during the average lifetime amounted to 2,522,880,000. Later stanzas of the hymn make it clear that neither the work of his hands nor his tears, even if they flowed for ever, could atone for sin - and with this opinion, his great doctrinal opponent John Wesley would have agreed, as far as it went, as would any Christian, from St Augustine to the Pope of Rome.

... what Toplady was referring to, as any of his Bible-reading congregation would have known, was the striking of the rock by Moses in the desert, when the people were grumbling that they were thirsty, "and the water came out abundantly".

More importantly, for Toplady's verses, the water flowing from the rock was a type or foreshadowing of the water that flowed, together with blood, from the side of Christ when he was pierced by a spear as he hung on the cross.
This is the hymn that Dr. John Julian (in Vol. 2 of his 1898 Dictionary of Hymnology) praised by saying
No other English hymn can be named which has laid so broad and firm a grasp upon the English-speaking world
The song has enduring popularity — even to the modern generation of praise music — having been recorded by (among others) soul singer Al Green, ex-gospel singer Amy Grant in a duet with husband Vince Gill, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

However, over the past centuries there have been considerable variations in the treatment of the words and music, even for the famous first stanza. The version listed above is #150 from the 1870 Hymns and Ancient and Modern, the oldest source I have, but still almost a hundred years after Toplady published his poem at the end of a March 1776 article in The Gospel Magazine, of which he was the editor — the same article that Howse references.

Since Toplady was an English Calvinist, perhaps a more relevant version would be #406 of 1900 The Church Hymnary, created by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian churches of the British Isles. It turns out that these words exactly match The English Hymnal (#477), the 1906 hymnal fondly remembered by two generations of English worshipers (and Prof. Osborne’s blog). This is also the version quoted by Howse.

In 1940, the editors of my favorite hymnal chose these words for hymn #471:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy side, a healing flood,
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
which adopts the same closing phrase as TEH, but tries to make a better rhyme with “blood”. (In one of its rare redeeming choices, Hymnal 1982 restores the TEH wording.)

Across these same four editions — two English, one Scottish, one American — the last stanza has many small variations, but the meaning seems more similar (”mine eyelids close in death” vs. “mine eyes are closed in death.”)

Its lasting popularity has meant it has been set to at least six different hymn tunes:
  • Petra aka Gethesemane aka Redhead No. 76 (1853). By Richard Redhead, the only tune listed in all four hymnals and apparently the most popular in British Isles.
  • Toplady (1830). Listed as the final choice in the 1900 Scottish and 1940 Episcopal hymnals — and the only choice in Hymnal 1982 — this tune by the American Thomas Hastings is the one familiar to all of us on this side of the pond.
  • Pascal (c. 1780) From the Katholisches Gesangbuch of Vienna, it’s listed as the 2nd tune in the companion to the 1927 (Presbyterian) The Church Hymnary.
  • Pressburg (1714) The tune attributed to Freylinghausen is listed as the alternate tune in TEH.
  • Rousseau’s Dream. After Petra and Toplady, the third tune mentioned by Dr. Ian Bradley in his wonderful Book of Hymns — apparently the tune popular during an 1875 British revival movement. As best I can tell, the same tune known as Greenville (1752) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  • Cuyler (1907) by John H. Brewer, listed as the third choice in the CyberHymnal. and apparently popular in its home parish in Brooklyn for nearly a century.
Some might consider the hymn too popular — to the point of being cliché. I recall a funeral (perhaps my uncle’s) where it was rejected for this reason. However, the CyberHymnal says it was sung at Gladstone’s funeral, while Julian says it gave great comfort to a dying Prince Albert (Victoria’s consort).

That’s good enough for me: I have it listed as the sequence hymn for my funeral (hopefully not any time soon). That’s where it was sung at the 2006 funeral of my wife’s aunt. My mom also wants it played at her funeral — one of the few cases where we agree about something involving Anglican worship.

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