Epiphany 5 – February 6, 2022

“It Is Well: Hymns/Songs that Heal Us” – Hymn 763


Horatio Spafford story review

I have told the story of Horatio Spafford before, and some of you may remember it. But let me just review and summarize it for you.

Spafford was a successful mid-1800’s lawyer and businessman in Chicago with a wife, Anna, and five children. Their young son died with pneumonia in 1871, and in that same year, much of their business was lost in the great Chicago fire. A couple of years later, Anna and their four daughters were crossing the Atlantic from the U.S. to Europe on the French ocean liner, Ville du Havre. Horatio had to stay in Chicago with an unexpected business problem. He would join the family in Europe a few days later.

About four days into the crossing of the Atlantic, the Ville du Havre collided with a powerful, Scottish ship. Suddenly, Anna brought her four daughters to the deck and prayed that God would spare them if that could be His will, or to make them willing to endure whatever awaited them. Within about 12 minutes, the Ville du Havre slipped beneath the dark waters of the Atlantic, carrying with it 226 of the passengers including the four Spafford children.

Anna survived by clinging to a piece of the wreckage, and was rescued by a passing sailor, and then by another large vessel. Nine days later, they landed in Wales. From there she wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Spafford booked passage on the next available ship and left to join his grieving wife. With the ship about four days out, the captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him they were over the place where his children went down.

It was there, on that journey, that Spafford wrote “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It’s amazing – don’t you think – that some of the most powerful hymns were written by authors in the context of the most terrible tragedies? Martin Rinckart was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany, during the Thirty Years’ War. Besides the ravages of war, the city endured famine and plague – probably a great, great, great grandpa of our covid virus. It is said that at times, he would conduct up to 70 burial services a day, including that of his own wife. Yet, he could write the beautiful hymn that we sing at Thanksgiving – “Now Thank We All Our God.”

The pastor that I followed at Foothills Lutheran Church in Calgary also lost his teenage son when, as a pedestrian, he was struck by a car on a Saturday night. That pastor still preached his sermon the next morning, before telling the congregation. How did he do it? How could Rinckart write “Now Thank We All Our God” when people were dying all around him? How could Spafford write “It is Well” having lost his four daughters in that tragic sinking of a ship? How could Spafford sing that “peace” was attending him, that things were “well” with his soul? It seems unthinkable, impossible. Most of us would lash out against God – “If God loves me, why?” Let’s explore…


    v. 1 – Whatever my lot

When peace, like a river,  Attendeth my way,  When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.

Refrain: It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul.


Spafford begins his hymn with these words: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way.” I’m quite sure that he didn’t have the lyrics of that fairly modern song to refer to… you know, “I’ve got peace like a river… in my soul.” (In fact, maybe Spafford’s hymn is the origin of the modern song.) But Spafford did have the benefit of a Bible reference from Isaiah 66. There we hear these words, “I will extend peace to her – to Jerusalem – like a river.” So there it is – peace like a river… like the waters of a river calmly flowing downstream, like the lasting satisfaction and motherly comfort that delights all God’s people as they await the end of all things. This “peace like a river” is what we have a hard time imagining that Spafford was experiencing as the ship passed over the place where his daughters lost their lives. We would think it was more like the depths of sorrow and grief at the fear of those little girls as they drowned.

In contrast, Spafford’s second phrase says exactly that, “When sorrows, like sea billows, roll.” That’s more like it. He describes it precisely and personally. He pictures those waves not only rolling over his daughters, but also over him in all his unrelenting sorrow. Grief is different for everyone. Whether you’ve lost a parent, a sibling, a spouse or a child, the littlest memory – something said, or something found – or the lyrics and melody of that funeral hymn can wash over you like waves, even years later, and the tears well up once again. Just like the rolling waves of the sea are relentless and sometimes surprising, so is the grief. Maybe you are remembering someone right now… that’s OK. Let that little tear out. Psalm 56 says that God collects our tears in His bottle.

Spafford summarizes his thought: “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul.” Whatever happens in life – five healthy and happy children, or one son dead of pneumonia, and four daughters drowned in the Atlantic – whatever happens, God, heal me, heal me in my soul, and help me to accept it with strength and with courage and with faith in You.

This thought, I believe, comes from the book of Job. Job was a rich and blessed man. He had ten children, and sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys almost too many to count, AND servants to look after them all. But one day, God allowed Satan to afflict Job, and he lost his flocks and herds, his servants, and his children. His unbelievable, faithful response was – “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” But that wasn’t the end of the story. Again, with the permission of God, Satan afflicted Job with sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. His wife urged Job to curse God and die, but again his response was surprising: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” Before Spafford even wrote the hymn, Job was saying, “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul.’”

Let’s consider the Gospel reading along with this first verse of the hymn. We pick up the story with Peter and his fishing buddies cleaning their nets after fishing all night and getting skunked… NOTHING!! Jesus got in the boat, and said, “Let’s push out into deep water; let’s go fishing.” Peter hesitatingly agreed, and they caught… two boat-loads of fish! As, in his mind, he compared himself morally, spiritually to Jesus, Peter felt a sense of guilt and confessed, “I am a sinful man.” If he knew that Isaiah 6 was the Old Testament lesson for today, he probably would have said, along with Isaiah at his call to speak God’s words: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, Peter knew that he had an un-well soul, and Jesus knew it, too. When

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid” – it was an invitation to have a well soul, a healed soul.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” to Peter and the disciples on another occasion. That night, Jesus was sleeping in the boat, when a furious squall came up on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples all feared for their lives, but Jesus spoke to the wind and waves, “Peace… be still.” Maybe He even sang, “You be peace like a river!” The wind ceased, the waves were calm, and there was peace on the sea, and peace in some disciples’ hearts, for even the wind and waves obeyed Jesus.

The Spafford story and the Sea of Galilee story are both stories about a ship, a storm and a Saviour. The storms on the sea know who Jesus is, and obey Him. The storms in our lives also know and obey Jesus. What is happening in your life? Is peace like a river attending your way, or are sorrows and griefs washing over your little life like big and boisterous sea billows? It doesn’t matter, whatever YOUR lot, those storms and waves will toss your days only as long and as turbulently as Jesus allows. And then when the time is up, Jesus doesn’t just throw us a life preserver or a life jacket, He stops the storm with His powerful word, “Peace! Be still!” Jesus IS our life jacket, giving us LIFE, healing our soul when it is at its most vulnerable!!


    v. 2 – Shed His own blood for my soul

Though Satan should buffet, Though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control

That Christ has regarded My helpless estate And has shed his own blood for my soul

Refrain: It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul.


The second verse briefly continues the nautical imagery. “Though Satan should buffet.” OK… so just to make it clear, these words are spelled the same but pronounced differently. This isn’t “Though Satan should buffet” as in provide us with a self-serve all-you-can-eat meal. Satan would never do that. He would never give us anything good or helpful, unless it was ultimately meant to deceive us and to lead us away from God. But he would, and does, and always does buffet us… that is hit us repeatedly, batter, clobber, and pummel our little lives, just like winds and waves buffet against a storm-tossed boat.

The second phrase expands on that same thought – “Though trials should come.” Trials – that’s Satan’s modus operandi – the way he works… trying to get us to doubt God’s goodness and grace. In “Amazing Grace” John Newton spoke of trials as “dangers, toils, and snares.” In “Come, Thou Fount” Robert Robinson also spoke of being rescued from danger.

Spafford acknowledges that “peace like a river” is not always going to attend our ways, is not going to be the tone of every day of our lives. But he has a “blest assurance” when those inevitable trials come, when we are helpless to battle them ourselves. That assurance is that Christ has His gracious and merciful eye on us, He knows what we are going through, and He cares. Ultimately, and finally, Spafford realizes and believes that Jesus shed His own blood on the cross for his soul, for our souls. Last week, we heard Robinson write that God interposed Jesus’ blood – separating us from danger, death, and damnation. Oh, what good news that is for us!! What healing news that is for us!

So, how is Satan buffeting and challenging your life and your faith. What trials are upsetting you right now? Whatever they are, let Spafford’s blest assurance also be yours: Jesus is looking at you; Jesus is looking out for you; Jesus has shed His own blood for your sins, and for the WELL-being, the healing of your soul. Because He’s got you, you can sing “It is well with my soul.”


    v. 3 – My sin is nailed to the cross

He lives – 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.

Refrain: It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul.


The third verse of the hymn expands on the theme that ended the second verse – that Christ has shed His own blood for my soul. Spafford actually kind of addresses things backwards. He starts with the fact of Jesus’ resurrection – He lives! – and then moves to His crucifixion. I will deal with it the other way around.

The glorious thought that brings bliss, happiness, contentment, joy to his mind and heart is that we don’t have to bear our sins because Jesus bore them on the cross. We don’t have to struggle and worry and despair over the breadth of our sins, the depth of our sins, the weight of our sins, the guilt of our sins. They have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and that’s where they stay.

Spafford says, “My sin, not in part, but the whole.” That means that Jesus took our sin on Himself on the cross – ALL of it, not just some, but ALL, EVERY LAST ONE, the sins that we are aware of, the sins that we are not aware of, the sins of our heart, our mind, our lips, our hands, our eyes, the sins that we commit intentionally, and the sins that we – OOOPS! – commit, even the sins of not doing something good for someone, not showing love toward someone when that opportunity presents itself. They are ALL nailed to the cross, and we are freed of their burden in our lives.

Then we remember and rejoice that Jesus lives and that means that He has conquered our enemies of sin, death, the grave and the devil. Our sin no longer resides on us, in us, because as we heard from Romans 6 a month ago, we are connected to Jesus in His resurrection, and we live a new life. That’s why Spafford could end the verse with “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” That’s why we can begin and end every day with the same refrain: “Praise the Lord, O my soul!”


    v. 4 – Lord, haste the day

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.

Refrain: It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul.


And so we get to the fourth verse. Like Robert Robinson in “Come, Thou Fount”, and like John Newton in “Amazing Grace,” the final verse of Spafford’s hymn has an end-times flavor to it. He starts with “Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight.” That sounds like what St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 – “we live by faith, not by sight.” That’s true while we live out our life here on earth. We haven’t seen Jesus personally. We haven’t heard Him speak audibly. We may have seen movies and depictions of actors that portray the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but we haven’t seen the actual video footage from 30 A.D. – they haven’t uncovered that in any recent archaeological digs!! We only have the written Word of God, and the teachings passed along through the 2,000 year long history of the church. So, we live and hold the truth of those teachings in our hearts only by faith. But there will come a day – “the” day, the last day, the Judgement Day – when our faith will be turned to sight, and we will see Jesus face to face. Spafford prays that that day would come hastily, soon, just as the second last verse of the Bible prays, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Then he describes that day with a couple of Revelation images of that coming of Jesus. The first image is a visible one from Revelation 6, and it’s that of the clouds being rolled back as a scroll. That is the image of the end of all things on earth – the sky and the clouds being rolled up in a scroll, as if to say, “That’s all, folks!” But whereas, it might be the end of earthly history, it’s just the beginning of our heavenly history.

The second image is an audible one – the sound of a trumpet. There are a few places in the New Testament where a trumpet sound signals the last day. 1 Corinthians 15 says that we will all be changed “at the last trumpet.” 1 Thessalonians 4 says that Jesus will come down with the trumpet call of God. In the Book of Revelation, there were actually seven trumpets that sounded, but the last one signaled the time when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.

Spafford understands correctly that when the scroll is rolled up, and when the last trumpet sounds, Jesus will return as the angels declared at His ascension into heaven, and all who put their trust in Him will be ushered into the very presence of God and the Lamb, and into eternal glory. Ultimately, finally, despite the sea billows of his life, despite the trials and the buffeting of Satan, that’s why Spafford could land on his refrain, “It is well with my soul.” With trust in a gracious God and Saviour, that’s where we can faithfully land, too. In that way, and with that thought, we have the confidence that we are healed and whole in our soul. Let’s sing this beautiful hymn…

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