Author—August M. Toplady, 1740-1778
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.
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.
I could not believe it that we have not done an analysis of this hymn before. This hymn has traditionally been ranked as one of the most popular hymns ever written. It is certainly one of the best known in many languages. Each one of us can already start singing it in one language or another. It has been described as a “hymn that meets the spiritual needs of all sorts and conditions of men from the derelict snatched from the gutter by the Salvation Army to Prime Minister Gladstone, at whose funeral it echoed through the dim spaces of Westminister Abbey.”
Whereas most hymns have been written out of some deep personal need or experience, this hymn evidently was born out of a spirit of heated controversy. August Toplady was converted to Christ as a young boy of sixteen years of age while visiting in Ireland. Of his conversion, Toplady has written:
“Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought right with God in an obscure part of Ireland, midst a handful of people met together in a barn, and by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name. Surely it was the Lord’s doing and is marvelous.”
The hymn writer, Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham, England, on November 4, Augustus Toplady was born in England in 1740. His father was a Royal Marine and died on duty soon after his son’s birth, leaving the boy to be raised by his mother. Toplady had an interest in religion during his younger years, and showed this in spiritual journals and moralistic behavior. However, it wasn’t until his fifteenth year, while attending a Methodist revival in an Irish barn, that he felt “brought nigh to God.” It was at this point that he determined to go into ministry.
Having been converted under Methodism, Toplady initially aimed to become a Methodist minister. This changed, however, when he began to consider more closely the distinctions between Arminianism and Calvinism. The Methodist movement was decidedly Arminian, and Toplady, as an offspring of that movement, initially adopted that understanding. But, as Louis Benson writes, after he studied the 39 Articles of the Church of England, he became convinced of the Calvinistic perspective and thus became a minister in the Church of England.
The issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism was a hot topic in the church in those days, and for the remainder of his life Toplady would write and debate on the subject, arguing at length (and at times viciously) for the doctrine of election. Unfortunately, towards the end of his short life, the debate grew increasingly ugly, resulting in a major and public rift between him and John Wesley that would never find resolution.
Toplady died in 1778 (aged 38) from tuberculosis. He never married, his life and ministry were short, and he certainly had his share of flaws. But God was pleased to use him to write a hymn that would so powerfully communicate the gospel and encourage the saints that his name and story have been preserved to this day.
About the Hymn
There is a common story of the hymn being inspired by (and even written from within) a rock cleft that Toplady once took refuge in during a storm. The particular rock is in Burrington Combe gorge in North Somerset, England, and it has a plaque on it with this claim to fame. However, the story is probably apocryphal.
As Benson persuasively argues, Toplady was most likely inspired to write the hymn after reading the preface of John and Charles Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745) which contains a prayer voicing many of the themes and words that are also found in the hymn. This is ironic, given the poor condition of Toplady’s relationship with John Wesley; but one can perhaps see the hand of God in it.
Regardless of where and how Toplady got his inspiration, the hymn is a blessing. For generations it has remained a solid testimony to the powerful sacrifice of our Savior and a great encouragement to saints around the world. May God continue its influence, and grant us many more songs with such enduring legacies.
The tune for Toplady’s text was composed in 1830 by a well-known American church musician, Thomas Hastings. Hastings was the first musician of sacred music to dedicate his life to the task of elevating and improving the music of the churches in this country. Despite the fact that he was an Albino and afflicted with an eye problem, Hastings wrote no less than 50 volumes of church music, including 1,000 hymn tunes and more than 600 original hymn texts.
God in his providence has chosen to preserve this hymn for the past 200 years so that congregations of believers can sing this hymn with spiritual profit and blessing.
Couple of comments about the lyrics of this hymn.
The first verse says: 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.
Whew… there’s a lot there! First, the “cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee” is very reminiscent of Moses in:
Exodus 33:18-23 And he said, “Please, show me Your glory.” (19) Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (20) But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” (21) And the LORD said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. (22) So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. (23) Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
The last 4 lines of the 1st verse need to be read together:
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 water and the blood” refer to this moment, when Jesus is on the cross: John 19:32-34 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. (33) But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. (34) But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
The significance of “the water and the blood” is this: Upon a death such as crucifixion water collects on top of the heart. When the solider pierced Jesus’ side and water and blood flowed out, it was proof that he was indeed dead. He wasn’t just unconscious as some liberal scholars like to believe. He was dead. The payment had been made.
The line “be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure” is a very, very significant line. It refers to what is often called the “double imputation.” In this, our sins are laid upon the pure unblemished Christ and he takes them upon Himself to take the punishment of God’s wrath. We can see this truth in several passages, including:
1 Peter 2:24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness- by whose stripes you were healed.
Hebrews 9:28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
1 Peter makes it pretty clear that Christ Himself literally bore our sins in his own body. When you read in Mark 14 and Luke 22 about Christ asking God to remove, if possible, the cup He’s about to bear, it’s not death that He fears. It’s the burden of carrying the sins of the world in his pure and holy body and separation from God the Father that had to result. What a horrible thing to experience. But, as our sins were imputed to Christ, so also is His righteousness imputed to us. When our sins were laid on him, Christ was not a sinner. He only bore our sins. Likewise, when His righteousness is laid on us, we’re not righteous. We only receive the credit for His righteousness. Listen to what Paul says:
Philippians 3:8-9 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ (9) and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;
Paul says that he desires to be found in Christ and that he, Paul, has no righteousness of his own, but only that which comes by God through faith. In:
Romans 3:21-22 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
Note that the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, is to all and on all who believe. Christ’s righteousness is laid upon believers, just as their sins were laid upon Christ. This is the double imputation and this is what the hymn “Rock of Ages” is referring to with the line “be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure.” We are saved by Christ from God’s wrath, and we are made pure by His righteousness. Our own works are worthless when it comes to salvation.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the 1st verse of this hymn, but that’s okay; it’s a very important verse, theologically speaking. I just said that our own works are worthless in achieving salvation. Listen to the next two verses of “Rock of Ages” and see if you think the author agrees.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
“Not the labor of my hands…could my tears forever flow…all for sin could not atone.” This shows the futility of man’s works toward his salvation. Isaiah said it best in 64:2 “…all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…” There is absolutely no way that man can atone for his sins based on his successive good works. We must look to Christ “Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
In Fanny Crosby’s “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” we saw the necessity of a contrite and broken heart. We see it here, too, in the 3rd verse of “Rock of Ages.”
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Here’s what we contribute to our salvation: “nothing…naked…helpless…foul.” Here’s what do, though: “to the cross I cling…come to Thee for dress…look to Thee for grace…to the fountain fly.” And the simple truth of the matter is summed up in the last line: “Wash me, Savior, or I die.” There’s the simple message of the gospel summed up in one line of one verse of a hymn. “Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
And now, the last verse of “Rock of Ages.”
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Hebrews tells us: Hebrews 9:27-28 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, (28) so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
Everyone dies. We all know that. The Bible says that men die once and then the judgment. At this judgment, each of us will give an account to God (Romans 14:9) and the dead will be judged (2 Corinthians 5:10, 2 Timothy 4:1, Jude 1:15, Revelation 20:11-15). Those who are not found in the lamb’s book of life will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). This is what the last verse of “Rock of Ages” is talking about. “When I soar to worlds unknown, see Thee on Thy judgment throne…” When that happens, the author says “Rock of Age, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” In other words, “let me be found in Christ.”
What a rich and powerful hymn “Rock of Ages” is! It touches on the inapproachability of God apart from a Mediator, it brings up double imputation, it shows the futility of our own works in securing salvation, and ends with God’s righteous judgment on the last day. In all of this, Christ is our rock and in His cleft, we must be found.
Are you in Christ? Are you safe in the Rock? Has Christ taken your sins or are you still holding fast to them yourself? Have you claimed His righteousness for your own, or do you still think your own good deeds will tilt the balance in your favor? Don’t be a fool. The author of “Rock of Ages” knew the gospel message and the Bible covers it front to back. “Wash me, Savior, or I die.” That’s the gospel message.