Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Hymnology: Eternal Father, Strong to Save

O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
~Psalm 89:8-9

Hymn Story

Often known in America as the “Navy Hymn” because of its association with the U.S. Naval Academy, this is perhaps the best known of the many maritime hymns written during the 19th century. Cross-Atlantic travel was common during this time, but perilous, leading to a genre of prayer-hymns for seafarers.

When one of his beloved students was preparing to sail to America in 1860, British school teacher William Whiting wrote a hymn for his class to sing to their friend before his voyage. “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” quickly became popular among sailors throughout the British Empire, eventually catching on in the French and American navies as well.

The melody to which these lyrics were set was composed by John Dykes (of “Holy, Holy, Holy” fame). He named this tune MELITA, after the ancient name for Malta, the island where Paul was shipwrecked in Acts 27.

This hymn was famously sung at the funerals of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Here’s a beautiful rendition (love, love, LOVE the bass on the last chord!) by the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters:

Lyrics

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea.

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep,
and calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee,
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

Additional lyrics can be found via the U.S. Navy website

Hymn Study

Most think of this hymn as simply a prayer for safe travels over the waters. While it is that, it is also a beautiful portrayal of the roles of the three Persons of the Trinity. Each stanza reveals God’s sovereignty over creation.

In Job 38:8-11, God reminds Job who it was who commanded the sea, “Thus far you shall come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.” The world was designed by God the Father, and was fashioned according to His plan. Though we may not always understand what is happening—particularly in the midst of suffering—we can trust that the Lord is in control, and that no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

When the disciples in the boat were terrified by a storm, certain that they were perishing, they cried out to Jesus, who was so little worried that he was sleeping through the whole ordeal! He awoke, rebuked the sea that He had made (John 1:3), and it obeyed his voice (Luke 8:22-25). Christ’s followers marveled at this… but not so much that they weren’t also “utterly astounded” when this same Lord walked on the raging waters, calming yet another tempest (Mark 6:45-52).

In the beginning, as the Son carried out the Father’s will in the creation of the heavens and the earth, the Holy Spirit was “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The Hebrew word tehom (תְּהוֹם) translated in this verse as “waters” or “the Deep” carries with it the connotation of a chaotic, disorganized flood. The same word is used in Genesis 7:11 to describe Noah’s flood, and in Isaiah 51:10 in reference to God’s power over the Red Sea in parting it during the Exodus. It is the Holy Spirit who brings order out of chaos, peace out of confusion.

The final stanza is my favorite, as it shows the unity of the Godhead, the perfect combination of love and power. Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit were active in the creation of the world, so each has both the desire and the ability to shield us from harm. We can take refuge in the knowledge that, in every circumstance, the Father is in control. The Son empathizes with us in our weakness. The Spirit comforts us and guides us.

It is right that we should cry to the Father, Son, and Spirit in “danger’s hour,” whether our peril be from the sea, or from rock, tempest, fire, or foe. It is to this loving, Triune God that we raise our glad hymns of praise!

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
~Psalm 57:1

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