How Firm a Foundation

Hymnology: How Firm a Foundation

“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.”
~ 1 Corinthians 3:11

Hymn Story

Not a whole lot is known about the exact origin of this hymn. The text was first published under the title “Exceeding Great and Precious Promises” in 1787 in the hymnbook A Selection of Hymns, compiled by British pastor John Rippon. This title comes from 2 Peter 1:3-4.

John Rippon was a Baptist minister in London, who collected, edited, and published several collections of hymns throughout his life. Unfortunately, he frequently neglected to list the authors of the hymns he published, and would often make changes to the text without acknowledging which of the words were by the original authors and which were his alterations. This has been a source of frustration for historians and hymnologists! Continue reading

Isaiah 6

Hymnology: Isaiah 6

And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his
~ Isaiah 6:3

Hymn Story

When asked about why he wrote this song, Todd Agnew replied, “I’ve always felt that we worship more profoundly when we use God’s own words.” Perhaps that’s why on his early albums he made a point to include songs taken directly from Scripture.

Agnew’s setting of this text matches the scene very well, from the powerful climax as the prophet’s sins are removed, to the repetition of the angels’ song:

In fact, I loved the song so much that I asked his permission to arrange it for our church choir & orchestra at Stevens Street Baptist Church for a CD/DVD we released in 2010 (leave a comment if you’d like information on how to purchase one!):


I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted
And the train of his robe filled the temple
Above him were angels with six mighty wings;
With two they’d cover their faces, with two they’d cover their feet,
And with two they’d fly and sing:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty
The whole earth is full of his glory
He’s glorious!

And I said, “Woe to me, I am ruined!
For I am unclean, and so are all my kind.
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

And an angel flew to me, and he had fire in his hands
And he put it to my lips, and God took away my sin.
He took away my sin!

Hymn Study

Judah was in trouble. Their king, who had once been a godly man and had led the nation to a time of great prosperity (2 Chronicles 26:5), had died. After becoming strong and wealthy, Uzziah “grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Seeking to gain even more power and authority, the king entered the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem to burn incense on the altar, something which was not his right. For this discretion, God afflicted him with leprosy. He lost his kingdom, and eventually his life.

Though Uzziah’s son Jotham “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” when he became king, “the people still followed corrupt practices” (2 Chronicles 27:2). Because he was faithful, Jotham became mighty (2 Chronicles 27:6), but his reign was short. His son, Ahaz, followed the kings of Israel into idolatry, rather than following in the footsteps of his father. Under his rule, the people suffered horrible military defeats and slavery at the hands of their neighbors… even Israel!

Thankfully, God was preparing for the deliverance of his people even before their downfall. In the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1)—six years prior to the reign of Ahaz—the Lord gave a Isaiah a vision of the temple. Not the temple in Jerusalem, where Uzziah had sought to exalt himself, but the temple in Heaven, where it is not possible for any man to enter with pride.

The prophet is humbled by the sight of the glory of the Lord, and his first words are a prophetic judgment against himself: “Woe is me! For I am lost.” At the sight of the true King, men can do nothing but acknowledge His holiness and their own guilt.

Yet the most amazing thing happened! Rather than being pronounced guilty, a messenger of the righteous Judge pronounced Isaiah to be free from guilt. God had taken away his sin!

But why? Because of something righteous within Isaiah? No! Isaiah’s sins were removed because God had chosen him to be his messenger, and by grace alone had cleansed his unclean lips, equipping him to carry out his mission. Then, as today, the proper response to God’s free gift is willing obedience, and Isaiah humbly answers the call to become God’s servant.

It certainly was not an easy calling. God told Isaiah to preach to people who would not listen or understand. “How long?” Isaiah asked. God answered him: Until the cities are a wasteland and the people have all been taken away.

Not exactly comforting, is it?

But Isaiah was obedient to God’s call, and faithfully pronounced judgment repeatedly against Judah, against King Ahaz, against the people of God, and against their enemies. And though Isaiah would watch his nation fall—as he himself had prophesied—he would also live to see an era of national repentance, and the return of a godly ruler to the throne in King Hezekiah.

After so many prophecies of destruction and woe, Isaiah was able to speak comfort to God’s people (Isaiah 40). He spoke of a new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65) which would one day come, a time when God would exercise final judgment against all wrong, and he would bring eternal comfort and joy to his people (Isaiah 66).

Almost a thousand years later, another man would receive a vision of the Lord’s throne room. Like Isaiah, this man lived during a time when God’s people were facing persecution and exile. Like Isaiah, he prophesied judgment against the sins of God’s people, and against their enemies. Like Isaiah, he also spoke words of comfort, culminating in a vision of the new heavens and new earth, and the triumphant return in judgment of the one who is called Faithful and True.

Unlike Isaiah, John knew the identity of the Messiah, of whom the Old Testament prophet had foretold. He knew the price that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 had paid for the atonement the prophet received in Isaiah 6.

And in Revelation 4:8 we see that the throne is still surrounded by the seraphim, who never stop singing the song that will never get old: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” But John’s vision pans out farther than Isaiah’s, showing us that this hymn of exaltation is joined by all the angels and all of the redeemed from the dawn of time. What a day of rejoicing that will be!

What a blessing it is to get just a small taste of what this great heavenly worship service will be like, thanks to wonderful hymns such as Todd Agnew’s “Isaiah 6.”

Behold Our God

Hymnology: Behold Our God

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
~ Isaiah 40:12-13

Hymn Story

In 2011, Sovereign Grace Music released the album Risen (stream for free here) just in time for Easter. This continued SGM’s 30-year tradition of producing excellent hymns for use in corporate worship. As the title suggests, this song collection focuses on on the theme of the resurrection of Christ. There are many great options here for churches to use throughout the year. The album contains hymns with a variety of perspectives on the greatest event in history, from the exchange of Christ’s righteousness for our sin, to the hope of our future resurrection, to the assurance of Christ’s return. As we say here in the South: That’ll preach! Continue reading

There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood

There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood

On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.
~ Zechariah 13:1

Hymn Story

The story of William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) is a heartwarming tale of transformation from depression and insanity to salvation and poetic acclaim. Born near London in 1731 to a family on the periphery of the British court (his father was chaplain to King George II), Cowper’s life was constantly marked with tragedy. His three older siblings died as children, and  his mother died giving birth to her fifth child when William was six years old.

He never recovered from the loss of his mother, who even at a young age had instilled in him a love of poetry. Eventually, after a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, Cowper was placed in an insane asylum. It was there, at the age of 33, that he came to Christ while reading in Romans 3:25 of the forgiveness and healing available through the blood of Jesus.

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The Church’s One Foundation

Hymnology: The Church's One Foundation

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
~ Ephesians 2:19-21

Hymn Story

This hymn was written in 1866 by Reverend Samuel Stone in response to a heresy spreading through the Anglican church at that time. A few years earlier, John Colenso, an Anglican bishop had published an essay questioning the inerrancy of Scripture. He believed that much of the Old Testament was mythology, and that Jesus had taught wrong things about Moses.

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Jesus Paid It All

Jesus Paid It All

Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

~Isaiah 1:18

Hymn Story

The lyrics for this hymn were written in 1865 by a woman named Elvina Hall. While reflecting on a sermon she’d just heard, these words came to her during the pastor’s closing prayer. She scribbled them down on a blank sheet in the back of a hymnal, and then showed it to the pastor. He asked the church organist, John Grape, if he could find a tune to match the text. Mr. Grape had previously composed a melody which happened to fit these lyrics, and the hymn “Jesus Paid It All” was born. It first appeared in hymnals in 1868, and has been a staple ever since.

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Creation Sings the Father’s Song

Creation Sings the Father's Song

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
and let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
~ 2 Chronicles 16:31-34

Hymn Story

This hymn is the result of another collaboration between Keith & Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend, the combination which has produced so many great hymns in the last decade. The most distinctive thing about this particular hymn musically is its meter (time signature). We don’t often sing mixed meter songs corporately, as they can be very difficult to pick up in one hearing. In Creation Sings, however, the mixed meter just “works”. Though the time signature in the verses shifts every measure between 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 (the choruses stay in 3/4), congregations seem to catch on quickly. This is the mark of an extraordinarily well-written hymn for the church!

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