“Rock Of Ages”

"I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee…" (Exo. 33.22)

     INTRO.: A hymn which uses the figure of a cleft in the rock to encourage us to cling to Jesus Christ as our Rock is "Rock of Ages" (#368 in Hymns for Worship and #119 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Augustus Montague Toplady, who was born at Franham in Surrey, England, on Nov. 4, 1740. His father, Major Richard Toplady of the British Army, was killed in service at the 1741 siege of Cartagena in Columbia, South America, when the boy was only a few months old. A sickly, neurotic lad, Augustus was educated at Westminster School in London and, after his mother’s move to Ireland, at Trinity College in Dublin where he graduated in 1760. While in Ireland, he was converted ast the age of sixteen at a revival in a barn after listening to a sermon by James Morris, a Methodist preacher. As a result, early in his career, Toplady was attracted to the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his hymn-writing brother Charles Wesley. However, as time went on, as an ardent and partisan Calvinist, he found himself at philosophical odds with the Wesleys’ doctrine of sanctification, so he eventually parted company with the Methodists and in 1862 became a preacher in the Church of England, serving first at Bladgon in Somerset and then at Farleigh

     In 1766 Toplady went to Broadhembury in Devonshire, where he published his Poems on Sacred Subjects in 1769 and Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England in 1774. From there, he moved to London in 1775 where he preached at the French Calvinist Church in Leicester Fields. Through public debates, religious pamphlets, sermons, and letters, Toplady and Wesley did theological battle. In The Gospel Magazine of Oct., 1775, a single stanza beginning "Rock of Ages, cleft for me" appeared in an article entitled "Life–A Journey" by Toplady under the pseudonym "Minimus." In the same magazine, Mar. 1776, Toplady published an article dealing with the absolute impossibility of one’s paying his indebtedness to God. The article was designed to oppose Wesley’s doctrine of holiness, and it concluded with the full poem in four stanzas, entitled "A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World." The first hymnbook publication was in Toplady’s own Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship later that year.One story is told that Toplady and Charles Wesley had a fierce debate after which Toplady wrote "Rock of Ages" and Wesley wrote "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." The truth is that Wesley had written his famous hymn before Toplady was even born! However, it interesting that Wesley had earlier published a hymn with the opening line, "Rock of Israel, cleft for me."

      There is another apocryphal story that when Toplady was minister at Blagdon he took a walk one afternoon in the Mendip Hills of southern England. A storm arose, and he found refuge in a limestone cave at the rock promentories of Burrington Combe. After the storm had passed by, the words of the hymn came to him, and he hastily wrote the stanzas on a scrap of paper that he took from his pocket.  The problem is that this story did not appear until several years after the fact. Because of a frail constitution, Toplady, who is credited with around 133 hymns and poems, died of overwork and tuberculosis at the early age of 38, just two years after writing his article, in London on Aug. 11, 1778. Various alterations were made to the hymn to bring it to its present form in the 1815 Selection of Psalms and Hymns by its editor Thomas Cotterill. A few other changes and rearrangements of the words have been made by various hymnbook editors since then. The tune (Toplady) most popular in the United States was composed for this text in 1830 by Thomas Hastings. It was first published in the 1832 collection Spiritual Songs for Social Worship which he coedited with Lowell Mason, who later arranged it to its present form for his 1859 Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book.

      Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song, in one form or another, appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1), and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2, both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1938/1944 (New) Wonderful Songs edited by Thomas S. Cobb; the 1940 Complete Christian Hymnal edited by Marion Davis; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs for the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.

     It urges us to find consolation and security in Christ, our Rock.

I. The 1st stanza says that Christ is our Rock
"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 coure, Save from wrath and make me pure."
 A. Jesus Christ is the Rock of Ages who was cleft for us, in whom we can hide, and from whom we receive the living water: 1 Cor. 10.1-4
 B. As the rock who was cleft for us, blood and water flowed from His wounded side; the original read "riven side," but the meaning is the same: Jn. 19.33-34
 C. This sacrifical death of Christ is of sin the double cure; the original read, "Cleanse me from its guilt and power," but either way the point is that the blood of Christ is able both to forgive us of our sins and then to break sin’s power that we might be kept pure: Rom. 6.7-9

II. The 2nd stanza says that Jesus, as our Rock, is the only means of salvation
"Could my tears forever flow, Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone, Thou must save, and Thou alone;
In my hand no price I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling."
 A. Certainly, we need to have tears for sin and zeal that knows no languor (the original read "no respite know") in coming to and serving Christ: 2 Cor. 7.10, Rev. 3.19
 B. However, these (the original read "All for sin") cannot atone for our sin; Christ alone is the living stone to whom we must come for salvation: 1 Pet. 2.4-10
 C. Therefore, there is no price that we can bring (the original read, "Nothing in my hand I bring"); we can only cling to the cross because it represents God’s means to save us: 1 Cor. 1.18-21

III. The third stanza says that this Rock is our source of help
"Not the labor of my hands Can fulfil the law’s demands;
Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Vile, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die."
 A. The labor of our hands can never fulfil the law’s demands because we simply cannot do enough good works to atone for our sins: Tit. 3.5
 B. Thus, we must look to God for the grace that we need to be saved: Eph. 2.8-9
 C. Because we are vile (the original read "foul"), we must in our helplessness look to Christ as the fountain to wash away sins or we shall surely die (some books read "ere I die"), just as the Psalmist looked to the Lord as His rock of refuge: Ps. 31.1-2

IV. The final stanza says that because of our Rock we have hope for the future
"While I draw this fleeting breath, When my eye lids (or eyes shall) close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown, And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee."
 A. Someday we shall cease to draw this fleeting breath (the original read "Whilst"), and then our eyes shall close in death (the original read "eye-strings break;" some books read "eye-lids close"): Heb. 9.27
 B. After that, we shall rise to worlds unknown (the original read, "Soar through tracts unknown") and eventually behold Christ on His throne (the original read, "See Thee on Thy judgment throne"). In Sacred Selections, Ellis J. Crum changed it to "And behold GOD on the throne," evidently thinking for some reason that after the second coming Christ will no longer be on the throne. But Jesus Himself said that when He comes He will sit on His throne of judgment: Matt. 25.31
 C. And when we stand before Him, we can extol Him as the Rock of Ages who will redeem us eternally: Ps. 78.35.

     CONCL.: In Exo. 17.1-6, when the Israelites were thirsty in the wilderness, God told Moses to strike the rock, from which water flowed. In like manner, Christ is a cleft rock out of whom flow the waters of salvation. We can find encouragement as we praise the Lord for His great gift of redemption and for His provision of refuge for us as our "Rock of Ages."

4 thoughts on ““Rock Of Ages”

  1. The original lyric was actually “Cleanse me from its guilt and power”, “save from wrath and make me pure.” was a later alteration. Your modern hymnal is therefore actually “original”.

    The original words to “Rock of Ages” were as follows:

    Rock of ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee!
    Let the water and the blood,
    From Thy riven side which flow’d
    Be of sin the double cure,
    Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.

    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!

    Nothing in my hand I bring,
    Simply to Thy cross I cling;
    Naked, come to Thee for dress,
    Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
    Foul, I to the fountain fly;
    Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

    Whilst I draw this fleeting breath,
    When my eyestrings break in death;
    When I soar through tracts unknown,
    See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
    Rock of ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee!

    I believe that it was Thomas Cotterill who in his 1815 “Selection of Psalms and Hymns” that replaced the original final line of the first verse with “Save from wrath, and make me pure”

    Samuel Rogal in his 2003 work “An analysis of various versions of A.M. Toplady’s Rock of Ages, cleft for me (1774-2001) suggests two reasons at page 12, namely:

    a) The pronunciation of practice changed so that “-ure” ceased to rhyme with “-our”.

    b) Cotterill found Toplady’s calvinistic imagery unpalatable, being more interested with the end result of salvation rather than the process leading to it.


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