Monday, March 25, 2013

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Praise for the Lord #128

Words: William Whiting, 1860
Music: John B. Dykes, MELITA, 1861

As a hymnist William Whiting (1825-1878) is the classic "one-hit wonder," remembered through one well-known hymn. Though Julian lists a dozen of his hymns, a search of shows that only one or two others found any degree of circulation. He also published a few minor books of poetry such as Rural Thoughts (Julian 1276).

Whiting spent his entire adult career in one employment. In 1842 (at the ripe old age of 17) he became Master of the Quiristers [choristers] at Winchester College, the oldest of the British public schools, and remained in that position until his death at the age of 52 (Leeson). Established at the founding of the college in 1382, the Quiristers are a boys' choir of sixteen voices, originally engaged for singing at college chapel services but known today for their broad repertoire of sacred and secular choral music.

During Whiting's time the master was responsible for their general education in addition to rehearsals and performances, and also served as housemaster in their separate boarding facility ("Quiristers"). It is a wonder he found time to write at all! Though they are internationally recognized today, during Whiting's time the quality of the Quiristers was varied, because the rules dictated admission according to financial need rather than musical aptitude. Still, he was well regarded by his charges, and was honored by the Old Quiristers' Association many years later by a memorial plaque in the college chapel (Page).

According to the Annotated Anthology of Hymns from Oxford Press, Whiting wrote "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" in 1860, and submitted it to the editors of the forthcoming Hymns Ancient and Modern for their consideration. The editors included it, but took considerable liberties with Whiting's lyrics, the more significant of which are addressed below. Overall, their changes made it a stronger hymn, bringing the inherent strengths of his work into sharper focus (302). They also matched it with the tune MELITA, which gave Whiting's text just the right vehicle for its unique niche in hymnody.

It was quickly adopted by the Royal Navy as the "Sailor's Hymn," sung at every Sunday service on board ship; and before long, "no. 222" in Hymns Ancient and Modern could be heard in every corner of the globe (Annotated Anthology 303). By 1879 it had caught on with the United States Navy as well, when it became the traditional closing hymn for Sunday services at the U.S. Naval Academy (HNNC). In the century-and-a-half since "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" first appeared, Whiting has received the "sincerest form of flattery" as a plethora of new stanzas have adapted the hymn to various branches of the armed services of the U.K., the Commonwealth nations, and the U.S. For a sampling of these, see Barry E. Scott's page on the Royal Navy Hymn and the article on this hymn in Wikipedia. It is traditionally sung at the funerals of naval and marine personnel; in the U.S. it is remembered  particularly for its use in the funeral services of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (HNNC).

Stanza 1:
Eternal Father! strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'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.

Thanks to the availability of a digital edition of Louis Coutier Biggs's Hymns Ancient and Modern with Annotations, we can look over the shoulders of the editors as they revised Whiting's text. Sometimes a good hymn needs just a little adjustment to make it a great hymn. The first stanza originally read:

O Thou who bidd'st the ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep,
Thou who dost bind the restless wave,
Eternal Father, strong to save,
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
(Biggs 270)

The revision is stronger in its presentation of ideas, first introducing the infinite nature of the Creator. He is "eternal," infinite in His existence, and He is "strong to save," infinite in His power and ability. The ocean is terrifying in its vastness and power, but the Eternal Father has an arm powerful enough to "bind the restless wave." Each of the succeeding stanzas begins with a similar reference to the power of the Creator over His creation.

The Annotated Anthology of Hymns from Oxford Press connects these opening four lines to Milton's Paradise Lost, book VII, lines 166-167, where the Father commands the Son: "Ride forth, and bid the deep / Within appointed bounds be heaven and earth" (Anthology 302). But as Biggs points out (270), both Milton and Whiting are actually referencing Job 38:8-11.
Who shut in the sea with doors,
When it burst forth and issued from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment,
And thick darkness its swaddling band;
When I fixed My limit for it,
And set bars and doors;
When I said, "This far you may come, but no farther,
And here your proud waves must stop!"
A related thought is expressed in Proverbs 8:29, where the personification of wisdom describes God's actions in creation, "When He assigned to the sea its limit, / So that the waters would not transgress His command."

The ancient Israelites, like most of the ancient Near Eastern cultures, viewed the sea as a dangerous, chaotic force (Cornell 1). Though the tribe of Dan was known for its ships (Judges 5:17), and the more successful kings of Judah such as Solomon (1 Kings 9-10) and Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22) engaged fleets for the Red Sea trade, ancient Israel as a whole was never a true seafaring nation. In the Hebrew Scriptures the sea is often a metaphor for loss of control to an inexorable, merciless foe:
In that day they will roar against them
Like the roaring of the sea.
(Isaiah 5:30)
They will lay hold on bow and spear;
They are cruel and have no mercy;
Their voice roars like the sea;
And they ride on horses,
As men of war set in array against you,
O daughter of Zion.
(Jeremiah 6:23)
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will cause many nations to come up against you, as the sea causes its waves to come up" (Ezekiel 26:3). 
The sea has come up over Babylon;
She is covered with the multitude of its waves . . .
For the LORD is laying Babylon waste and stilling her mighty voice.
Their waves roar like many waters;
The noise of their voice is raised.
(Jeremiah 51:42, 55).
But God is greater than this force of His creation; Cornell's study of Job 38 goes on to show the emphasis on God as Master of the sea (Job 38:8), and even its caretaker (Job 38:9), "swaddling" the sea like an unruly infant (Cornell 9). This view is reinforced in an even greater number of passages:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The LORD, over many waters.
(Psalm 29:3)
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
He puts the deeps in storehouses.
(Psalm 33:7)
When the waters saw you, O God,
When the waters saw you, they were afraid;
Indeed, the deep trembled.
(Psalm 77:16)
Thus says the LORD,
Who gives the sun for a light by day,
The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night,
Who disturbs the sea,
And its waves roar;
The LORD of hosts is His name.
(Jeremiah 31:35)
Based on this understanding of the true relationship between the creation and the Creator, many passages use God's deliverance from the dangers of the sea as a metaphor for His ability to deliver His people from every kind of misfortune:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
(Psalm 46:1-3)
He sent from on high, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters.
(Psalm 18:16)
Therefore let everyone who is godly
Offer prayer to You at a time when You may be found;
Surely in the rush of great waters,
They shall not reach him.
(Psalm 32:6)
All of these ideas come together in the beautiful prayer of penitence spoken by that most famous of ancient Hebrew seafarers, Jonah:
I called out to the LORD,
Out of my distress, and He answered me;
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the flood surrounded me;
All Your waves and Your billows passed over me.
Then I said,
"I am driven away from Your sight;
Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple."
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
The deep surrounded me;
Weeds were wrapped about my head
At the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
(Jonah 2:2-6)
Thus the Bible makes the sea the servant of God; terrifying in its power, yes, but under the watchful care of One whose power makes it His tool. And where the sea is merciless and no respecter of persons, the God who created it and masters it is full of mercy and concern for His children. Here, I believe, is the message of Whiting's hymn.

It is a fine hymn, of course, for those who travel by sea, or make their living on the sea, or protect those who do so. Who knows how many sailors, and sailors' loved ones, have sung these words, whether in formal services or just between themselves and God? But I think we land-lubbers can gain from this song as well, even as we (rightly) remember those who ply the seas for our benefit and protection. Like the ancient Hebrews, we also sometimes use the chaotic danger of the ocean as a metaphor for the sudden upsets of life. We are all traveling the unknown ocean of life, and in this sense we are all "in peril on the sea;" how wonderful to know that our Eternal Father is "strong to save!"

Stanza 2:
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amid the storm didst sleep:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

The second stanza draws on Christ's memorable association with the Sea of Galilee and its commercial fishermen, most notably the apostles Peter, James, and John. Like all sailors, these men knew that every trip could be their last; but like all sailors, they continued to go out because they depended on that treacherous body of water for their livelihoods. They were not men who worried over a common little squall, and that fact makes the events with Jesus on Galilee all the more powerful.

The first two lines of Whiting's second stanza reference the episode of Jesus sleeping through a storm, recorded in Mark 4:35-41 (also in parallel passages in Matthew and Luke):
On that day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd, they took Him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.
And they woke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
The second pair of lines in this stanza refer to a separate episode mentioned in Matthew 14:22-33, as well as in Mark and John. It is told in the greatest detail by Matthew:
Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. [Mark 6:48 tells us, significantly, "He saw that they were making headway painfully."]
And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." And Peter answered Him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to You on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. [John 6:21 adds mysteriously, "Immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going."] And those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
These events have many similarities: using a boat to avoid being followed by the crowds, a storm rising up during the evening crossing, Jesus calming the storm, His reproach of the disciples' lack of faith, and their worshipful response. But the differences are equally significant: in one, Jesus is asleep in the boat, and in the other He walks across the water to the boat. And in the first instance, the disciples respond with puzzlement, asking, "Who is this?" and "What kind of man is this?"; but in the latter, they have come to understand: "Truly you are the Son of God."

Obviously these two occasions are among the most memorable and striking events of Jesus' earthly ministry; they are object lessons writ large in excitement, danger, and amazement, and for this reason are favorites of the earliest grades of Sunday School. Even the smallest child may get the basic message: Jesus is powerful, and Jesus can keep you safe. An older child might notice more of the details: "Why was Jesus asleep?" (Because He wasn't afraid), or, "Why did Jesus decide to walk on the water?" (Because He can).

As adults, we see even more: The words of Jesus are more powerful than the forces of nature, because He, after all, spoke nature into existence. Peter sank because he lost his focus on Jesus, and was overwhelmed by his fear of the immediate circumstances. Jesus criticized the disciples for their lack of faith before He calmed the storm; His presence with them was enough to protect them. We also notice the question the disciples ask after the first incident, and their answer after the latter: "Who is this? What manner of man is this?" He is the Son of God.

Men well schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures would have recognized, in these two incidents, prominent themes found throughout the poetic and prophetic books:
He stirs up the sea with His power,
And by His understanding He breaks up the storm.
(Job 26:12)
You who still the noise of the seas,
The noise of their waves,
And the tumult of the peoples.
(Psalm 65:7)
You rule the raging of the sea;
When its waves rise, You still them.
(Psalm 89:9)
The LORD on high is mightier
Than the noise of many waters,
Than the mighty waves of the sea.
(Psalm 93:4)
And even more specific to Jesus' second miracle on Galilee:
He alone spreads out the heavens,
And treads on the waves of the sea.
(Job 9:8)
Your way was in the sea,
Your path in the great waters,
And Your footsteps were not known.
(Psalm 77:19)
A strongly associated thought, of course, is God's provision of a path through the Red Sea, and across the Jordan River:
He rebuked the Red Sea also, and it dried up;
So He led them through the depths,
As through the wilderness.
(Psalm 106:9)
Perhaps no other passage sums up the situation better than Psalm 135:6,
Whatever the LORD pleases He does,
In heaven and in earth,
In the seas and in all deep places.
In the end, as we contemplate Jesus asleep in the boat or walking on the sea, calming the storm and bringing His disciples safely to shore, the first lesson we learned as children is still the most important: Jesus is powerful, and Jesus can keep you safe.

Praise for the Lord omits the following very fine stanza, which completes the appeals to each Person of the Trinity:

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

This stanza obviously refers to Genesis 1:2, "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Every phrase of this interesting verse is loaded with meaning:
  • "Without form and void." Also translated "waste" and "empty," this expression in Hebrew is found in only two other instances, Jeremiah 4:23 and Isaiah 34:11, where it is used to describe the absolute disarray that followed God's judgment on sinful nations. This is the state of things, of course, where the stabilizing order of God's will is rejected, "in Whom all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).
  • "Darkness was upon the face of the deep." It was dark, of course, because light had yet to be made; but the darkness goes with the formlessness as well, because (at least in human understanding) light communicates information: perspective, dimension, and the relationship of one thing to another, all of which was yet lacking. What there was, thus far, is described as "the deep," not just the common Hebrew term for "sea" as used later in the chapter, but the ocean depths, an abyss. There was no light, and there was really nothing to see.
  • "The Spirit of God." In Hebrew, ru'ach elohim, the "wind," "breath," or "spirit" of God, depending on context, similar to the Greek pneuma in the New Testament. The fact that this was the Spirit of God is obvious, however, from what He was doing.
  • "Moved upon the face of the waters." The Hebrew rachaph is found only seldom in the Scriptures, but its meaning is clear enough from cognates in related languages. Its most simple and literal meaning is found in Deuteronomy 32:11, describing a mother eagle that "flutters over its young" (Strong's H7363). Genesis 1:2 uses this metaphorically, just as we do in English when we say a person is "brooding" over something, when they are thinking about it with concern and intent.
Many ancient cultures believed in a primordial struggle between a creator and chaos, from which the present order of nature was established; but it is significant that in Genesis, 1) God himself is the Creator of the chaotic deep, and, 2) instead of fighting against it, God's Spirit hovers over it like a nurturing mother, preparing to bring it to mature order. Again, not only is God's power greater than that of the mighty deep, but it is His creation and His servant, to be respected but not to be feared.

Stanza 4:
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.

The final stanza was also significantly edited from its original form. It originally read:

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest them defend,
To safety's harbour them attend.
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

(Biggs 271)

The alteration of the 3rd line not only introduces a nice parallelism, but intensifies the dangers observed. The new 4th line indicates an ongoing protection in the midst of danger, rather than a single episode of deliverance. Biggs suggests some inspiration may have been found in Isaiah 43:1-2,
But now thus says the LORD,
He who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel:
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are Mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
And through the rivers,
They shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire
You shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
Whiting's hymn has much to tell all of us regarding the need to trust the Lord in the storms of life; but of course we should never forget the hymn's original purpose. Coming from Oklahoma as I do, I naturally do not share an Englishman's native attachment to the sea; but even from my home state, far inland, barges carry our grain down the rivers to the sea, and from there to ports around the world. As our world becomes smaller and more interdependent, we should remember the important service of "those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters" (Psalm 107:23), and of those who guard their safety and freedom on the seas.

U.S. Navy Sea Chanters

About the music:

This is another tune by the prolific John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), an Anglican clergyman from Hull. Despite his later stature among Victorian hymn-tune composers, he seems never to have pursued any formal training in music. During his tenure at Durham Cathedral, however, he proved an excellent choir director and a fine organist when the need arose, and his hymn tunes were quite popular in local circles. He might have remained little known, however, had not a landmark hymnal brought him into the churches of nearly all English-speaking people: Hymns Ancient and Modern, the ubiquitous "unofficial official hymnal" of the Church of England during the Victorian era and long afterward (Hutchings & Temperley).

Dykes submitted seven of his tunes to William H. Monk, the music editor, in hopes of being included in the 1861 "first edition" (there had been smaller collections in previous years, but this was the first thorough-going edition for general use). Monk accepted all of Dykes's tunes and requested more! In all, Dykes contributed 60 tunes to the early editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern (Hutchings & Temperley). A number of his tunes can be found in hymnals used among the U.S. Churches of Christ, including BEATITUDO ("O for a closer walk with God"), LUX BENIGNA ("Lead kindly light"), ST. AGNES ("Jesus, the very thought of Thee"), and ST. SYLVESTER ("Father, hear the prayer we offer"), not to mention the perennial NICAEA ("Holy, holy, holy"). In church music traditions more closely tied to the English tradition, of course, this number is much higher!

In the 20th century there was a strong reaction against the Victorian hymn tunes, of which Dykes was one of the most prominent composers (Hutchings & Temperley). His settings were criticized in particular for their focus on harmony rather than melody; the melody of NICAEA ("Holy, holy, holy"), for example, is hardly the most flowing, ear-catching tune in the hymnal, but dressed in its accompanying harmony it is quite powerful. Ironically, it may be this very quality--Dykes's powerful harmonic writing--that causes his works to remain popular for congregational SATB singing. After listening to a few dozen of his tunes in MIDI format, I am struck by two things: 1) many of his tunes sound very much alike; and, 2) I wish we sang more of them! They are solid, well-crafted compositions that serve their purpose well.

The tune MELITA is named for the island (modern-day Malta) on which Paul and his shipmates wrecked during their journey to Rome, as recorded in Acts 27. The melody is very stately and majestic, similar to NICAEA; but unlike that other well-known tune, MELITA is unusually adventurous in its harmony. At the end of the first two phrases (which include the thrilling parallel ascent of the tenor and bass on "strong to save," possibly the best part of the hymn!), Dykes cadences on the dominant chord, just as in NICAEA. But instead of returning to the tonic, he takes a rather different turn.

In the 3rd and 4th lines of the six-line stanza, Dykes begins a rising harmonic sequence that allows him to break away from the original key: G7 > C ("bids the might-y") / A7 > D ("o-cean deep") / B7 > Emin ("its own"). The modulation to E minor is supported by the rising chromatic scale in the bass at this same point, which turns into an E minor scale on "own appoint- ed." The end of the 4th line, "li-mits keep," is a strong cadence in the key of E minor, an unusual departure in such a short hymn.

To bring us back to the home key of C major, Dykes employs the same rising harmonic sequence, only starting in a different spot: C7 > F ("hear us when we") / D7 > G ("cry to Thee"). He also puts the bass on the roots of the chords, driving home the fact that we are heading back around the circle of 5ths from D to G and finally to C, the home key. After the tense chromaticism of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lines, the straightforward C major key in the final phrase is like the sun coming out after a storm. As far as I know there is no evidence that Dykes wrote this music with Whiting's hymn in mind; more likely William Monk, editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern, deserves credit for that "Eureka!" moment in which these words and notes came together.


An Annotated Anthology of Hymns, ed. J. R. Watson. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Biggs, Louis Coutier, ed. Hymns Ancient and Modern, with Annotations. London: Novello, 1868.

Cornell, Collin R. "God and the sea in Job 38." Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 12:18.

"'Eternal Father, Strong to Save': the Navy Hymn." Naval History & Heritage Command. 1997.

Hutchings, Arthur & Nicholas Temperley. "Dykes, John Bacchus." New Grove Online. Oxford Music Online, 2013.

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. London: J. Murray, 1892.

Leeson, Spencer, et al. "Proposed Memorial to William Whiting." The Musical Times 79/1143 (May, 1938), 377. Accessed via JSTOR

Page, Ann. "Winchester, The Pilgrim’s School (Quiristers)." A History of Cathedral Choir Schools

"Quiristers." Winchester College.

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