When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my loss, You have taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul….
In 1873, Horatio Gates Spafford’s wife and four daughters sailed on the steamship Ville du Favre for France, while Spafford finished up some business details in Chicago before joining them. In mid-ocean the vessel struck a large sailing ship and sank within half an hour. Many perished, including the four girls, but Mrs. Spafford was rescued. She cabled the message “saved alone” to her husband who then sailed for Liverpool to accompany his wife back to Chicago. Some say he wrote this hymn when their ship passed the place where their daughters died.
This may be one of the most tragic stories in hymnody. You can imagine a father grieving the loss of all his children, sailing across that very spot and writing those lines when sorrows like sea billows roll. Indeed. But to get from that line to it is well with my soul? Wow. Only a deep, unsinkable faith can come up with words like that and really mean it.
It’s interesting that in his grief, Spafford turned to Jesus on the cross.
Though the devil will ruin, though trials may come
Let this blessed assurance control
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
And He shed His own blood for my soul
He talks further about his sin being nailed to the cross, saying that he bears it no more. When you attend the Good Friday Blues services, you’ll have an opportunity to nail your “blues” to the cross. We’ll have a cross there along with blue slips of paper, hammer and nails. Whatever makes you blue – sin, grief, sorrow, hardship, trial, personal events or the sad circumstances of others – you can nail them to that cross and bear them no more. Hopefully it will be an opportunity for you to say “it is well with my soul.
The melody – written by Philip Paul Bliss – is named “Ville du Havre”, after the steamship. It is also frequently known by the tune name “It Is Well.” We’re not singing that melody. We are singing the Jars of Clay version of this song, which is an interesting melodic interpretation of it. When you hear the hymn sung in church, it is usually thought of a mournful song. The refrain “it is well with my soul” always starts quietly but then swells to majestic heights as the author defies grief and proclaims “it IS well”. It’s pretty powerful. The Jars of Clay writers decided to give the whole song an upbeat interpretation (reminds me of the Monkees tune Last Train to Clarksville) that focuses less on the grief and more on the joy of what was accomplished on the cross and what is to come when Jesus comes again.
When you think of the trials in your own life, how do you relate to the words of this song? Does it give you comfort?