I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.

Ralph M. Petersen

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016


“The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.”  Psalm 18:2

It was a terrible and unusual lightning storm followed by deafening thunder and merciless, torrential rain.  Augustus Toplady had been traveling on foot, where steep, high cliffs rose up along the roadside.  When the storm came, rushing streams of mud and rainwater were pouring down the craggy slopes and rolling across the road.  He was fortunate enough to find protection in a small cave in the rocks where he waited out the storm.  That’s where he began to muse over the concept of the “rock of faith” as a shelter from the “storms of life.”

That’s the popular legend about the inspiration for the hymn, ROCK OF AGES.  And the legend may have some elements of truth.  But beyond just the first lines, there is a backstory that, I think, is far more important and revealing about the great faith of a man who was humbled by God’s grace and mercy.

Toplady’s father died when he was very young and he was raised by an indulgent and permissive mother who pretty much spoiled him.   But by God’s grace, he had a good but strict, uncle who guided and disciplined him. 

He was exceptionally intelligent; some would call him precocious.  He was saved at a very young age and began to strive for a deeper relationship with God.  By the age of 12, he was preaching sermons, and at age 14 he began writing hymns.  He was ordained to the ministry in 1762 at the age of 22.   He died at the age of 38.

He wasn't well liked while he was alive and there are plenty of critics even today.  He was a very outspoken opponent of questionable and errant doctrines.   In fact, he once published an article to rebut some statements made by John Wesley.  That article concluded with the words of his original poem, ROCK OF AGES. 

One critic has described that hymn as "strange, unlike any other, and one that is certainly a muddle of images and excessively egocentric in its self-flagellation and abnegation – perhaps because it was the product of a slightly deranged mind.”

But, even though some people thought him to be arrogant and unlikeable, excerpts from his writings, including his personal journal, reveal that he was deeply devoted to His Savior.

In this hymn, he wrote some of the greatest declarations about the doctrine of salvation and our helpless condition that have ever been set to music.

In verse two, he could not be more clear; salvation is not achieved by our works, our goodness, our zeal, our remorse or our tears.  We can bring nothing to God that will ever merit His grace.  We can only come to Him empty-handed, naked, helpless, and dirty. 

And then verse three affirms our ONLY hope; that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone and it is all for HIS glory alone.  If God doesn’t save us, we can’t be saved.

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 cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

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, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my 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.


  1. It is really too bad that hymnals do not carry the third verse. Today's hymnals have lost a lot of theology. The tune for Rock of Ages is called Toplady. The following link connects to a wonderful hymn that can be sung to Toplady.

  2. Thanks for that link, Scott. That is a very good hymn. I'll try to use it in our worship service.