A hymn of praise out of the depths of despair.

by Charles Gardner.

Amidst the searing loss of life in Israel today, it is well to recall the biblical message of solace that can come out of suffering.

Isaiah prophesied of a time when those living in a land of “deep darkness” – he was referring to Galilee – would see a “great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

And in the midst of all his suffering, Job had this sublime revelation: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that he will stand at the latter day upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes…!” (Job 19:25-27)

The place where the Redeemer was to stand was identified by the prophet Zechariah, and by the New Testament author Dr Luke, as the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. (Zech 14:4, Acts 1:11)

A devoted 19th century Christian, Horatio Spafford, also ended up in Jerusalem after experiencing a series of terrible tragedies in his life, founding the so-called American Colony, helping to bring new life and vigour to the ancient city, and engaging in philanthropic work among its residents – serving the needy, helping the poor, caring for the sick, and taking in homeless children.

For he was followed to the holy city by a small American contingent who, like him, had suffered great loss in the Chicago fire of 1871, and was later joined by Swedish Christians.

A Presbyterian church elder and lawyer by profession, Horatio had planned an extended holiday in Europe but, at the last moment, was detained by business matters and sent his family ahead of him while he sorted things out.

Tragically, however, their ship sunk during the Atlantic crossing after being struck by a British vessel.

His wife Anna was picked up unconscious on a floating spar, but their four young daughters – Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta, aged 11, 9, 5 and 2 respectively – had all drowned. Yet as Horatio wrote to Rachel, Anna’s half-sister, he believed his dear ones were safe in the arms of Jesus.

It was November 21st, 1873, almost exactly 150 years ago.

Anna had reached Cardiff, Wales, nine days after the tragedy. And on his way to meet up with her, as his ship passed over the very spot where his children had perished, he wrote an amazing hymn that is still sung around the world today:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrow like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to know;

It is well, it is well, with my soul!

Like Job, they had more children after their horrendous loss, but tragedy struck again when their only son Horatio died, aged just four. He was named after his brother, who had died at the same age of scarlet fever ten years earlier.

Yet the wondrous words his father penned as he passed over the watery grave of his darling daughters live on to this day:

Though Satan should buffet, if trials should come

Let this blessed assurance control.

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate

And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought –

My sin, not in part, but the whole

Is nailed to his cross; and I bear it no more:

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

But Lord, ‘tis for thee, for thy coming we wait,

The sky, not the grave, is our goal:

Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!

Blessed hope! Blessed rest of my soul.

Horatio and Anna were both laid to rest in Jerusalem where, according to the promise of their Saviour, they will be raised to life on the last day (John 6:54).