Augustus Montague Toplady was in good company with other contemporary poets who lived brief but full lives. Toplady was born in November of 1740 in Farnham, England to Richard, a major of the marines, and Catherine. The year after he was born, his father died fighting the Spanish in a battle at Cartegena, Colombia. He was raised by his mother, whose father held a position in the Church, and while he was still young, they moved to Westminister where he went to school. But when he was 15, they moved to Ireland, and so he attended Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated five years after.
It was during this time, around 1755, that Toplady came upon James Morris, a Wesleyan (though formerly a Methodist and later a Baptist), preaching in a barn. He wrote in his journal later that, after hearing a verse from Ephesians, he was converted.
Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of God’s people, met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name! Surely it was the Lord’s doing and it was marvellous!
While he corresponded with Wesly at first and was a supporter, being a believer in Arminianism, he just as quickly moved to a Calvinist theology and became an opponent of Wesley. He was swayed by ministers such as Whitefield and Gill. By 1682, Toplady was ordained as a deacon in Blagdon, as a priest in 1764 to Farleigh, served at Harpford in 1766, and two years later moved to Broad Hembury where he stayed for some time.
During the time he moved to Ireland and converted, his gift of poetry began to shine through. Although most of his work was done once he settled down, his gifts were recognized early on. He published his first book, Poems on Sacred Subjects, in 1759. Four years later, he wrote the hymn in question, though it was not published until 1776. While this is just as likely legend as truth, the story is that Toplady was out doing parish work when he was caught in a storm. Seeing a cleft in a rock, he took shelter and was inspired to write the hymn. Whether this is true or not, there a plack you can visit at the site today! While the hymn has undergone several word changes in each verse, the message of the hymn remains unchanged.
The composition typically used for “Rock of Ages” was written much later by Thomas Hastings in 1831. There are technically a couple other tunes associated with this hymn, but they are not as well known. Hastings was born in Connecticut in October of 1784 to Dr. Seth and Eunice Hastings. They are related to a man of the same name who settled with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Hastings was a teacher and musician. He wrote a book called Spiritual Songs, included in which was the music for this hymn, called “TOPLADY” after the author. The hymns of this book were purposely composed to make them easy to learn and remember. Hastings continued his musical career in New York City, during which time he wrote for a couple of magazines and worked with schools. He stayed in New York until his death in the spring of 1872.
Toplady also published various other works, including Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship in 1776, and doctrinal works on Calvinism, Anglicanism, and Wesleyanism. He wrote for the Gospel Magazine and wrote essays elsewhere on naturalist topics, animal cruelty, and other issues regarding the treatment of God’s creation. In his final years, Toplady became very sick, and he was eventually moved to London where he worked at a Calvinist church. Near the end, when his doctor told him that he was becoming weaker, Toplady only smiled, as he knew that while his death was soon, saying, “Blessed be God, I can add that my heart beats stronger and stronger every day for glory.” His death finally came in August of 1778, a mere 38 years old. But, he left behind him dozens of essays, poems, and hymns, the best of which is the well-loved “Rock of Ages”.
At the top of the hymn in the book where it is published, a note says “A prayer, living and dying”. This is a fitting description of “Rock of Ages”. This hymn is full of imagery, but these pictures are there only to help us picture what we are praying about. This hymn is for us as we live our daily lives, and what we look forward to when we die. This hymn was not written necessarily with the present day in mind, or this season of the church year, yet “Rock of Ages” is timely, and hopefully, the words will be a comfort for you.
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.
Two pictures come to mind with the opening line of this hymn. The first is of Moses splitting open the rock and water coming out (Ex. 17:6). But the second is found all throughout the Bible, and especially in the Psalms (Psa. 94:22). This is the image of God as something solid and enduring. And that is what He is! Thus, we begin this hymn as we would a prayer: with God at the forefront of our minds. We call Him “Rock of Ages” because He is everlasting, as we often imagine rocks to be. But what happened to this Rock? It is was cleft, split. And for what purpose? To save us from sin and shelter us from death. We are then brought to the foot of the cross. Here we see the Water and Blood pouring out from our Lord’s wounded (formerly riven) side (Jhn. 19:34. 1 Jhn. 5:6-8). Christ was split and sacrificed for us so that we could find refuge in Him, so that we could be redeemed and saved (Psa. 28:2-9, 46:1, Gal. 3:13). And there is more! We are cleansed with this Water and this Blood. We are washed in the waters of baptism, and we are reminded of His cleansing blood with Holy Communion.
We ask in this verse both that He would shelter us from sin and death, and that this Water and Blood shed for us would make us clean. The final words to this hymn were formerly “Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow’r”. This clarifies the former line. As in the Lord’s prayer, we ask not only that we may be cleansed and forgiven of our sin but also that sin, death, and the devil may not have power over us. This is what we ask for in this hymn and prayer (Psa. 18:46, 19).
Not the labors 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!
The second verse has two goals. First, it acknowledges that we are unable to save ourselves. This is a prayer after all. We must daily turn to the Lord and seek His aid. But as a hymn, it is also instructive, reminding us of our helplessness. So what do we learn? Our salvation does not come by what we say or do. Only the shedding of blood could fulfill what the law required of sin (Heb. 9:22-28, Rom. 3:21-26). We should be fervent to serve the Lord, but our zeal, our working towards what is good, is not what saves us (Rom. 12:11, Gal. 2:16). It could be limitless, and it would still mean nothing. We could complain or beg, and that would not get us any closer to redemption. No, our sin is atoned for and our lives redeemed by the work of God alone. This verse really exemplifies what a prayer hymn aught to be. Here, we go through the things that our sinful nature desires for us to do for our own salvation: good works, pride, self-interest (Psa. 51:17, Rom. 3:27-30). But none of these things are what sanctifies us. Instead, God came to us, and He alone has saved us (Acts 4:12, Rom. 4:24-5:10, Titus 3:4-7, 2 Cor. 12:9).
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the 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!
This verse is partly a continuation of the former, but it does more to show our helpless state rather than highlight our fruitless desires and actions. Here, we envision ourselves as we stand before the Lord. Or rather, perhaps we are kneeling, humbly coming before our God, our provider and Savior, coming to the only One who can give us all that we need (Mat. 6:11). Imagine yourself as you were when you were born. You are naked, helpless, crying out and clinging to what your trust is in. Now think back to the opening verse. We are coming to the “Rock of Ages”, to the Almighty, our Lord and Savior. Yet we are pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We know that what we need is Christ, and we need Him daily.
We bring nothing to God, but we cling to the thing the Lord has given us (Eph. 2:1-10). We stand by grace alone. The word ‘foul’ is apt, for that is what we are. Yet in this Fountain of life, we are made clean in our renewed life in Christ (Psa. 36:9). What a beautiful picture! We open with the image of our state in our first birth, and we end with the picture and the hope of our new life in our rebirth (Gal. 3:27, 4:4-6, 1 Cor. 15:54, 2 Cor. 5:2-4). What a glorious thought!
While I draw this fleeting breath —
when mine eyes shall close in death —
when I soar to worlds unknown —
see Thee on Thy judgment throne —
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in Thee!
Finally, we get to the portion of the hymn about dying. Up until this point, we have discussed the struggles and journey of our mortal life. Yet as the author looked forward to joining his Lord, so too do we look towards the life that is to come. The first line is key, for in it is the word ‘fleeting’. Our lives are fleeting and brief (Jas. 4:14, Psa. 90:12). Yet we know that this is not our home. As in the last verse, we are looking for God to clothe us (2 Cor. 5:2-5). So as we picture the future when we draw that fragile breath and close our eyes that last time, we picture when we will be with Christ.
This verse used to have different wording that I find fascinating. For the second line, it once read “When my eye-strings break in death”, which I think better illustrates the breaking with this world to be joined with Christ. The next was “When I soar through tracts unknown”, which is similar. While both versions paint a fascinating picture, the point is that this is a song about living and dying. While we are here, we seek Christ and His will for us, relying on His strength and His grace. And all the while, we look forward to that day when we can be with Him. For as we ask to hide in Him during our mortal life, so too will we one day live with Him for all eternity, singing His praises in glory. These are the things to remember and pray about all the days of our lives (Isa 26:4, 2 Cor. 5:6-11).
Blessings to you and yours,
“A Prayer, living and dying.” Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship. 308-09.
Williams, Hermine. Thomas Hastings: An Introduction to His Life and Music. 78.