This post is not about the historical background to this wonderful hymn, though knowing the background is touching and makes the hymn more meaningful. This post revolves around a simple interpretive question. When Horatio Spafford penned the words “It is well with my soul” in 1876, what did he mean by those specific six words? More particularly, was Spafford writing about subjective feelings of peace, or was he seeking to rest his trust upon objective doctrinal realities when he wrote the words “It is well with my soul”?
I do not claim any expertise in hymnody, but I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about (and teaching about) the process of interpretation (hermeneutics). One of the fundamental rules of interpretation of any text is that we must pay attention to the context. In the case of this hymn, I think that we need to pay special attention to the literary context (the actual words of the song) of this moving hymn. When we do, we discover that the main thrust of what Spafford was trying to communicate was that despite the circumstances in his life (which were appallingly difficult at the time he authored this hymn), the objective truths about Christ were what upheld him. Here are the lines from the hymn that cause me to think that this must be the correct interpretation. Pay special attention to the lines in bold below.
When peace like a river attendeth my way,When sorrows like sea billows roll;Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),With my soul, (with my soul)It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,Let this blest assurance control,That Christ has 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 the cross, and I bear it no more,Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:If Jordan above me shall roll,No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to 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.
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,A song in the night, oh my soul!
later changed to “Even so, it is well with my soul.”
The bolded words above support the assertion that the hymnist intended to rest his trust upon objective truths. These objective (unchanging, firm, doctrinal) truths supported Spafford in the midst of profound suffering. Which truths did Spafford rest upon?
- Christ shed his blood for me when I was helpless (verse 2)
- All my sins were nailed to the cross (verse 3)
- Jesus will come again, and then faith will become sight (verses 5-6)
The only part of the song that might argue against the objective-truth interpretation gets tucked away in the little-known verse 4:
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
These lines could be construed to mean that God subjectively “whispers” peace to our hearts during life and as we approach death. Granting that such an interpretation is possible (and I do believe that God sometimes does impart subjective peace), in light of the other three doctrinal truths emphasized elsewhere in the song (the focus on the cross, the elimination of sin’s judgment, and the second coming of Christ), it seems more likely that Stafford intended to say that he found comfort in meditating on the three doctrinal truths that he affirmed elsewhere in the song.
Is there a takeaway for us today? Yes! Are sorrows rolling like sea billows? Is Satan buffeting? Are trials an ever-present reality?
Then remember to rest upon the unchanging truths found in Scripture. Only then will you be able to sing with integrity those famous six words.
It is well with my soul!
See also my post: Was Horatio Spafford a False Teacher When He Wrote “It is Well with My Soul”?
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.