This hymn was written by Augustus Toplady in the 18th century. A contemporary and critic of John Wesley, Toplady also was an Anglican cleric. He suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 38. Legend has it that the inspiration for this hymn was his own experience of seeking refuge in a rock during a storm. Today, you can visit the Burrington Combe in Somerset, England to see this spot.

Today, many churches still sing this song, and the rich imagery as well as timeless truths in this hymn speak clearly and wonderfully of the God who saves us in Christ.

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

The Bible often refers to God as our Rock and this hymn opens with this reference. God is not just our Rock for today, but also the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. There is certainly an allusion to Exo 33:22, where God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock until His glory passes by, but the first verse also calls to mind Exo 17 and 1 Cor 10:4 and John 19:36. Christ our Spiritual Rock whose blood was shed on the cross not only saves us from the wrath of God but also has the power to make us pure. The “double cure” speaks of God who justifies and also sanctifies.

All the labors of my hands
Could not meet 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 repeats the idea that nothing apart from the saving mercy of God saves us. We cannot meet the law’s demand and the more earnest and repentant of us cannot atone for our sins. It reminds us that before a holy God, our good intentions do not save. It also tells us that how broken-hearted and tearful with us doesn’t cause God to take pity on us.

Nothing in my hands I bring
Simply to Thy cross I cling
Naked come to Thee for dress
Helpless, look to Thee for grace
To Thy fountain, Lord, I fly
Wash me Savior or I die

Thus all Christians sing this for all of our days. We do not bring anything to God and we come “naked” and “helpless”. We run to that fountain and even depend on our Savior to wash and dress us out of His grace.

While I draw this fleeting breath
When my 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

The hymn closes with a look at the promised grace in future. There’ll come a day when each Christian closes his or her eyes one last time, and opens it to behold Him who saved us. Toplady ends the hymn with the same words he begins with — Rock of Ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in Thee. When we stand before God who is seated on that judgment throne, we stand not because of all the good we have done but wholly because of the righteousness of Christ. That Rock of Ages here on earth still proves to be our refuge then.

This is a wonderful hymn and the more literary-minded among us will certainly have more things to say about the literary devices and the way it is written. Whatever the case for all Christians, we can join with those that have sung it through the ages to declare that as sinners we cannot meet the law’s demands and save ourselves. All the bad as well as the good we do cannot save us. Are you a Christian today? If not, would you be willing to speak to a Christian around you to find out what they believe in? If you are, what are you depending on to save you?

And, as Paul writes in Phil 1:6, He who began a good work in us will carry it to completion. In Christ we have been saved from the wrath of God but also have been born again, enabled to live new lives of purity. We continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Phil 2:12-13) until the day when we finally rest in the embrace of our Rock of Ages.