“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
And sorrows like sea billows roll.
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul!’”
You’ve probably heard the tragic story that brought about some of the most famous words of hymnody. Two years after losing nearly everything in the Chicago Fire of 1871, Horatio Spafford planned a trip to Europe for his family. Though they had planned to travel together, Spafford had to send his family ahead of him so that he could tend to some business details that arose at the last minute. However, en route to Europe, the ship carrying his wife and four daughters was struck by another vessel and sank in less than fifteen minutes. Spafford’s wife survived and sent him a cable of just two words: “Saved alone.” Spafford boarded his own ship as soon as he could and asked to be told where his family’s craft had gone down. As he reflected on the tragic loss of his four daughters, he wrote his most famous hymn.
Horatio Spafford felt the weight of the sorrowful “sea billows” rolling over him, and I’m sure he would have identified with the psalmist who wrote these words:
Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. (Ps. 42:7)
Perhaps you’re in a similar situation. The waves won’t stop. You aren’t even sure which way is up anymore. I think that all of Psalm 42 would be a haven for you, but right now, whether you feel like you’re about to go under or not, I want to direct you to just one more verse. Three short lines that can be your lifeline when you’re drowning. Three short lines that can teach you to sing with Horatio Spafford, “It is well with my soul.”
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. (Ps. 42:8)
Drowning must be the most out of control feeling in the world. I really can’t imagine the panic and absolute terror that must accompany it. The psalmist clues us in to that feeling as he refers to the “breakers and waves” rolling over him. While he almost seems to blame God for his drowning in verse 7, in verse 8, he recognizes God’s sovereignty in a different way. He says, “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love.” I don’t think he means that God does this only in good times (what we might call “the day”), but rather that He does it consistently. Every day, rain or shine, God commands His steadfast love. But what does He command it to do?
He commands it to endure.
The writer of Psalm 136 captures the forever-ness of God’s steadfast love as he uses the refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever” in every one of the psalm’s 26 verses. No matter what, in every single circumstance, God compels His love to keep on loving.
Sally Lloyd-Jones gives us another glimpse at this unswerving love, calling it a “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”
God commanded this love to Moses even when He didn’t allow him to enter the Promised Land, to David who lost a son as a direct result of egregious and reprehensible moral failure, to the entire nation of Israel who willfully rejected Him and continuously played the harlot with other gods, to Peter who boldly denied any knowledge of or relationship with Jesus Christ, and to Saul of Tarsus who brazenly persecuted and even martyred believers in a risen Christ. He commands this love to me. And to you.
This love never fails, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the waves. Was it your disobedience? God sent a fish to rescue rebellious Jonah from the waves. Was it the disobedience of others? God rescued Noah from His judgment through an ark. Was it the result of living in a sin-cursed world? God sent Christ to crush the head of the serpent and rescue humanity from the curse of sin forever.
Even when the waves are crashing on top of you and you don’t know up from down, God still commands His steadfast, unrelenting love to hold on tight to you.
A Song in the Night
God commands His steadfast love by day. But He doesn’t take time off at night. He’s at work then too. At night, when His steadfast love seems out of reach (even though it’s still there hanging on), God gives a song.
Maybe it’s a song like Psalm 42, in which the writer admits that his soul is downcast and that his tears have been his food. Maybe it’s a lament, like Psalm 13 in which the psalmist asks if God will forget him forever. Or maybe it’s a song of praise, like Psalm 100, a psalm of thanksgiving. Or maybe it’s not a psalm at all.
God has blessed the church with a rich tapestry of songs and hymns that have been our cry in the night. Songs like “It Is Well,” “How Firm a Foundation,” and “Be Still My Soul” have comforted countless hearts through the dark waves. More recently, He has used modern hymns such as “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” “In Christ Alone,” and “Blessed Be Your Name” as touchpoints for the drowning soul. The point is this: God will give you the song.
But this song is more than just a song. The psalmist goes on to say that this song is a prayer.
Romans 8 helps clarify:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. … Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom. 8:22-23, 26)
As we groan, clinging to the hope of our adoption in Christ, the Spirit works in us, taking our groans to the Father with His own groans that are too deep for words.
Let’s face it, drowning isn’t pretty. We don’t soliloquize prayers that look good cross-stitched onto a pillow when we’re flailing for our very lives. Our prayers are more like groans and gasps as we get just a precious mouthful of air. But that groan of a prayer is a song to God. Likewise, our gasp of a song is a prayer to God. We might not be able to do more than whisper it, but He still hears. And His steadfast love still endures.
My friend, are you drowning today? God’s still commanding His steadfast love to hang on to you. And He’ll give you the song—even if it’s more of a groan—to lisp back to Him.
 Lloyd-Jones, Sally. The Jesus Storybook Bible. Zonderkidz: Grand Rapids, Mich., 2007, 173.
2 thoughts on “When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll”
Thank you for this timely message Cindy.
Thank you for the wonderful article/insight. A few years ago I memorized Psalm 42:8, and I find myself meditating on it often. I should memorize the chapter! In God’s sweet providence I found your blog, and now I enjoy receiving your regular e-mails. So thank you for your faithfulness, and for being a Bible study nerd. Edifying for me! (A sister in Christ from North Carolina)