Safety in the Storm

In my teens, I can recall visiting with my parents a full-sized replica of the Mayflower, the ship that transported the Pilgrims to the New World, nearly four centuries ago. What impressed us at the time was the smallness of the vessel. Yet over a hundred passengers spent two harrowing months crossing the stormy Atlantic in it. And they shared cramped quarters, with few amenities and little privacy. It was not an easy voyage. Even in our day of huge ships driven by powerful engines sea travel is not without its dangers and difficulties. But in the era of smaller crafts, rigged with sails, journeys were much longer and more hazardous.

Several instances of storms at sea are recorded for us in the Bible--in Jonah Chapter 1, and Acts 27, in addition to incidents in the Gospels (Matt. 8:23-27; 14:22-33). The Bible graphically describes "those who go down to the sea in ships," and what it was like when a tempest foamed about them. As their bark is tossed about by the waves, the fearful crew members "mount up to the heavens, they go down again to the depths; their soul melts because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end. Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble" (Ps. 107:23, 26-28).

Not surprisingly, many hymn writers spoke of peril at sea, and the need to depend upon God for deliverance. One of these is William Whiting (1825-1878), for over thirty-five years the music director at Winchester College in England. Whiting wrote a poem to encourage a student about to sail for America in 1860. It eventually became known as the Marine Hymn (or Navy Hymn). The four verses, loaded with biblical allusions, begin, "Eternal Father, strong to save, / Whose arm doth bind the restless wave, / Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep / Its own appointed limits keep: / O hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea."

Succeeding verses address the other two Persons of the Trinity: "O Saviour, whose almighty word / The winds and waves submissive heard..." (cf. Matt. 8:26). And "O sacred Spirit, who didst brood / Upon the chaos dark and rude..." (cf. Gen. 1:1-2). The prayer concludes with a plea for those traveling by sea: "O Trinity of love and power, / Our brethren shield in danger's hour; / From rock and tempest, fire and foe, / Protect them wheresoe'er they go: / And ever let there rise to Thee / Glad hymns of praise from land and sea."

Over the years, Whiting's original has been revised and augmented a number of times. With the advent of air travel, Mary C. D. Hamilton gave us, "Lord, guard and guide the men who fly / Through the great spaces in the sky..." Poetically superior is Robert Nelson Spencer's, "O Wind of heaven, by Thy might / Save all who dare the eagle's flight..." But none of the variations has succeeded in replacing the original. It is still sung at naval functions on both sides of the Atlantic, and was used in the funeral services of U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, and John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The fearful tempests that whip the sea into a fury provide a fitting metaphor for life's most daunting difficulties and alarming crises. As David writes, "For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they shall not come near him. You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble" (Ps. 32:6-7; cf. Ps. 55:1-8). In the most difficult times of our lives, we can be assured that "The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, than the mighty waves of the sea" (Ps. 93:4). The tempests still heed His voice, and He can speak peace to our souls.