Devastated but Not Destroyed: “It Is Well” Song Analysis

man by an ocean at sunset thinking about the meaning of suffering

This is the third in a five-post series on worship songs about suffering

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. — John 16:33

Horatio Spafford was en route to England when the ship took a slight detour to a particular spot in the Atlantic Ocean.

To anyone else it was just another unmarked stretch of ocean, but to Spafford it was the final resting place of his four dear daughters. Just days before, his wife and children had begun the same journey, but their voyage was cut short when the ship crashed into another ship and sank within minutes. Only his wife survived.

As Spafford leaned on the railing of the ship and looked down at where his daughters had drowned, these lyrics came to him:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

This is, of course, the first verse of the classic hymn “It Is Well,” which has been sung in churches since 1876.

Treating suffering with the gospel

“It Is Well,” and the story behind it, are so well known that sometimes we sing it with little thought.

But the song actually makes a profound statement about the gospel changing how we suffer.

It takes a variety of circumstances and preaches the gospel to each of them, Even so, it is well with my soul.”

When there is peace like a river…
When there is sorrow like a storm…
Though Satan should attack…
Though trials keep coming…
Even so, it is well with my soul. 

In this way, the hymn is similar to many passages in the book of Psalms. Spafford, like David and other psalmists, pours out his heart to God from a variety of circumstances and emotional states and finds solace in the nature and promises of God.
Consider Psalm 139:8–14, for example:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

Lyrical analysis

What is the connection between our suffering and the gospel? Col. 3:1 gives us the foundation:

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

The pains of life, though they be real and intense, are disarmed in the death of Christ and our death with him. Our life is, finally, immune to suffering.

The connection between suffering and the gospel is made clearer as the song progresses. Consider verses 2–5:
Though Satan tempt me, Christ has cleansed me:

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

Though sin still entangle me, Christ has conquered it all:

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!

Though this life be full of pain, peace is mine now and forever, and heaven is our home:

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!

As the truth of the gospel settles deeper into our hearts, we realize that—as Pastor Ray Ortlund Jr. likes to say—“We’re not going to hell anymore!” Our lives, regardless of their trials, are going in a parabolically upward trajectory. Whatever happens between here and heaven, we know that the One who calls us His is in fact for us.

If we have died to ourselves and our lives are now held by Christ himself, then what more can man or circumstance do to us?

Musical analysis

Musically, “It Is Well” is a powerhouse. From its rising verses to its call-and-response refrain, this almost 150-year-old song still brings congregations to their feet in worship.

Like most hymns, “It Is Well” is solidly constructed. It uses mostly quarter and whole notes for the melody, and the range stays within an octave, making it easy to sing.

You can feel the song build as it approaches the refrain; the melody reaches its highest point at the end of each verse. It then drops back down for the refrain, providing a sense of calm over the words “It is well with my soul.” Additionally, the repetition of “It is well” reinforces the central theme of the song.

Chordally, one unique aspect is the use of the major 2 (referring to Nashville number system). The 2 chord is typically a minor chord, but making it major gives the impression of leaving the original key. Though this is seen regularly in hymns, borrowing chords outside the original key is rarely done in modern worship songs.

Living through loss

Spafford’s tremendous loss was not his first, nor would it be his last. Prior to the accident, he lost his business in the great Chicago fire. Years after losing his daughters, he and his wife would lose a son to scarlet fever.

To look at all of this loss and still say, “It is well,” reveals an unsinkable faith, the working of something divine. (Job responds similarly, as “Blessed Be Your Name” reminds us.)

When suffering and trials of all kinds fill our lives, when circumstances feel overbearing, when Satan himself strikes us, let the assurance of God’s promises settle us: that He has nailed our sins to the cross, that Christ had shed His blood for the rescue of our souls.

This gives us an invincibility to the troubles of life—not that we won’t be devastated, but that we won’t be destroyed.

***

This is a guest post by music professionals Cody Norris and Stephen Folden.

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Written by
Matthew Boffey

Matthew Boffey (MDiv, Trinity International University) is the pastor of worship at Christ Church Bellingham. He is also editor-in-chief of Ministry Team magazine, has edited several books, and has written for several blogs and publications, including Relevant online, the Logos blog, and the Faithlife blog.

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Written by Matthew Boffey