Today at Big Springs Community Church, we sang “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” written by the Reformed hymnwriter Augustus Toplady in 1776. I want to focus on why Toplady prays to Christ as the “Rock of Ages” who was “cleft” for him. The original first stanza was:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
Let the Water and the Blood,
From thy riven Side which flow’d,
Be of Sin the double Cure,
Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow’r.
The word “cleft” as a noun means a split or opening made by cleavage. As a verb, it is the past tense of “to cleave” which means to split or open by a blow or by cutting. In this hymn, “cleft” is used as a passive verb.
In Scriptures, God is often pictured as the Rock, as in Psalm 18:2, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” And through the ages, “the LORD God is an everlasting rock” (Isa 26:4).
The second line alludes back to the day when Moses asked the LORD to show him his glory. But the LORD answered that no one can see his face and live. So the LORD told Moses, “I will put you in a cleft of the rock,” while his glory passes by so he would not die (Exo 33:20-23). No sinful creature can see God without being consumed by his purest glory and holiness (Isa 33:14).
Toplady pleads to God—the same God who would consume sinners—to wash him with water and blood that flowed like a fountain from the Lord Jesus Christ’s side, lest he would die:
Foul, I to the fountain fly :
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
This is why in 1815, hymnwriter T. Cotterill revised the last line of the first stanza to:
Save from wrath, and make me pure.
Jesus’ blood purifies our sin, and it is the “cleft of the Rock” in which he hides us from his wrath. In Jesus the Cleft of the Rock, we have a hiding place from all our troubles and enemies,
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance” (Psa 32:7).
But for unbelievers, they have no Rock to protect them from God’s wrath. So we read than when Jesus returns from heaven on Judgment Day, They will
“[hide] themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” And they “[will call] to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Another event that comes to mind in this first stanza is the rock at Mount Sinai from which water gushed after Moses struck it with his staff. When the people grumbled and tested the LORD because they were dying of thirst, the LORD instructed him to strike this rock and water will flow from the cleavage of the rock (Exo 17:1-7).
This event alludes forward to the work of Christ on the cross, when he was
“smitten, stricken, and afflicted” by the LORD, “pierced for our transgressions… crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:4-5).
And from his side flowed his
“precious blood” that cleanses our sins (1 Pet 1:19), and Water “welling up into eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
So Christ our Rock of Ages is both our Rock of Salvation and our Hiding Place in our day of trouble.