Horatio Spafford may not be a household name, but it’s one you should know. If you already know who he is, chances are you’re a church organist, or a Baptist. So for the rest of us, let me tell you about Horatio Spafford, the modern day Job.
First let’s do a little review on who Job was. If you have never read the book of Job, I highly recommend it, but here are the cliff’s notes.
Job was a wealthy man who was well known and well loved, because he was a good man who honored God and helped the poor. He was a legitimately good person, as in, the kind of person no one could find fault with, and God was very proud of him.
Job was not only wealthy and well-loved, he was also a righteous man before God. In fact, Job was so righteous that God and Satan got into an argument about him . Basically it boiled down to God telling Satan that Job was righteous, and Satan saying, “Yeah right.”
Satan’s assertion was that Job was only honorable to God because God had blessed him with wealth, land, and an abundant family; but take all that away and Job’s faith would go with it.
So God gave Satan permission to test Job, and test he did.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Now on the day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans attacked and took them. They also slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.
So Job is just going about his life on an ordinary day, and here come four servants out of nowhere dropping bombs one after another to tell Job that:
- His livestock have been stolen and his ranch hands have all been slain.
- His sheep and shepherds have all burned to death.
- His camels have been stolen and their handlers murdered.
- A tornado caused his eldest son’s house to collapse during a party and all his children are dead.
So this is utterly devastating for this man. His wealth is stollen. All 10 of his grown children are dead in a freak accident, and all but four of his servants have been murdered.
So what does Job do upon receiving this news?
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
22Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God
Job worshiped God in his grief. I don’t know about you, but I have grieved the loss of a loved one more than once, and praising God has never been my first reaction. But I am not Job.
The story goes on, it’s a really great story, Job learns a lot, everyone who knows Job also learns a lot, and Satan learns a lot. It has a happy ending (or as happy as a story like that can have). Please read it.
Back to Horatio Spafford.
Born in 1828 in New York, Spafford grew up to be a prominent lawyer, real estate investor, and respected Presbyterian Elder.
Spafford married Norwegian-born Anna Larsen in 1861 in Chicago, and by 1863 the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter, named Annie. After Annie, the Spaffords added Maggie and Bessie, and eventually Tanetta.
The Spafford family were blessed with wealth and prosperity, and even employed a French maid. Like Job, Horatio was not merely rich, a great many people considered him to be a genuinely good person. He was a staunch abolitionist during the Civil War, and his wife was a member of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. The family often took in and supported homeless people at their Lake View, Chicago home.
In 1871 The Great Chicago Fire destroyed a number of properties owned by Horatio Spafford, destroying along with them a substantial portion of the Spafford’s wealth.
Despite their losses, the Spafford family worked to help the victims of the fire to recuperate.
In 1873 Horatio booked his family and himself on a voyage to Europe. However, at the moment of departure he was detained on business, and sent his family on ahead.
In the middle of the Atlantic ocean, the ship that Anna and her four daughters were sailing on, called the Ville du Havre, was struck by a British iron clipper, the Loch Earn, and sank in 12 minutes. Anna was found floating unconscious in the wreckage and rescued. However, all four children were lost.
Annie, age 11.
Maggie, age 8.
Bessie, age 5.
Tanetta, age 2.
When the rescue vessel reached Wales, Anna sent her husband a heartbreaking telegram that read, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”
Horatio left on the next boat to join his wife, and when the ship reached the place where the Ville du Havre sank, the captain informed Spafford they were over the spot where his children were lost. It was on that emotional sea crossing where he wrote the lyrics to the now famous hymn.
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.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
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.
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!
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!
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
After the shipwreck, the Spaffords tried to put their life back together. They welcomed a son, Horatio Jr. in 1877, and a daughter, Bertha, in 1878. In 1880 tragedy struck again when Horatio Jr. contracted Scarlet fever and died at the age of three. In January, their last child, a daughter named Grace, was born; and in August of that same year the family moved to Jerusalem to establish a missionary post which became known as The American Colony, which supported Christian, Jewish and Muslim people in need.
Horatio Spafford died of Malaria in 1888 at the age of 60. He is buried in Jerusalem. Anna continued the work of the American colony until her death in 1923, but the mission continued to fulfill its philanthropic function until it dissolved in the 1950s.
Like Job, the Spaffords endured financial ruin and heartbreaking tragedies. Like Job, they stayed faithful to God. Like Job, their fortunes were restored, and they were blessed once more with children. Grace and Bertha survived, and grew up in Jerusalem with their parents.
The profound truth that Horatio Spafford realized when all four of his daughters were drowned is this:
We are all sinners. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23 And since the bible tells us that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that means that what we earn, our wages, when we commit sin, is death. BUT! The verse goes on to reveal that the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So instead of death, which we all deserve, the free gift of God is eternal life!
That is why in the third verse the singer interrupts his own lyric to rejoice over “the bliss of this glorious thought!”. This is how Job was able to worship God when he lost everything. Job recognized that everything he had, including his children, were given to him by God. “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, may the name of the LORD be praised!”
In October 2018 my best friend Michelle was nearing the end of her fight with colon cancer. I received devastating news from her on October 1. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and lungs. I knew at that point there was almost no hope of recovery for her. I wish I could say I behaved like Job, or like Horatio Spafford, but I didn’t.
I was distraught. I remember sitting on the side of the tub in my bathroom, literally screaming. My 2 year old son who is speech delayed and couldn’t say but about 6 words at the time came up to me and started shouting at me to “top! top!” (stop, stop). My 16 year old dog came out of his normal hiding spot and started barking at me. They knew something was wrong. I wanted to stop but I couldn’t. My best friend was dying.
That night, after I got all the kids in bed, I turned to God. I didn’t know what to even say, or how to pray, so I just opened my bible, hoping God would have some wisdom for me. It fell open to Lamentations. Go figure.
I read the first section and cried, and thought, that was probably just coincidence, so I closed the bible and opened it again. Again it fell open to Lamentations.
Lamentations is a very short book hidden between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In my bible it takes up only nine pages. So I went ahead and read the whole book, since it seemed like God was leading me to do just that.
Lamentations is about the fall of Jerusalem, and God’s mercy. Lamentations personifies Jerusalem as a woman in distress.
“What can I say for you?
With what can I compare you,
To what can I liken you,
that I may comfort you,
Virgin Daughter Zion?
Your wound is as deep as the sea.
Who can heal you?”
Throughout this time I was praying without ceasing, and as I went about my daily tasks God put it on my heart that He wanted me to sing praises to him. I was so, so unspeakably angry about that. So, you’re killing my friend and you want me to praise you? I thought. And He said to me, in that quiet way that He has, “I want you to celebrate with me, because the time of celebration is near.”
Two songs in particular came into my head. I looked them up to find the lyrics and sang as much as I could. The songs were “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” and “Blessed be Your Name”. In looking up the lyrics I realized both songs were written by the same man, Matt Redman. I also realized that they both discuss praising God through trials or trusting Him through the unknown, and both are based on the lessons learned in the book of Job.
Here’s a segment of “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
“The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing your song again
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes,”
Here’s a segment of “Blessed be Your Name” (You can certainly see the similarity in theme between these lyrics and “It is Well With My Soul”)
“Blessed be your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be your name.
Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be your name.”
I almost couldn’t even sing because the words hurt me so badly.
So after singing I sat down and read the book of Job. I had read it before, but given that I felt God had requested these two songs, both of which reference the book, I should probably read it, so I did.
I was struck by the part in Job 2:9 where Job has now lost his wealth, his children, and even his health. He is covered in boils, desolate, sitting on the ground, covered in ashes and scraping his skin with a piece of broken pottery, and his wife says to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” Job 2:9 to which he replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
That’s when it hit me.
Michelle wasn’t mine to begin with. I was granted her friendship by God. It was a gift. Every part of her life was a gift to those of us who knew and loved her. It was then that I realized, tears streaming down my face, that if Michelle lived, then God is good, and if Michelle died, then God is good.
If Michelle lived, then God is good, and if Michelle died, then God is good.
Michelle’s death didn’t change who God is.
That realization didn’t make her death any easier, but it has helped me to understand the nature of my relationship with God in a way I never did before.
We deserve death, but instead we are given eternal life. We are sinners, but God gives us gifts. We are like children who cry when the birthday party is over, while God is celebrating the beautiful gift of a life.
I didn’t lose anywhere near as much as Job lost, or even a quarter of what Horatio Spafford lost. I am definitely nowhere near as righteous as either of them. But those lessons in the book of Job, the lessons in the hymn, I understand them a little bit now.
If you mourn like Job, it doesn’t mean you praise God the same way we do in church, hands up, exultant and happy. It means tearing your clothes, screaming, crying, and acknowledging the gift from God that your person was. It means being terribly sad and still writing a hymn of God’s mercies. It’s a jarring juxtaposition and it’s hard to wrap my mind around it.
It still doesn’t come naturally to me to immediately praise God when I hear of a lost life. Maybe one day my first inclination will be to join God in celebration for his child coming home, but for now I will have to continue trying to remind myself of the gift of life that God gives us, and how He blesses us with each other, and that we all belong to Him in the end anyway.