The hymn was first published in March 1776 in the magazine of which Toplady was editor, the Gospel Magazine. It was appended to an article about that most unedifying subject, the national debt. In the article, Toplady described briefly the massive national debt that England was carrying, and did some calculations about how much England owed. He figured out how many men it would take to carry all that money, how long a line they would make, and then he asked when the nation would be able to pay it off:
Question: When will the government be able to pay the principal?
Answer: When there is more money in England’s treasury alone than there is at present in all Europe.
Question: And when will that be?
The fiscal calculations led Toplady to think instantly of the debt of sin, and in the rest of the article he provided calculations for the number of sins each person carries. What if you sinned once a day?
Qu. Supposing a person was to break the law once in 24 hours; to how many would his sins amount in a life of ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, or eighty years?
Ans. If he was to fail in moral duty but once a day his sins at ten years of age would amount to 3 thousand 6 hundred and 50. At twenty years’ end, the catalogue wold be 7 thousand 3 hundred. At thirty, to 10 thousand nine hundred and 50. At forty, to 14 thousand 6 hundred. At fifty, to 18 thousand 2 hundred and 50. At sixty, to 21 thousand 9 hundred. At seventy, to 25 thousand 5 hundred and fifty. At eighty, to 29 thousand 2 hundred.
Ouch. Okay, but what if I sin, say, twice a day, and now I’m forty?
Qu. What if a person’s sins are supposed to bear a double proportion to the foregoing estimate? That is, let us imagine him to sin twice a day, or once every twelve hours.
Ans. In that case his sins at the age of ten years will be multiplied to 7 thousand 3 hundred. At twenty, to 14 thousand 6 hundred. At thirty, to 21 thousand 9 hundred. At forty, to 29 thousand 2 hundred. At fifty, to 36 thousand 5 hundred. At sixty, to 43 thousand 8 hundred. At seventy, to 51 thousand 1 hundred. At eighty, to 58 thousand 4 hundred.
Twenty-one thousand nine hundred? Really? Okay, let’s say, just hypothetically, that I were to sin more than once every twelve hours? Like about once per hour? And go ahead and count my sleeping hours, not because I’m actively sinning then, but just to cover any extra sinning I do during my waking hours. Ballpark figure.
Qu. We must go further still. What if a man’s sins keep exact pace with every hour of his life? i.e. we will suppose him to sin 24 times a day.
Ans. His sins will then amount, in a life of ten years, to 87 thousand, 6 hundred. At twenty years of age they will accumulate to 175 thousand, hundred. At thirty, to 262 thousand 8 hundred. At forty, to 350 thousand 4 hundred. At fifty, to 438 thousand. At sixty, to 525 thousand 6 hundred. At seventy, to 613 thousand 2 hundred. At eighty, to 700 thousand and eight hundred.
Wow, that many? Okay, Mr. Toplady, let’s try some real numbers now. How often would you reckon a person sins?
Qu. Is there a single minute from the first of our existence to the very article of death, wherein we come up to the whole of that inward and outward holiness which God’s all-perfect law requires?
Ans. Most certainly not.
Qu. Of how many sins then is each of the human race guilty, reckoning only at the rate of one sin for every minute?
Ans. At ten years old we (according to that method of calculation) are guilty of no fewer than 5 millions 256 thousand sins. At twenty, of 10 millions and 512 thousand. At thirty, of 15 millions 568 thousand. At forty, of 21 millions and 24 thousand. At fifty, of 26 millions and 280 thousand. At sixty, of 31 millions and 536 thousand. At seventy, of 36 millions and 792 thousand. At eighty, of 42 millions and 48 thousand.
Qu. May we not proceed abundantly further yet? Sixty second go to a minute. Now, as we never in the present life rise to the mark of legal sanctity, is it not fairly inferrable that our sins multiply with every second of our sublunary duration?
Ans. It is too true. And, in this view of the matter, our dreadful account stands as follows. — At ten years old, each of us is chargeable with 315 millions, and 36 thousand sins. — At twenty, with 630 millions, and 720 thousand. — At thirty, with 946 millions, and 80 thousand. — At forty, with 1261 millions, 440 thousand. At fifty, 1576 millions, and 800 thousand. At sixty, 1892 millions, and 160 thousand. At seventy, 2207 millions, and 520 thousand. At eighty, with 2522 millions, 800 thousand.
Qu. When shall we be able to pay off this immense debt?
Ans. Never. Eternity itself, so far from clearing us of the dreadful arrear, would only add to the score by plunging us deeper and deeper into even to infinity. Hence the damned will never be able to satisfy the justice of the Almighty Creditor.
After these fearful calculations and a few more considerations, Toplady explains the mercy of God, and then sounds this trintarian note:
Qu. What return can believers render, to the glorious and gracious Trinity, for mercy and plenteous redemption like this?
Ans. We can only admire and bless the Father, for electing us in Christ, and for laying on him the iniquity of us all: — the Son, for taking our nature and our debts upon himself, and for that complete righteousness and sacrifice whereby he redeemed his mystic israel from all their sins; — and the co-equal Spirit, for causing us (in conversion) to feel our need of Christ, for inspiring us with faith to embrace him, for visiting us with his sweet consolations by shedding abroad his love in our hearts, for sealing us to the day of Christ, and for making us to walk in the path of his commandments.
And in conclusion, Toplady appends the first publication of the hymn “Rock of Ages.” Here is the original text. Note the original wording, which has been changed over the last couple of centuries, sometimes for good reasons (who wants to sing about broken eye-strings?) and sometimes for bad (surely we could handle the slightly archaic, but more graphic, “riven,” rather than “wounded”).
A living and dying PRAYER for the HOLIEST BELIEVER in the World
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.
Not the Labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy Law’s demands:
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for Sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and thou alone!
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for Dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the Fountain fly:
Wash me, SAVIOR, or I die!
Whilst I draw this fleeting breath
When my eye-strings break in death
When I soar through tracts unknown
See thee on thy Judgment-Throne
ROCK of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in THEE!