The first three stanzas of this hymn appeal to the Trinity with Scripture passages where each Person controlled the sea, imploring “O hear us when we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea.” The first stanza refers to God's discourse with Job, in which the Lord asks “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I … said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” (Job 38:8, 11 ESV) The second stanza refers to two occasions when Jesus calmed the raging sea: when He walked on the water (Mark 6:45-52), and when He slept through a storm until His terrified disciples woke Him (Mark 4:35-41). The third stanza alludes to Creation, when “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 ESV) The final stanza summarizes the hymn and promises continued praise “from land and sea.”
William Whiting wrote this hymn in 1860 in England. It was modified in 1861 by the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern, where it was first published. Whiting also revised it a few times. It has become a favorite of seafaring people in English-speaking countries, both civilian and military. In America, its affiliation as the “Navy Hymn” is prompted in part by the practice dating from 1879 of concluding the Sunday services at the Naval Academy at Annapolis with the first stanza of this hymn. The first three stanzas of this hymn appeal to the Trinity with Scripture passages where each Person controlled the sea, while the final stanza summarizes the hymn and promises continued praise “from land and sea.”
MELITA is named after the island where Paul was shipwrecked (Acts 28:1 KJV; modern Bible translations have “Malta”). It is a fitting name for a tune associated with a text about safety on the seas. MELITA was composed by John B. Dykes especially for this text in 1861, and they were published together in Hymns Ancient and Modern.
This tune is well-known and should pose little problem for congregational singing. However, the rhythm is consistently steady, with no obvious places for breathing, so worship leaders should choose a moderate tempo and indicate the ends of phrases. There is quite a bit of chromaticism throughout, which adds intensity to the mood.
Because of this hymn's association with the navy, it is used for services connected to the armed forces, such as Memorial Day. It is also used for sailors' funerals. Although this familiar tune is not hard to sing, congregation members may be more familiar with hearing instrumental versions, such as are found in “All Nature Sings” for piano with the melody in varying registers, or “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” a piano and organ duet that begins in a quiet, prayerful mood but swells to a majestic climax.