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Music will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The grand hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, has been sung for centuries by glad people of all faiths, both across Europe and North America. Used on occasions of national rejoicing, this hymn was sung at the completion of the Cologne Cathedral (1880), the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1897), and the ending of the Boer War (1902). Throughout the twentieth century, the song has been sung on countless occasions in both small congregational gatherings to magnificent high-church settings.
The English translation of this three-stanza hymn was completed by the prolific hymn translator, Catherine Winkworth, back in 1856, but the original German text dates to the 1630’s. The hymn was first published in 1636 and known as Nun Danket Alle Gott, written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran clergyman who simply desired his children to have a song of thanks to sing at mealtime. On the surface, that might seem rather innocent to most, but if we look a bit deeper into the birth of this magnificent hymn, we find that Now Thank We All Our God was written under very trying circumstances.
Martin Rinkart pastored, you see, in very tumultuous times. From 1618 to 1648, central Europe was besieged by what historians call The Thirty Years’ War. One of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, this series of wars was first brought about by the major differences between Catholic and Protestant states. Eventually the peoples of nations we now define as Germany and Italy were devastated, not only by the battles themselves, but also by famine and disease as well.
Just prior to the beginning of the war, in 1617, Martin Rinkart was appointed as clergyman in his hometown of Eilenberg, which is located in northeastern Germany, not too far from the capital city of Berlin. During his tenure in Eilenberg, the community, being a walled city, became a place of refuge for thousands of people who were attempting to escape the ravages of war. This, of course, placed a huge burden on the people of Eilenberg, over-crowding the streets and overwhelming the city when it came to having enough supplies of food and water. Over time, in such crowded conditions, famine and plague set in, and by 1637, Rinkart found himself as the lone pastoral shepherd of the city, conducting 40 to 50 burial services on a daily basis! All the other clergymen of the city had either run off or had died, leaving Rinkart to care for a city that was under attack from invading forces outside the walls while struggling to survive from inside as well! In all, during Rinkart’s time in Eilenberg, (1617 until his death in 1649) nearly 8,000 people died, including Rinkart’s wife as well, in 1637.
Despite the horrors of war, Rinkart still found time in his schedule to write poetry and compose hymns. As a boy, Martin was a chorister in the famous St. Thomas Church in nearby Leipzig, where Bach later served as musical director, and he continued his love of poetry and music throughout his entire lifetime. Even during the worst of times, Rinkart encouraged both his family (the Rinkart’s opened their home to house and feed many refugees throughout the worst of times in Eilenberg) and his congregation to keep singing despite the trials they were facing. Which brings us now to the amazing text Martin Rinkart wrote in the early 1630’s. Now that we know the rest of the story, maybe these powerful words of thanksgiving might take on a whole new significance for us…
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way;
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
My prayer: Jesus, when Martin Rinkart writes about being a thankful people, I’m humbled by the context of his written words. It’s one thing to give thanks for Your goodness and grace when times are good, but it’s quite another when we find ourselves “perplexed” by “all ills in this world.” May I find, with Your Spirit’s empowerment, the joy of thanksgiving to our bounteous God, despite my circumstances. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: How might I change my way of thinking so that I might be more like Martin Rinkart, who despite his hellish circumstances, could still find the strength and peace of God within, so I might compose words of poetry and songs of praise in the midst of my troubles?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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