Of Plague and Pandemic

Here in the United States we typically think of “Now Thank We All Our God” as a hymn of our November national day of Thanksgiving, and that is certainly an appropriate association. But it has a longer and broader history no less meaningful today as it was when it was written in the early 17th century.

Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany during the upheaval of the Thirty Years War. His town became a refuge for political and military refugees, who crowded more and more into the confines of the city walls.

Not only were resources of food and fresh water severely stressed, plagues of deadly disease soon followed. Rinkart was the sole pastor in the community, and faithfully faced some of the most fundamental demands of ministry, caring for and burying a multitude. It is said that in 1637 he performed 4,000 funerals, including his wife’s.

It was into this crucible that he spoke the words “Nun danket alle Gott” – “Now thank we all our God” – indeed not for celebration around a family holiday table, but as a statement of bedrock theology under girding personal and potentially national trust. We only affirm what we believe until it becomes a matter of mortal danger. That is when we live and die according to what we really believe.

Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Those who hear my words and do them will be like one who builds his house upon rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” There is no way to know whether Pastor Rinkart had somewhere in mind these words of our Lord when he wrote his most enduring hymn. But I can well imagine when life seemed to be crashing down around him and those he loved that he clung to the strongest and surest foundation he knew.

Within a decade “Nun danket alle Gott” had been embraced as something of a German “Te Deum,” particularly as it was sung at the time to Johann Crüger’s new and fitting tune of the same name. That melody eventually found its way into music of J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and has become a ubiquitous musical component of thankful and grateful personal and national celebrations the world round.

From the depths of pestilence and plague emerged words and music of faith and trust, and the kind of sure and certain hope to be found only in the strength of their object. In the face of plague or pandemic, the quality of our faith means little. The object of our faith means all.

Now Thank We All Our God

Martin Rinkart (c. 1636), translated by Catherine Winkworth (1858)

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;

Who, from our mothers’ arms, hath 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 God’s grace, and guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God, who reigns in highest heaven,

To Father and to Son and Spirit now be given.

The one eternal God, whom heav’n and earth adore,

The God who was, and is, and shall be evermore.

Michael Denham

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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