In celebration of Reformation at the end of October, I have chosen to highlight one hymn written by a Lutheran Hymnist for each Sunday this month. Every week, I will give a little background on the hymn's author and a little reflection on that hymn. This week's hymn is "Now Thank We All Our God" by Martin Rinkart.
Settle in everybody, this is one of those stories that will give me goosebumps whenever I hear the hymn from now on or at least feel humbled. Martin Rinkart is the author of the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” and he lived from 1586 until 1649. He became a minister and eventually ended up in Eilenberg, Germany. While he lived in Eilenberg, the 30 Years’ War raged on, and given the city’s walled surroundings, it soon became overrun with refugees fleeing the bloodshed of the countryside. The plague also sought refuge in the city, and soon thousands of people were dying. Rinkart found himself to be the only minister left in the city after one fled and two others died of the plague. He also buried his wife that year, along with 4000 to 5000 others. It was said that he performed 50 funerals a day but by the end of the year, people were “buried” in open trenches without ceremony. Due to the overpopulation of the city and the ongoing war, resources such as food became scarce. People fought over food in the streets.
And yet this is when Rinkart wrote the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The scriptural inspiration comes from Ecclesiastes. And it is a hymn of hope. It’s a hymn of praise. It is a light of ray in the bleakness of despair. The entire first verse is so beautiful:
“Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices
who, from our mothers’ arms, has blest us on our way,
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
That last line is so striking to me after reading what this hymn was written amidst. “And still is ours today.” People suffering and starving, the fear of death ever near and lurking, yet here he writes that God is still ours today. The second verse begins, “Oh may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,” and while in the past, I’ve always thought of this as such a joyful verse, now it has a hauntingly optimistic pleading to it as it continues:
“…with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us,
and keep us all in grace, and guide us when perplexed
and free us from all harm in this world and the next.”
This pleading call for God to come be present in their lives and hold them, comfort them. Besides the first line, the single phrase, “and guides us when perplexed” sticks out boldly in this new context. How much weight and how much heart-heavy emotion must have been felt as he wrote those handful of words? He must have been questioning, he must have been constantly questioned, “Why? Why is this happening?” So he asks for guidance, and moves forward with the song to this beautiful final verse praising God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Praise and thanks for things that haven’t happened yet. It’s not the end of the war yet. The plague is still raging. People are still starving. Yet, here is this final verse thanking God for everything he’s done, and I’m guessing what he trusts will happen - peace, bounty, health, safety.
And it does - the city itself survives in the end and Martin Rinkart is able to see the end of the war. After the war concluded, I read that churches held thanksgiving services, and it’s thought that this was the hymn most churches sang in those services. A song written in the midst of bleakness and dark days, and used to celebrate when things began to come back together. I’m guessing that you, like me, will never hear this hymn the same again. It’s a hymn of hope and faith, as well as thanks and praise.