by Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto
For most of his childhood, youth, and maturity, Paul Gerhardt, who was born on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen, Germany, near Wittenberg, lived through one of the worst calamities of Central Europe,the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Yet “the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression” in his hymns, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardt’s verses reflect their purity of thought, beauty, and elegant iambic meter.
We live at a time when in many Sunday services, saccharine platitudes take the place of the traditional chorale with its theological weight, choice of words, and musical splendor. So it seems timely to ponder the exquisite beauty of Gerhardt’s songs,for example:
Entrust your days and burdens
To God’s most loving hand;
He cares for you while ruling
The sky, the sea, the land.
For he who guides the tempesst
Along their thunderous ways
Will find for you a pathway
And guide you all your days.” (LSB 754).
This was written in 1653 while Germany was still in ruins mourning the loss of 20 to 30 percent of its population.
A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardt’s hymns their unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Möller. This defiance is directed against pain, while consolation comes from his trust in God’s governance and goodness and the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt’s genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other.
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