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– Text Background –

While returning home from study at the Gymnasium at Ansbach in 1523 because of the onset of a serious illness, Paul Eber was thrown from his steed and painfully towed for more than a mile, ultimately leaving him permanently crippled.[1] Because of the illness and the frightening personal tragedy that followed, it should be no surprise that the theologian and hymnographer, known as second only to Luther among the Wittenberg bards, would put pen to paper and compose a hymn that speaks of great sorrows wrapped in endless days of anxious thought and helpless counsel and yet pays glad thanksgiving to the One whose grace abounds.[2]

Though the histories suggest that neither the date nor the circumstance for the writing of this hymn can be substantiated, the lore surrounding its birth leads us to the Feast of the Ascension and the fateful Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. It is recorded that as the Elector was captured by enemy forces, correspondence was sent demanding that the city of Wittenberg be turned over to Emperor Charles V. Johann Bugenhagen, the pastor of the city church in Wittenberg (and the one whom Eber would eventually replace as pastor) gathered the people for worship and requested at the conclusion that Eber’s hymn be sung.

It is clear that the hymn was inspired by the Latin hymn “In Tenebris Nostrae et Densa Caligine Mentis” penned by Eber’s former teacher, Joachim Camerarius. In addition, it has been suggested that the scriptural text upon which this hymn is built is 2 Chronicles 20:12.[3]

Since its earliest published record on broadsheet in 1560, the text and its title have been altered by varying groups for inclusion in particular hymn collections. Catherine Winkworth provides an exceptionally faithful translation of the 1560 publication in her collections Lyra Germanica: Second Series (1858) and The Chorale Book for England (1863). The text provided in the LSB contains only slight alterations from Winkworth’s efforts. It differs only slightly from the texts of TLH and LW.

– Text Discussion –

The text of 2 Chronicles 20:12, the text said to be the foundation for the hymn, is a fitting match for the events surrounding the Battle of Mühlberg, if indeed this is its history. As it was for Jehoshaphat against the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, so it was for the people of Wittenberg against the Emperor. Stanzas one and two, therefore, make clear that in times of great need, those times when earthly measures fail and all hope seems lost, even then our God will not forsake us (Psalm 25:15-22; Joel 2:12-14). He is faithful and will hear the cries of His people for deliverance and will free them from their misery, whether freedom be given by earthly victory and/or physical restoration, or the eternal victory of the second death which, because of Christ, has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Stanza three continues to wrestle with God and hold Him to His promises just as Jacob wrestled with Him in Genesis 32:22-32; as the Canaanite woman wrestled against the brutal testing by Christ in Matthew 15:21-28; as Paul declares such sufferings to be tools of God to draw us closer during hours of dire need (Romans 5:3-5). We call upon God for help through His Son, Jesus Christ our advocate. We hold Him to His promises and we are certain that He hears us (John 16:23; Micah 7:7; 1 John 2:1; Romans 8:34).

The stage is now set for a right understanding of our relationship with God during times of trouble and so now also is the Christian spurred to act. Stanza four paints the portrait of the woeful, tired, perplexed Christians gathering before the throne of grace to petition the Lord’s help knowing with full confidence that He will answer (Psalm 25:15-22; 50:15; 2 Corinthians 4:7, 8). Stanza five makes this approach one of confession, asking first for pardon from sin, unbelief, and self-trust (Luke 5:8; 18:9-14), but again knowing with full confidence that the Lord absolves repentant sinners and delivers them.

Finally, stanza six carries to completion the lives of the Christians as they receive absolution and are refreshed once again to trust their faithful God, clinging to His Word and discerning that even as presently a war arises against them, they will give thanks to Him and wait for His time and way for deliverance, for it is always good (Psalm 27:1-6; 52:9).

Reverend Christopher I. Thoma+

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Bibliography

Aufdemberge, 426-27; Ameln 1964, VII, 156-59; EKG Hb, 3/2:262-64; Julian, 318-19; Stulken-LBW, 364-65; Wackernagel, 6; Winkworth 1858, 240-41;Winkworth 1863, 141.


[1] Stulken, 364; Julian, 318.

[2] Being that Eber was involved in the activities of a gymnasium of the Middle Ages may suggest that he was an athletic man, capable of field sports which included jousting, horsemanship, and combat, wearing armor that often weighed more than a hundred pounds. Even more so would the spirit of such a man capable of such extraordinary competition be burdened by an accidental deformity to the body prohibiting him from further participation.

[3] Julian, 319; Stalman, 263.