What does pestilence have to do with the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God”? Quite a bit, actually.
Watching the news of the dangers, growth, and spread of the Coronavirus gives new meaning to the petition in the special Litany prayer in our hymnal asking God to protect us from “pestilence and famine.” Pestilence was nothing new hundreds of years ago. 1637 was a particularly difficult year for the Rev. Martin Rinckart and the people of the town of Eilenburg in Germany (see masthead above). He began to serve the town as a pastor in 1617. The next year a war began which lasted for three decades. During the war many thousands of people sought refuge within the walls of the city. In 1637 a severe plague hit the city and by the end of the year around 8,480 people had lost their lives. Among them was his own wife who passed away on May 8 of that year. By August he was the only pastor serving in the city and was sometimes presiding over funerals for 40-50 people at a time.
In the midst of this war, the pestilence and the famine that resulted, Rinckart wrote the words of the famous hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” It was published in a devotional book in 1636 where it was entitled “A Little Prayer Before Meals.” Upon the loss of his wife in the next year, the reference to mothers in the first verse must have meant even more to him and his children as they sang it around their table before a meal.
Below is a literal translation of the hymn from the original German. Even in midst of calamity and tragedy, Rinckart heeded Saint Paul’s admonition to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). May God give us strength to do the same.
For an inspiring setting of this hymn by the English composer John Rutter, follow the video link below the text. It is for full orchestra and features a majestic brass fanfare that recurs throughout. This setting is published is No. 1 of Two Hymns of Praise published by Oxford University Press. Click on these links to view the full score, the set of parts, or the choral part.
Now let us all thank God
with hearts, mouths, and hands,
who does great things
for us and all the ends of the earth.
Who, while we were yet in our mother’s
womb and from childhood on,
has greatly blessed us
and does so to this day.
Glory, honor, and praise be to God,
to the Father and to the Son
and to the One who is equal to both
upon heaven’s throne on high –
to the triune God,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and will be
now and forevermore.
The eternal and bountiful God
willingly grants us during our life
an ever-cheerful heart
and noble peace
and holds us in His grace
and delivers us from all affliction
no matter where we are.
For more settings of “Now Thank We All Our God,” click here.
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