Hymn of the Month, June 2016
Researched and written by Shelby Breedlove and Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “Holy Ghost, Dispel Our Sadness”
This month’s hymn was penned by Paul Gerhardt, a German Lutheran pastor. Born in March 12, 1607 in the east-central part of modern-day Germany, Gerhardt lived most of his life under the shadow of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and endured much personal and family misfortune on account of it. In fact, the war seems to have been the main reason he both delayed marriage and did not become a pastor until 1651, when he was in his mid-40s.
For better and worse, Gerhardt’s troubles did not end with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. After fifteen years of pastoral service, first in a small town named Mittenwalde, some ten miles outside Berlin, and later in Berlin itself, Gerhardt was deposed from office. During those years Berlin was embroiled in strife between the city’s Lutheran and Reformed clergy. Eventually Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, who sided with the Reformed clergy, issued an edict to bring an end to the strife. Gerhardt could not comply with the edict, and was thus removed from his position in 1666. To make matters worse, his wife Anna died about a year later, leaving him bereft not only of the four children they had together buried, but also his sweetheart whom he had waited so long to marry.
In 1668, after the edict was withdrawn, Gerhardt was appointed to another pastoral position in Lubben, some thirty miles outside of Berlin. The happiest days of his life, however, were behind him. A portrait drawn of him during that time bears the motto, “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus.” Translated, this phrase means, “A theologian sifted in Satan's sieve.” After eight years of ministry in Lubben, Gerhardt died on May 27, 1676.
Gerhardt is best known today for the hymns he wrote. Next to Luther, he is considered the most gifted and popular Lutheran hymnwriter. One of his teachers at the University of Wittenberg had impressed upon him the potential of hymns to serve as tools of pastoral care and instruction, and Gerhardt evidently took that lesson to heart. He wrote only 123 hymns, but their quality is demonstrated by the fact that nearly forty remain in use today, more than three hundred years later. The Trinity Hymnal contains six of these. Most of his hymns date from his first pastoral charge in Mittenwalde, but some were authored even earlier. This month’s hymn is one of those earlier hymns.
In the century that followed, John Christian Jacobi (1670-1750) translated Gerhardt’s hymn into English. Jacobi, a native of Germany, was the keeper of a London church for many years. He translated and published many German hymns.
Augustus Toplady (1740-1778), the famous writer of “Rock of Ages,” also played a role in the creation of this hymn. Toplady modernized the language of Jacobi’s translation, leaving us the version we sing today.
Gerhardt’s hymn has been set to a number of different tunes, but the tune used in the Trinity Hymnal is the most common. It is one of the many tunes composed by Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1559), a Frenchman known best as one of the three main contributors of tunes to the Genevan Psalter.
Sources: Hymnary.org, Christianity.com, and Wikipedia.org.
This month’s hymn is an honest and earnest plea to the Holy Spirit to come and work in and among us in ever-greater measure. We profess in song that he is the great distributor of grace, shining down from the Father and the Son. Thus, given the lingering darkness and deadness of our hearts and minds, we plead to him to come and breathe his life and spread his light in us in still greater measure. Together with the Father and the Son, he is our hope.
Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness,
pierce the clouds of sinful night;
come, O source of sweetest gladness,
breathe your life and spread your light.
Loving Spirit, God of peace,
great distributor of grace,
rest upon this congregation;
hear, O hear our supplication.
We begin our hymn on a negative note, specifically by acknowledging the sadness and darkness we feel because of our deep-seated rebellion against God. Certain motivational speakers today may encourage us to look inside ourselves to find hope and joy, but we ultimately find only sadness and clouds of sinful night there. Regardless of how joyful and alive we might appear on the outside, in the wake of the Fall we and all our neighbors bear a remarkable resemblance to the dry bones of Ezekiel 37. The bones were many in number and very dry; God, however, showed Ezekiel that he could make those bones live. In the same way God would make his people live: he would put his Spirit in them and they would live.
Knowing that, and furthermore seeing God pour out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, we now plead in song to the Holy Spirit to come dispel our sadness and pierce the clouds of sinful night. We are certain that he is able not only to breathe life into our hearts (John 6:63) and spread light into our minds (2 Cor 4:6), but also to give us sweetest gladness (1 Thess 1:6). Thus we ask him to rest upon us together as a body, with hope that he will do so out of love for us.
This plea of ours is not to deny the Spirit’s presence and work in and among us up to this point, but rather to express our desire that his presence and work continue and even abound. In that sense, we are like the believers in Ephesus, whom the apostle Paul instructed to seek to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph 5:18). It’s clear from what Paul wrote in his letter to them that the Holy Spirit was already present and at work in and among them, yet Paul encouraged them to seek the Spirit’s continued and even abounding presence and work. So too, we seek the Spirit’s continued and even abounding presence and work. We need his presence and his work no less now than we did the hour we first trusted in Jesus Christ.
From that height which knows no measure,
as a gracious show'r descend;
bringing down the richest treasure
man can wish or God can send.
Heav'nly Glory, shining down
from the Father and the Son,
grant us your illumination;
rest upon this congregation.
In this second verse we continue our plea. We acknowledge that the Holy Spirit to whom we are singing is exalted and glorious, and we ask him to descend as a gracious shower, bringing down the richest treasure man can wish or God can send. And what might that be? What is this richest treasure we desire? Himself. According to Paul in Romans 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Elsewhere we similarly hear Paul declare that God has “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:22). Here we plead with the Spirit to rest upon us, to continue to bless us with his presence and work. We may not know the half of how great a treasure he is, but that doesn’t stop us from asking for his continued and even abounding presence!
Come, O best of all donations
God can give, or we implore;
having your sweet consolations
we need wish for nothing more.
Come with unction and with pow'r,
on our souls our graces show'r;
author of the new creation,
make our hearts your habitation.
We start our third and final verse by explicitly stating what we alluded to in the previous verse: the Holy Spirit is the best of all donations or gifts. In fact, he is such a great gift that if we have his sweet consolations, we need wish for nothing more. Jesus was telling the truth when he said in John 16:7 that it is to our advantage that he go away and send this Helper. He said that not to suggest that we wouldn’t need him anymore, but rather acknowledge the glorious ways the outpoured Holy Spirit could and would work. Thus we finish our hymn by pleading once more for the Spirit to come with unction (sacred anointing) and with power and to make our hearts his habitation, whether for the first time or ever more fully.
Is this your plea? Do you grasp both the power of the Holy Spirit and your need for him to create and sustain your faith in Jesus Christ, and also transform you more and more into his likeness? Sing this month’s hymn honestly and earnestly, praising the Holy Spirit for who he is and seeking his continued and abounding presence and work in your heart and life.