Hymn of the Month, September 2016
Researched and written by 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, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.”
This month’s hymn is yet another one we know and sing today because of the work of Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878). During her lifetime, this English woman translated some 400 hymns as a personal devotional exercise. The resulting translations, however, testify that she exercised much as an athlete would in the weeks leading up the Olympics; Winkworth truly applied herself and her skill with language to these translations, producing a number of magnificent hymns that have become well known among English-speaking Christians. The Trinity Hymnal contains nineteen of these, including “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.”
This particular hymn predated Winkworth’s birth almost two centuries. It was written by a young German man named Georg Neumark (1621-1681). Humanly speaking, Neumark entered the world in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was born to parents living in the heart of what today is Germany, which was in the throes of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It’s possible Neumark himself did not see any fighting, but he most certainly experienced first-hand the lawlessness and economic hardships brought on by the war. Most notably, at the age of eighteen, he was robbed while travelling east and north across Germany to begin studies at the University of Königsberg. Despite being careful to travel with a group of merchants, a band of highwaymen took everything Neumark had, except for his prayer book and a little money sewn up in the clothes he was wearing. According to the best sources, he thus headed back west, wandering from city to city over the next two years, looking for work. Eventually he got a job as a tutor in Kiel, on the northern coast of Germany. That same night he wrote the text of this month’s hymn, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.” As he explained, “This good fortune, which came so suddenly and, as it were, from heaven, so rejoiced my heart that I wrote my hymn ‘Wer nur...’ to the glory of my God on that first day.”
After saving enough money, Neumark finally made it to Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), where he increasingly turned his attention to music. Some years after graduating he published his hymn “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee” with a tune he composed, the same tune we sing today. This hymn and its tune would not be his only composition, but it is by far the best known and most loved, appearing even in the 1987 Academy Award-winning film, Babette’s Feast.
Our Trinity Hymnal contains five of the seven verses of Neumark’s hymn. Though valuable, verses four and five have been omitted, likely to avoid repetition. They are, however, lovely in their own right. Here they are, as translated by Winkworth:
God knows full well when time of gladness
Shall be the needful thing for thee.
When He has tried thy soul with sadness
And from all guile has found thee free,
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care.
Nor think amid the fiery trial
That God hath cast thee off unheard,
That he whose hopes meet no denial
Must surely be of God preferred.
Time passes and much change doth bring
And set a bound to everything.
Sources: Hymnary.org, hymntime.com, umcdiscipleship.org, hilaryseraph.blogspot.com, wikipedia.org, and The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
This month’s hymn is a rich song of hope in God’s providence and faithfulness. As we sing it, we acknowledge openly the trials of life in this world and encourage ourselves and one another to keep on trusting God and seeking to do his will in the midst of them.
If thou but suffer God to guide thee,
and hope in him through all thy ways,
he'll give thee strength, whate'er betide thee,
and bear thee through the evil days:
Who trusts in God's unchanging love
builds on the Rock that naught can move.
We begin this hymn expressing the confidence we have on the basis of passages such as Psalm 55:22, fittingly quoted above the hymn in our Trinity Hymnal. In that Psalm we hear David declare: “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” This declaration gives us hope in the light of the clear teaching of the New Testament that we sinners stand declared righteous before God through faith on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Knowing that, we who believe in Jesus Christ may go from one day to the next with the confidence that the holy God of heaven and earth will most certainly give us—yes, us!--strength, whatever betides (happens to) us, and that he bear us through the evil days. Indeed, we who trust in his unchanging love build on the Rock that nothing can move (think also of the closing verses of Romans 8). In that light, our calling is to suffer (let) God to guide us and hope in him through all our ways.
Interestingly, with the exception of the mention of evil days in the fourth line, we hear nothing in this verse about life’s trials. Both here and throughout most of the hymn, the minor tune does most of the heavy lifting in communicating the existence and weight of the trials we experience. An attentive singer might go so far as to say this hymn is an exhortation to trust our heavenly Father when life’s music is in a minor key (as opposed to a gripe session set to a fitting tune).
What can these anxious cares avail thee,
these never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help, if thou bewail thee
o'er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
the heavier for our bitterness.
This second verse asks us some questions along the lines of what Jesus taught in Luke 12:25: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Indeed, what does our worrying or wailing in the midst of trials accomplish? The final two lines of this verse seem to put forward an answer: by worrying or wailing bitterly we only feel our cross and trials pressing upon us more heavily.
What then shall we do? Try to whistle them away? No. The next verse gives us some guidance.
Only be still, and wait his leisure
in cheerful hope, with heart content
to take whate'er thy Father's pleasure
and all deserving love hath sent;
nor doubt our inmost wants are known
to him who chose us for his own.
This third verse guides us with the call of Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” More specifically, however, it calls us to do that with the two-fold knowledge that God loves us and that our trials grieve us only for a time and only according to his purposes, as Peter explained in 1 Peter 1:6-7. God knows us better than we know ourselves—according to Jesus, he even “knows what you need before you ask” (Matt 6:8). That does not make many of our trials less painful, but it does give us reason to hope in God in the midst of them.
All are alike before the Highest;
'tis easy to our God, we know,
to raise thee up though low thou liest,
to make the rich man poor and low;
true wonders still by him are wrought
who setteth up and brings to naught.
According to Deuteronomy 10:17, our God “is not partial and takes no bribe.” He can and does “shatter the mighty… and sets others in their place” (Job 34:24). With Moses and the people of Israel in Exodus 15, we marvel, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” This is the God we sing of: the God who can and does do what he pleases, for the eternal good of those who love him and the glory of his name.
Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving,
so do thine own part faithfully,
and trust his Word - though undeserving,
thou yet shalt find it true for thee;
God never yet forsook at need
the soul that trusted him indeed.
Our closing verse takes the guidance of the third verse a step farther. The third verse encouraged us to be still and wait his leisure in cheerful hope; this verse exhorts us to go further than that, namely to sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving, trusting his Word to the very end. This call is grounded in David’s profession before God found in Psalm 25:2: “None of those who wait for you shall ever be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.”
Will you trust in him? Will you sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving in the midst of whatever trials you are enduring, or soon to endure? Even if you can’t understand how God in his goodness could ordain your ordeal, rest in this truth: God never yet forsook at time of need the soul that trusted him indeed.