Hymn of the Month, March 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, “O God, My Faithful God.”
A number of people had a hand in creating the words and music of this month’s hymn. The first of these, Johann Heermann, was born in 1585 in the Prussian province of Silesia, along the southwest border of modern-day Poland. Of all the children his father and mother had, he was the only one who lived any length of time. While still a child, he too became severely ill, prompting his mother to vow to educate him for the ministry if he recovered. He did, and the rest, to use a well-worn phrase, is history.
In 1611 Heermann was ordained as a pastor of a Lutheran congregation in a small Silesian town. He struggled with poor health for most of his ministry, and was troubled no less by the likes of fire, disease, and war. In 1616, the town was devastated by fire. Between 1629 and 1634, it was plundered four times by armies attempting to compel the people of the region to return to Roman Catholicism (this was part of the broader Thirty Years’ War that was destroying Europe). In 1631, an epidemic also swept through the town.
This month’s hymn comes out of that time of difficulty, specifically the late 1620s, according to one account. Originally titled “A Daily Prayer,” by it Heerman led his brothers and sisters in Christ in expressing their trust in God, and also their desire to live godly lives in the midst of the temptations and trials they were facing.
That noted, Heermann was not the only person who had a hand in creating this hymn. We today might not be singing this hymn were it not for yet another person: an English woman named Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878). We know Winkworth already from last November, when we explored the history of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” She translated both that hymn and Heermann’s hymn into English, thereby making them (and many others) accessible to English-speaking believers.
The tune we are using to sing Heerman’s words comes from a lawyer named Ahasuerus Fritsch (1629-1701), who lived in what today is Germany. Like Heermann, Fritsch grew up amid the turbulence of the Thirty Years’ War. His family was forced to flee for their lives multiple times. Yet, he survived and became a legal scholar who later served as chancellor of the same university where he received his law degree. During his lifetime he also produced some devotional works and hymns. This month’s tune is one that he composed.
The famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach later incorporated Fritsch’s melody into four of his cantatas. The lively, yet reverent arrangement of this month’s tune comes from one of those cantatas.
Sources: Psalter Hymnal Handbook, Hymnary.com, and Wikipedia.com.
As noted earlier, “O God, My Faithful God” is a prayer. In it we express our trust in and dependence upon God, and then go on to ask him to help us live godly lives in the midst of our temptations and trials. Some of those temptations and trials are certainly different from those Heermann and the Christians in Silesia were facing in the early 1600s, but our temptations and trials are no less real and threatening, even if we fail to see or understand that.
O God, my faithful God, true fountain ever-flowing,
without whom nothing is, all perfect gifts bestowing:
give me a healthy frame, and may I have within
a conscience free from blame, a soul unstained by sin.
We begin our prayer in song by calling upon God and acknowledging who he is, specifically as he has made himself known to us through Jesus Christ his Son. He is the faithful God, as Scripture abundantly testifies, such as in the opening verses of Psalm 89: “I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. For I said, ‘Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.’” What is more, through faith in Jesus Christ, each of us can call upon him as my faithful God, and we do precisely that here at the beginning.
We go on from there to acknowledge before God that he is not only our faithful God, but also the true fountain of life and gifts of various kinds. We can say that with confidence most of all because he has revealed it to us. For instance, in James 1:17 we read, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” That noted, each of us can also point to events and experiences in our lives as additional evidence that God is the true fountain of life and gifts of various blessings.
Consequently, in the second half of this verse we plead with this God—our God—for a healthy frame (arguably meaning attitude or mood, but possibly referring to our body), a clear conscience, and a cleansed soul. Simply put, here we appeal to God to conform us more and more to the image of his Son. That is not only his will for our lives (Rom 8:29), but also our prayer, especially given the weakness and neediness we feel in the midst of life’s temptations and trials.
Give me the strength to do with ready heart and willing,
whatever you command, my calling here fulfilling -
to do it when I ought, with all my strength; and bless
whatever I have wrought, for you must give success.
In this second verse we get more specific, in particular by asking God to give us the strength to do whatever he commands, and with a ready and willing heart. The psalmist testifies that “all [his] commandments are right” (Ps 119:172). By them, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps 25:9). That is not to suggest that we are declared righteous in God’s sight by our obedient works, but simply to affirm the goodness of God’s commands, given to us in the Bible. Thus, it makes sense that we would ask God to help us obey him, for his glory and our own good, and subsequently to bless whatever we have done, for as Psalm 127:1 testifies, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
Pay attention to the words of this verse, and make them your prayer to God. Temptations and trials in our lives do not excuse us from fulfilling our calling as Christians. We ought to expect temptations and trials, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, ask God to help us fulfill our calling in the midst of them, for his glory and for the good of us and our neighbors.
Keep me from saying words that later need recalling;
guard me, lest idle speech may from my lips be falling;
but when, within my place I must and ought to speak,
then to my words give grace lest I offend the weak.
This third verse focuses on the words we speak. According to James 3:6 & 8, “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Most of us have experienced the truth of that in our everyday lives, both on the giving and receiving end of poisonous words. Here in verse three we get very specific in asking God both to keep us from saying words that later need recalling and helping us speak graciously in the times when we must and ought to speak.
Pay attention to the words of this verse as well, and make them your prayer to God. Even when we’re frustrated or tired, we have a critically important, God-given calling to use our tongues for the glory of God and the good of others. Indeed, we hear Paul declare in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
When dangers gather round, oh keep me calm and fearless;
help me to bear the cross when life seems dark and cheerless;
help me, as you have taught, to love both great and small,
and, by your Spirit's might to live at peace with all.
From the story of Johann Heermann’s life, we can gather that this verse was truly the cry of his heart. To varying degrees, it may well be ours as well. In this final verse we ask God for a life of patience and peace. We want to be those who “hope for what we do not see” and thus “wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:25). Consequently, we ask God to help us do so, even when life seems dark and cheerless. Similarly, we want to be those who “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14). Thus, we ask God to help us do so, by his Spirit’s might, even when others mistreat us or seem to be mistreating us.
Is this your prayer today? Will you make it your prayer?