I’m sure most of us are familiar with Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonian church to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:16-18). But when you’re in the midst of a challenging or grievous trial, thankfulness can be difficult. It is during these times that I often use hymns to help guide my prayers, as my own words often feel inadequate. There is no better way to move forward from Reformation month than looking at a hymn of thankfulness from the century just after the birth of the Reformation. With the beginnings of church and theological reforms in the 16th century, the early stages of Protestant hymns began to circulate, partly to place the theological teachings into the mouths and hearts of its followers.
Martin Luther’s battle cry of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” is probably the most well-known Reformation hymn. Luther reminds us of the strength of our God against Satan’s evil schemes, and he encourages us to persevere through all kinds of persecution because even though “the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still – His kingdom is forever!” It is thoughts like these that the Reformers wanted to instill in their fellow believers. These are deep, rich biblical truths that will withstand the gravity of the deathbed.
Where Luther lit the flames of vernacular hymn singing in Germany, others carried his torch into the following centuries. Martin Rinkart, fresh out of seminary, became the minister in his hometown of Eilenberg, Germany in the early 17th century. Almost immediately upon his arrival, the Thirty Years War began. Since Eilenberg was a walled city, it quickly became a refuge for political and military refugees. These years were wrought with famine,destruction, and various plagues. The Plague of 1637 was especially severe, and Rinkart, the only remaining minister in town, conducted as many as forty to fifty funerals per day.
During one of the occupations, the Swedish army demanded a large tribute payment to be paid by an already impoverished people. Rinkart met with Swedish officials and, through the prayers of his flock, was able to lower the price to a much smaller amount. It was said that when the Swedish commander would not consider a lower payment, Rinkart gathered his parishioners, and they sang the familiar hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The spiritual fervency of the gathered believers moved the Swedish commander to reduce the demands of the tribute money.
When I recall the gravity of the time in which this hymn was written, it always strengthens my weary soul. How could a minister face persecution and death at such a high level every day and still write:
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom His world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms,
hath blest us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
While encountering the death of almost everyone he knew, Rinkart rejoiced in his hope of glory. His situation did not dictate his thankfulness to his faithful God. And through his steadfastness, he taught countless others how to persevere in the deepest trials.
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world and the next.
How did he encourage thanksgiving amid trials? By focusing on God’s marvelous grace and anticipating heaven’s final reward! Rinkart wanted the eyes of his people on God – God’s strength, goodness, omnipotence, compassion, and justice. As one of the last ministers in Eilenberg, Rinkart wanted his people to know and speak profound biblical truths. In the darkness, they still sang:
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son, and Him who reigns
with them in highest heaven,
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heav’n adore;
for so it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Amid plagues, war, death, and persecution, Rinkart penned this hymn of thankfulness. What a blessing and encouragement it is to us today! I urge you to use this hymn in your personal devotions throughout the month of November and remember three truths:
1.Thankfulness can occur in every season.
2. Ministry does not cease, even when political climates are volatile.
3. God blesses us way more than we deserve.
Kim has been married to her college sweetheart, Jason, for 24 years and they have one son who is a high school senior. Most recently, Kim completed her Ph.D in Church Music and Worship from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She has presented at Evangelical Theological Society and The Society of Christian Scholarship in Music, and her works have appeared in The Hymn, Artistic Theologian, and Baptist History and Heritage Journal.