Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart wrote one of my favorite hymns during the ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
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!
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 Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
Rinkart served as a pastor in Eilenburg, a city in eastern Germany. With Sweden’s entry into the war in 1630, the war began to take a terrible toll on Eilenburg. The Swedes attacked the city on multiple occasions, leaving death, destruction and privation in their wake. The city became an overcrowded home for refugees, resulting in widespread starvation and disease.
Rinkart opened his home to those in need, although it was difficult to provide enough even for his own family. Scholars estimate that up to 40% of the German population perished during the war. Rinkart’s own wife died during the siege, as did all of his fellow pastors in Eilenburg. At one point, Rinkart buried 50 victims per day and he performed over 4400 funerals in a single year. By the time peace arrived in 1648, Rinkart was worn out. He died the following year.
The first two stanzas of the hymn are based on Sirach 50:22-24.
And now bless the God of all things, the doer of great deeds everywhere, who has exalted our days from the womb and has acted mercifully towards us. May he grant us cheerful hearts and bring peace in our time, in Israel for ages on ages. May his mercy be faithfully with us, may he redeem us in our own times!
The Wisdom of ben Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) is a book found in the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint. Orthodox and Catholic churches include this book in the canon of authoritative texts, while Protestant churches do not. I wonder if I should be surprised by a 17th century Lutheran finding inspiration here.
The final stanza of the hymn is a doxology.
Rinkart wrote the hymn as a “little table prayer” (Tisch Gebetlein), a grace to be sung before meals. Despite its modest aspirations, or perhaps because of them, the hymn quickly grew to be very popular for general use in worship. In Germany, it was often used on occasions of national thanksgiving. Churches in the United States also frequently sing this hymn in association with the American Thanksgiving holiday in late November. Personally, I like singing the hymn more frequently. It fits well anywhere a doxology might work in the Sunday liturgy.
According to Hymnary.org, the oldest extant version of the hymn appears in a volume published in 1648. Most scholars believe, however, that it was first published in Rinkart’s own hymnbook in 1636, the year before the worst of Eilenburg’s horrors began.
The 19th century English translation above is by the prolific Catherine Winkorth. Rinkart’s original German lyrics of Nun Danke Alle Gott are:
Nun danket alle Gott, mit Herzen, Mund und Händen
der große Dinge tut, an uns und allen Enden;
der uns von Mutterleib und Kindesbeinen
an unzählig viel zu gut und noch jetzund Getan.
Der ewigreiche Gott woll uns bei unser Leben
ein immer frölich Herz und edlen Frieden geben
und uns in seiner Gnad erhalten fort und fort;
und uns aus aller Not erlösen hier und dort.
Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott dem Vater und dem Sohne,
und dem, der beiden gleich im höchsten Himmelsthrone,
dem einig höchsten Gott, als es anfänglich war
und ist und bleiben wird jetzund und immerdar.
Rinkart’s words take on new poignancy when you remember his situation. He’s not writing a sentimental little ditty for the pampered and privileged. He is writing for a suffering congregation. The tables at which his hymn was first sung would have been sparsely furnished with food. Like Paul, who gave thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and like the pilgrim Christians who still gave thanks after the winter of 1620-21, Rinkart thanked God anyway.
In German, the hymn’s second stanza is a declaration, not a petition. Rinkart simply proclaims what God is seeking for his people. He wants us always to live with joyful hearts. He wants to give us peace. He wants to keep us continually in his grace. He wants to deliver us in every place from need, poverty, affliction and distress. God’s will in this regard does not change with the circumstances, nor can the power of evil thwart God’s saving work. Even death itself cannot derail the kingdom’s coming. Christ has overcome the grave.
In the midst of the great horrors that surrounded them, Pastor Rinkart and his little flock gathered at the table to sing praise to the triune God who has done great things for us and for the whole world, and who continues to do so.
May your table be ever graced with countless gifts of love, blessed peace and freedom from all ills. And I wish you all, whatever your circumstances, a joyous and thankful holiday.