A Time of Pestilence, a Time of Thanksgiving

When German Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinkart (1586–1649), penned the familiar hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” as a prayer to be offered before meals, he probably was not preoccupied with autumnal church decor and Thanksgiving fellowship meals. On the contrary, he was probably thinking about ministry in the context of his beleaguered Saxon city during Europe’s horrific Thirty Years’ War. As hymnologist Erik Routley has commented, “Its context is not really the country church decorated with corn and flowers and fruit. It is plague and bereavement and slaughter and famine.”[1]

As the global church weathers today’s COVID-19 (novel Coronavirus) pandemic and braces itself for the continued spread of the contagion, it may be strange to suggest that a time of pestilence is, at once, a time of thanksgiving. On the contrary, there is never a time more spiritually profitable to express gratitude than times of societal crisis and widespread fear. While the world either denies the reality of danger or panics in the face of its imminent escalation, the church—gathered or scattered—must rest gratefully in Christ our hope.

Written as it was in a much darker and more frightful time than our own, Rinkart’s hymn is stunning in its frank articulation of the heart of Christian thankfulness. Consider the first two stanzas, found in the Trinity Hymnal (#98) and in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (#181).

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 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.

The resounding theme of this brief prayer-turned-hymn is one of trust, faith, and gratitude in all situations of life. It echoes Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4–6). Our lives must reflect the goodness of God, whatever the state of the times.

Whether the updates filling our newsfeeds and inboxes are good or bad, we are consciously to devote ourselves to thankfulness and praise. And what will be the result? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). We pray with thanksgiving, knowing and believing that God will “keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.”

Looking to an even more ancient time than the Thirty Years’ War for precedent, we can turn to Psalm 3, penned by King David on the run from his powerful and rebellious son Absalom. After setting the scene in verses 1–2, and before making his plea for salvation in verses 7–8, David makes a confession of faith that reflects the loveliness, peace, and goodness of God in verses 3–6.

But You, O LORD, are a shield about me,

My glory, and the One who lifts my head.

I was crying to the LORD with my voice,

And He answered me from His holy mountain. Selah.

I lay down and slept;

I awoke, for the LORD sustains me.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people

Who have set themselves against me round about.

What greater act of faith and trust could a man commit than to lay down and sleep in the midst of troubles? The picture is vivid. Though his enemies surround him “round about,” David peacefully rests in the sovereignty of God. In a much more familiar Psalm, David extols God with another image of security in adversity, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psa. 23:5). Communion with God in the presence of troubles is sweet communion indeed.

Without cheapening expressions of thanksgiving in our triumphs and delights, let us recognize the supreme gratitude on display when thanksgiving is offered in our trials and desolations. Most hymnals date the original words of “Now Thank We All Our God” to 1636. The following year, Rinkart would perform 4,000 funerals, including the funeral of his wife. Records indicate that he performed as many as fifty funerals on one day, though his average for 1637 was only about ten or eleven per diem. And yet, his hymn of thanksgiving has endured to be recognized “as one of the universal hymns: a hymn which transcends all national and denominational boundaries and is known and sung the whole world over.”[2]

While the current COVID-19 crisis is nowhere near (or nothing like) the pandemic that struck during the Thirty Years’ War, many of us—and many of our brothers and sisters around the world—are frightened, worried, and literally immobilized as a result of the spread of the virus. As modeled for us by Pastor Rinkart, the apostle Paul, and King David, we can respond not with panic, but with rest in the sovereign goodness of God our Father, rejoicing at all times in the loveliness of Christ our Savior, being led by the Spirit to sing songs of thanksgiving and praise. Routley rightly wrote, “Thanksgiving in the midst of darkness, thanksgiving every day—these are the worship and the joy of Christian folk.”[3] Let us even and especially now thank we all our God.

 

[1] Erik Routley, Hymns and the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968).

[2] Frank Colquhoun, Hymns That Live: Their Meaning & Message (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 234.

[3] Routley, Hymns and the Faith, 32.