Good Hymns Take Time

As part of this morning’s devotions, I decided that I would sing a Christmas hymn that (a) I don’t often sing, (b) is still appropriate on the 11th (i.e. not of the “this night/morning” variety), and (c) is really, really good.

Alas, such hymns are not so easy to find. Not chiefly because I know so many Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns(criterion [a]), but more so many are written for the day rather than the season (criterion [b]). Also, too many are not altogether fantastic as hymns (see [c]), especially those written during and after the nineteenth century.

So, in my search, I gave up on Lutheran Service Book (LSB) and turned instead to Matthew Carver’s marvellous Walther’s Hymnal.* There, I found what I was looking for.

Not only does it contain Paul Gerhardt’s We Sing, Immanuel, Thy Praise, which was inexplicably left out of LSB (and its predecessor, Lutheran Worship), but it includes the whole hymn.

In this case, the whole hymn means all 20 (twenty) stanzas.** Now, in spite of my Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns, even I would hesitate to include a 20-stanza hymn on a Sunday morning. At the very least, I would engage in some serious preparation and forewarning beforehand.

But having sung the whole thing through, in well under 10 minutes, my Published Views on the Matter were reinforced. It is simply a wonderful, wonderful hymn. Moreover, I would suggest that it can only be as wonderful as it is by being as long as it is. Any abbreviation will necessarily take away quality as well as quantity.***

(It bears saying this, because it is frequently not the case. Several of Charles Wesley’s famous hymns are now only known in less than half their original length; and in the case of most of them, that’s just as well.)

Gerhardt takes the singer from its opening exclamation (sts. 1-2) to the Old Testament expectation of the Christ (3-5, with a special emphasis on the Psalms of David: a refreshing addition to the standard Isaian references in Christmas hymnody), to a meditation on the mystery of the paradoxies of the incarnation (6-8) and the work (9-10) of Christ.

So far so good. But what turns an already excellent hymn into an outstanding one is that in the second half Gerhardt then applies all of this to the singer.

First, he confesses both his love for Jesus and the inadequacy of that love, appealing for a gracious acceptance of such weak love (11-12), taking comfort in Christ’s choice for that which is weak and despicable in the world’s eyes (13-14).

All this leads to an expression of confidence in God’s favour, not in spite of the sinful unworthiness of the recipient, but because Christ came to save sinners (15-17). There is nothing to fear since in Christ he belongs to God and lives by the power of the Spirit (18-19). Thus, the Christian is led to begin on earth that joyous work of eternal praise of God to which we are called (20). And, throughout, the text is replete with biblical allusions and imagery.

So which bit would you leave out? Go on, I dare you!

In fact, reading through the hymn, we discover that it is in fact masterfully concise. To condense so much wonderful applied theology—a perfect balance of praise, proclamation and personal application—to 20 four-line stanzas is a  miraculous feat. To “condense” it further by removing more than half of it is not criminal as such, but only because I’m feeling both literal and charitable.

So, here is Paul Gerhardt’s Christmas hymn, in a translation from the Free Lutheran Chorale Book site (therefore slightly different from the one given in Walther’s Hymnal). The stanzas included in The Lutheran Hymnal are marked in bold.

We sing, Immanuel, Thy praise,
Thou Prince of Life and Fount of grace,
Thou Flower of heaven and Star of morn,
Thou Lord of lords, Thou Virgin-born.

Praise, honour, thanks to Thee we bring,
That Thou, O long-expected Guest,
Hast come at last to make us blest!

For Thee, since first the world was made,
So many hearts have watched and prayed;
The patriarchs’ and prophets’ throng
For Thee have hoped and waited long.

Above all others longed for Thee
Thy people’s king and shepherd, he
With whom Thou, Lord, so well wert pleased
When with his harp Thy name he praised.

“Oh, that the Saviour soon would come
To break our bonds and lead us home!
Oh, that He might salvation bring!
Then Jacob would rejoice and sing.

Now art Thou here, Thou Ever-blest!
In lowly manger dost Thou rest.
Thou, making all things great, art small;
So poor art Thou, yet clothest all.

All heav’ns are Thine, yet Thou dost come
To sojourn in a stranger’s home;
A mother’s milk dost not despise,
Who art the Joy of angels’ eyes.

Thou hast set bounds to earth and sea,
Yet swaddling-bands encircle Thee;
Though God, a bed of straw Thou hast;
Though man, yet art the First and Last.

From Thee above all gladness flows,
Yet Thou must bear such bitter woes;
The Gentiles’ Light and Hope Thou art,
Yet findest none to soothe Thine heart.

The sweetest Friend of man Thou art,
Yet many hate Thee in their heart;
By Herod’s heart Thou art abhorred,
Yet Thou art our Salvation, Lord.

But I, Thy servant, Lord, today
Confess my love and freely say,
I love Thee truly, but I would
That I might love Thee as I should.

I have the will, the pow’r is weak;
Yet, Lord, my humble off’ring take
And graciously the love receive
Which my poor heart to Thee can give.

Thou to be weak dost not disdain,
Dost choose the things the world deems vain,
Art poor and needy and content
To suffer poverty and want.

Thou sleepest on the lap of earth;
The manger where Thou at Thy birth
Wast laid to rest, the hay, the stall,
Were truly mean and lowly all.

And therefore doth my courage rise,
Me also Thou wilt not despise;
O dearest Lord, Thy tender grace
Fill me with hope and happiness.

Although I’ve passed in sin my days
And wandered far from wisdom’s ways,
Yet Thou for this to earth hast come,
To bring the wand’ring sinner home.

Had I no load of sin to bear,
Thy grace, O Lord, I could not share;
In vain hadst Thou been born for me
If from God’s wrath I had been free.

Had I no load of sin to bear,
Thy grace, O Lord, I could not share;
In vain hadst Thou been born for me
If from God’s wrath I had been free.

Now fearlessly I come to Thee,
From ev’ry grief Thou mak’st me free;
Thou bear’st the wrath, dost death destroy,
And turnest sorrow into joy.

Thou art my Head, my Lord divine;
I am Thy member, wholly Thine,
And by Thy Spirit’s gracious pow’r
Will seek to serve Thee evermore.

I’ll sing Thine alleluias here
With joyful spirit year by year;
And in Thy courts of joy above
Forever I will sing Thy love.

Thus will I sing Thy praises here
With joyful spirit year by year;
And when we reckon years no more,
May I in heaven Thy name adore!

  • Marvellous in every way, except for the title. But given the publisher and the intended market, the only possible title.

** The Lutheran Hymnal only includes eight stanzas. Even Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, which for my money has the best hymnody of current English-language Lutheran hymnals, and which normally includes hymns in their entirety, likewise has only eight.

*** Notably, many of the great hymns of the pre-Reformation Latin church were also lengthy, before they, too, tended to be cut down in size. See, for example, the full “Iesu, dulcis memoria” with its 42-53 stanzas (depending on the manuscript).

****None of the modern-day printed resources I briefly consulted include the quotation marks, but in my judgement this stanza doesn’t make sense without them.

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