Updated: Jul 16
German: Wer nur den lieben Gott
(A reworking of a hymnblog from early 2020.)
Text: Georg Neumark (1621-1681) Tune: Georg Neumark (1621-1681)
1. If thou but suffer God to guide thee,
And hope in him through all your ways,
He'll give thee strength, whate'er betide thee,
And bear thee through the evil days:
Who trusts in God's unchanging love
Builds on the Rock that naught can move.
2. What can these anxious cares avail thee,
These never ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help, if thou bewail thee
O'er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.
3. Only be still, and wait his leisure
In cheerful hope, with heart content
To take whate'er thy Father's pleasure
And all-discerning love hath sent;
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
To him who chose us for his own.
4. All are alike before the Highest;
'Tis easy to our God, we know,
To raise thee up, though low thou liest,
To make the rich man poor and low;
True wonders still by him are wrought,
Who setteth up and brings to naught.
5. Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving,
So do thine own part faithfully,
And trust his Word--though undeserving,
Thou yet shalt find it true for thee;
God never yet forsook at need
The soul that trusted him indeed.
Tr. Catherine Winkworth
The Christian life is like being a weaver, an old pastor said. You back into the future and see your past taking shape in the design as you move away from it. Sometimes what you thought was a disaster, takes on colors and hints that change what you thought of the experience as you move away from it and gain perspective. You may be able to see God’s work where you had not been able to in the heat of the moment.
This hymn, tune and text by Georg Neumark (1621-1681), is one of the most comforting and beautiful hymns to explore that truth. Like many hymns, it was written after a situation of almost unmitigated disaster. Neumark, born just after the Thirty Years War began to ravage Europe, especially the many German territories, was traveling to matriculate at the university in Königsberg in Prussia, now known as Kalingrad, Russia. He was just eighteen.
On his way there, to assure his safety in those dangerous times, he traveled with some merchants on their way to a fair. They were attacked by robbers. Neumark lost almost all his possessions, escaping with only the clothes on his back, a prayer book, and a small purse sewn into his clothes. He was destitute. For the next two years he lived in grinding poverty, trying to find a job. Given the uncertainty of the times, he could not find one. After two years, in 1641, he found a position tutoring a family in Kiel, on the eastern shores of the Jutland peninsula of Holstein. Neumark wrote, “This good fortune, which came so suddenly and, as it were, from heaven, so rejoiced my heart that I wrote my hymn, ‘If thou but trust in God,’ to the glory of my God on that first day.'"
He did not write the hymn in the middle of his suffering, but only after he could look back on it and see it as part of a larger pattern in his life with God. Then he could interpret the incident and see how God had worked in him through those awful times. No doubt what he thought about his suffering changed some as he got older. The hymn, however, is not about looking back, but looking forward in the full confidence that God is with you as he was in the past. We can sing it now and meditate on it no matter what we are suffering, even the terrors of the Thirty Years War with its plague, pestilence, famine and war. We can look to the future with hope, trusting that God is with us even in this strange time. I was surprised, looking at the original stanza four, to see echoes of Mary's Magnificat, and her assurance that God will lift up the poor and send the rich empty away, which has not been used in most versions of the hymn in contemporary hymns, unfortunately.
Neumark says it in his last stanza, “Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving,/so do thine own part faithfully,/and trust his Word—though undeserving/ thou yet shalt find it true
Neumark went on to become a well regarded musician and poet. His duke, Wilhelm IV of Saxe -Weimar, awarded him a position in the Fruchtbringende Geselleschaft, a society for accomplished artists in Thuringia where he also received the nickname Der Sprossende (the sprouting).
For a wonderful evening entertainment, watch the movie Babette’s Feast. After the feast the group retires to the living room to hear this tune played on the piano. A liminal moment.
National Lutheran Choir
This great chorale became the basis for Cantata 93 by J. S. Bach. Here is one performance directed by Nicolas Harnoncourt. The text of the cantata follows closely each stanza of the original. I have not included stanzas 4 and 5 of the original, but you can figure that out. It is a comfort to hear and read the texts which elaborate on the theme of the hymn so beautifully.
for a translation of the Bach cantata go here
Mendelssohn wrote a cantata on the hymn for soprano, choir and strings: