Thanksgiving Hymns – “Now Thank We All Our God”

Pastor Jack Hayford is a first-class musician. He’s sung in choirs and been part of vocal groups and worship teams his whole life long.  He’s been a music director, leading choirs at Christian colleges and in local churches.  And he’s a composer. He’s written a number of hymns, many of which are sung every Sunday in churches all over the country and all around the world, including “Majesty.” But when he first got to the little church in Southern California that has now become a megachurch, he says that nothing he did helped him build up its choir. 

Three times he says that he tried to get a choir started there, and three times he says it ended in dismal failure.  And so, Pastor Hayford says that he finally decided to change his whole approach.  He started asking the whole congregation – every man, woman, boy, and girl who was there each Sunday morning – to become the church’s choir.  He based this idea on Scripture.  He showed them how in the book of Revelation everybody in heaven and on earth joins their voices together in the praise to God, and so he just started inviting people to become part of that cosmic eternal choir.

Today it’s not uncommon for Pastor Hayford to begin a worship service at his church by saying – “As we begin worship here this morning, I want to invite the choir to stand and join me in the praise of God.”  With a wave of his hand, Pastor Hayford says that he tries to make it clear that by “choir” he means everybody who’s there with him in worship that day.  But just in case someone still doesn’t get it, he always adds – “All of us, everyone who’s here, is part of our church’s choir, so please join right in.  We’re not an exclusive group, in fact some of us have really terrible voices, but that doesn’t stop us from making a joyful noise!” 

Pastor Hayford will tell you that one of the keys to his church’s numerical growth and spiritual health is that they are a church that sings, and this isn’t something that he alone believes.  The first Methodists were sometimes called “Ranters” because of their loud and enthusiastic singing.  Charles Wesley wrote 600 hymns – 13 of them are in our hymnal – because he understood that there were few spiritual practices with greater impact on the spiritual well-being of an individual Christian, or on the vitality of a church, than singing, and that’s because a good hymn will inform the mind with truth, and touch the heart with passion, and move the hand to act in faith with purpose and compassion. The standard Thanksgiving hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” certainly does this for me.

I’ve read that “Now Thank We All Our God” is the second most frequently sung Protestant hymn in Germany.  Only Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” gets sung more often.   “Now Thank We All Our God” is a stately hymn.  It has a rich liturgical feel to it, which explains why it hasn’t gotten much traction in Bible, Baptist, and Independent Evangelical and Charismatic churches.  This is a hymn that Episcopalians, and Lutherans, Methodists, and Disciples are much more likely to know and sing.

In structure and content “Now Thank We All our God” begins with a thoughtful recollection on what God has done for His people in the past. The first stanza says –

“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.”

The second stanza is a humble request for this faithful God to continue to provide for the needs of His people, both in the present moment and in all of the days to come –

“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 full of grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!”

“Now Thank We All Our God” is sometimes called the “German Gloria Patri” because of its third stanza.  This is a fully developed Trinitarian chorus of praise –

“All praise and thanks to God, our Father and our Mother;
To Christ and to the One Who binds us to each other;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

“Now Thank We All Our God” is a pretty straightforward hymn of praise and thanksgiving, perfect for our annual celebration of God’s faithfulness on Thanksgiving Day.  But the real story of this hymn gets told by the citation its author – Martin Rinkart, and by the date of its composition – 1636.

1636 was just about the midway point of the Thirty Years War in Central Europe. Even counting WW 1 and WW 2, the Thirty Years War was the deadliest and most destructive war ever fought in Europe.  It started out as a religious war between the new Protestant states that were breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire, and the Catholic states that were intent on remaining loyal to it. Later on, it degenerated into a prolonged power struggle between Europe’s royal dynasties and their mercenary armies for political dominance. 

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran Pastor in the German city of Eilenburg, a fortified city in the middle of the contested territory of the Thirty Years War.  Thinking it safe because of its walls, Eilenburg became a favorite place of refuge for people who were displaced by the fighting.  Crowded with all those extra people, starvation and disease soon became rampant in Eilenburg, and Martin Rinkart as a pastor did what he could to take care of the afflicted.  When the plague broke out in Eilenberg, Martin Rinkart spent every waking moment tending to the sick and burying the dead. It’s said that he performed 5000 funerals in those days, sometimes as many as 30 in a day.  Eventually Martin Rinkrat buried every other pastor in Eilenberg, leaving him as the only minister left in the city.  And then his own wife died, and it was left to him alone to bury her.

Martin Rinkart wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” in 1636.  That would have been right in the middle of all of this chaos, suffering, and loss.

“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.”

In the midst of all the terrible things that were going on in his life, and in his world, what could possibly have prompted Martin Rinkart to write this hymn about “joyful hearts” and “blessed peace”?  Some say that he had I Thessalonians 5:18 in mind and heart as he wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” – “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Needless to say, this has been a rather confusing verse for lots of Christians through the years.  I’ve heard sermons and read books on it that have argued that what it’s telling us is that every circumstance in our lives is exactly what God wants for us, and that we have no choice but to thank God for them.  You get cancer, and you are supposed to say “thank you God.”  You lose your job, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.” You experience the painful ending of a meaningful relationship, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.”  You get wiped out by an earthquake, or a flood, or a storm, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.” This seems like such cruel advice to me.

I think it’s significant that Paul told the Thessalonians to give thanks “in all circumstances” and not “for all circumstances.”  In fact, I don’t think that the “will of God” in this verse refers to our circumstances at all, but rather to the act of giving thanks, and this dramatically shifts the conversation, at least in my mind.  No longer am I left struggling with the monstrous idea that every circumstance in my life is God’s will for me for which I must be thankful, but instead I am invited into a reflective process of prayerfully looking for what it is in each circumstance for which I can be thankful.   This is the spiritual silver-linings approach to our circumstances that says that there’s always something for which we can give God thanks, even in the worst of situations.

Now, what I hear from lots and lots of people when they do this is that no matter how difficult things might be for them, that things “could always be worse.”  This is the old “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet” argument.  Matthew Henry, the famous 17th century Bible Commentator, wins the prize for this kind of reasoning.  He got robbed late one night in London after preaching, and here’s the prayer of thanksgiving he prayed when he got home –

Lord, I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; and second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; and third, because although they took everything I had, it was not very much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

Maybe this was all he could muster in the moment, but I’ve got to believe that there’s more than just – “It could have been worse” – when we’re trying to give thanks to God in every circumstance. 

Fr. Louis Evely liked to say that every moment of our lives is “an occasion for grace, a proposal, a call from God, a call to believe and love whatever happens.”  And that sounds a whole lot more like Martin Rinkart’s experience in Eilenburg that prompted him to write “Now Thank We All Our God” in 1636, than it does Matthew Henry’s prayer after his bad night on a London street.  I don’t know what it was exactly that Pastor Martin Rinkart discovered in those dark and difficult days of his ministry in Eilenburg during the Thirty Years War to give thanks to God for, but his enduring hymn “Now Thank We Now Our God” is proof that he did.  And if he could then, surely we can now.

Pastor Jack Hayford tells his congregation in Southern California that because of the redemption that God provides for us in Jesus Christ from all that threatens to destroy and diminish us, that there are always four things for which we as Christians can give thanks –

(1) We can always thank God for His great love for us, proven to us by what Jesus Christ did on the cross;

(2) We can always thank God for his great forgiveness of us, and for the assurance that forgiveness gives us that we are in fact accepted by God;

(3) We can always thank God for His great purpose for us, and for all of creation, a purpose that will not be defeated and that cannot be denied; and

(4) We can always thank God for the great promises that He has made to us, the promise that one day death, and sadness, and suffering, and loss will be no more, and the promise that until that day comes, that death, and sadness, and suffering, and loss cannot separate us from His love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I don’t know what the circumstances are that you are facing in your life as we come into Thanksgiving week this year, but whatever they are, what I do know is that if you look close enough what you’ll find is God’s great love for you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great forgiveness that is available to you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great purpose for you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great promises made to you in Jesus Christ.  These are the things that enable us to sing, and Pastor Rinkart’s words from the first half of the 17th century might just be the perfect ones to use.

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