In Psalm 121 we are given this promise: “Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (v. 4). This is reassuring to us as we experience hardship. Our God is not a God afar off, but a God near at hand (Jeremiah 23:23). Taking inspiration from passages such as this, the German Lutheran Pastor Paul Gerhardt wove together the hymn, “Evening and Morning” in 1666. Though he wrote it as a morning hymn, it is a perfect hymn for times of difficulty. In the third stanza we sing, “Ills that still grieve me soon are to leave me; though billows tower and winds gain power, after the storm the fair sun shows its face.” That is our confidence. The current storm will end, and we will again see the glorious sun. But that is more than an earthly promise; it is an eternal one as well. “When in His mansions God grants me a place,” all of this will be in the past, and I will understand perfectly how God cared for me in this life.
Before reading on, enjoy listening to an arrangement of this hymn:
To better understand the background of this hymn, we have to know a little bit more about its author. Though the Lutheran Church has been blessed with countless skilled hymnwriters, there are two who are supreme in the comfort their hymns give us, especially considering their circumstances. Those two authors are Philipp Nicolai (“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”) and Paul Gerhardt. Both men served the Church as Pastors during terrible times. Both knew overwhelming loss of life, Gerhardt because of war and Nicolai because of disease. We’ll consider some of Nicolai’s writings another time.
A study of Gerhardt’s life reveals that, in his sixty-nine years, he was never knew peace. Paul Gerhardt was born March 12, 1607 in Gräfenhainichen, Saxony, Germany. However, he was born into conflict as his mother’s family was an outcast because of her father, Kaspar Starke. Though the territorial rulers around him were weak and frequently changed religious alliances, Starke refused to do so and remained a staunch confessional Lutheran. Because he would not sacrifice his beliefs, he was banished.
At a young age, Gerhardt lost his father during the ravaging Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). However, at that same young age Gerhardt’s love for poetry and hymnody was implanted as he spent his early education reading and translating historic Latin hymns. In 1628 Gerhardt entered theological studies at the University of Wittenberg, where he remained until April 1642. He stayed for so long because the Thirty Years’ War brought the destruction of Gräfenhainichen, his hometown. All of his family was killed, his home, church, and entire village razed to the ground.
He then became a private tutor in Berlin, where his gift of poetry was nurtured. Johann Crüger (composer of several of our hymn tunes, such as “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” and “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness,” to name a few), Kantor of St. Nikolai Church, took note of Gerhard’s gift for hymnwriting and encouraged it further. Though the idea of hymnals as we know them was still a far off concept, Crüger was hard at work arranging his Praxis Pietatis Melica (“Musical Practice of Piety”), a collection of hymns and poetry for personal devotional use. Gerhardt then set about writing for Crüger, never imagining that his texts would find widespread use in Christian worship!
In 1649 Gerhardt received his first appointment as Pastor at Mittenwalde. There he married Anna Maria Berthold in 1655, although the two had known each other since Gerhardt became tutor in her home in Berlin. Their firstdaughter died in infancy, and the family suffered from extreme poverty. In 1657 he became assistant Pastor at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin. However, here he became caught in the theological battles of the time. The elector of Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm the Great, thought Gerhardt sided with the Calvinists, when he was, in fact, a strong Lutheran. When he would not be a part of the false unity between the Lutherans and Calvinists, he was removed from office in 1666 (the same year he wrote “Evening and Morning!”) and not allowed to preach anywhere. While this battle was raging, Gerhardt and his wife had five more children, but three of them did not live past their first few days. Shortly before being restored to the Pastoral Office, another son died, and Anna Maria was seriously ill. He eventually returned to his congregation in the spring of 1668. However, at Easter of that same year, Anna Maria died. Gerhard’s only surviving family was a six-year-old son. In 1669 Gerhardt was Called to serve as Pastor in Lübben, where he remained until his death on May 27, 1676. Upon his death, the people of his parish in Lübben commissioned a portrait of their Pastor to hang in the church. Affixed to it were the words, “Paul Gerhardt, a theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve, and afterward found faithful.”
In total Gerhardt wrote 134 hymns (17 of them are in Lutheran Service Book) and 11 Latin poems. Interestingly, many of the hymns can be traced to times when Gerhardt was enduring the sharpest theological and personal struggles. While several other composers from his era see declining translation into English and inclusion into hymnals, Gerhardt’s hymns are actually seeing a resurgence, and new Lutheran hymnals are translating and including more of his hymns, especially ones that were previously unknown and lost to time.
What we have in Lutheran Service Book as “Evening and Morning” is actually a rearranging of a hymn Gerhardt wrote, Die güldne Sonne voll Freud und Wonne (The golden sun full of joy and delight). It was written in twelve stanzas, and LSB gives us stanzas 4, 9, 12, and 3 of the original. This has been standard practice for some time and is found that way in numerous other English hymnals.
Stanza one begins with thanksgiving to God for His works: “Evening and morning, sunset and dawning, wealth, peace, and gladness, comfort in sadness.” God gives all of these gifts to us, as we confess in the Catechism, “Only out of fatherly, divine mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me” (First Article). He watches over us and gives us those gifts we need for this body and life. His mercy shines upon us daily.
As we reflect on that phrase, “without any merit or worthiness in me,” we come face to face with our unworthiness. As we confess together each Sunday: we are poor, miserable sinners. So, stanza two has us pray, “Father, O hear me, pardon and spare me; calm all my terrors, blot out my errors that by Thine eyes they may no more be scanned.” We pray this, not in fear, but in confidence that our confession is met with absolution, the taking away of our sins for the sake of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But we know that as long as we are in this body and life, we need divine help. Without the Holy Spirit’s aid, we would be lost eternally. So, stanza two concludes: “Order my goings, direct all my doings; as it may please Thee, retain or release me; all I commit to Thy fatherly hand.” We commend ourselves and our whole lives to Christ Our Lord. We trust Him to do what is best for us, and to send us crosses that are for our good. We simply ask that, regardless of where He leads us, He will bless, defend, and forgive us.
While we bear those crosses, we look ahead confidently. We know that in His good timing, God will remove the crosses from us. If it is according to His will, those crosses will be removed in this life. If not, we are confident that He will remove them in the life to come, when we are with Him in eternity. So we confidently say in stanza three:
Ills that still grieve me
Soon are to leave me;
Though billows tower,
And winds gain power,
After the storm the fair sun shows its face.
Joys e’er increasing
And peace never ceasing:
These I shall treasure
And share in full measure
When in His mansions God grants me a place.
Finally, we end the hymn with praise to God, offering to the “Creator the gifts He doth prize.” Those gifts He prizes are, “A heart that believeth” and “hymns that adore Him.” From a believing heart flows trust, thanks, willing obedience, and all other good works that the Holy Spirit causes us to do. These things, combined with our hymns “to His throne like sweet incense arise.”
So we can go about confidently. After this storm, the fair sun will again show its face. But even in the storm, though the sun is obscured, it is not gone. The peace and freedom God had granted us may be obscured in this time of pandemic, but they are not gone. We pray fervently that He would take away from us these ills that grieve us. We are confident that He will. In Christ, our peace and joy are sure eternally.
This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?