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Hymns sifted in Satan’s sieve of suffering

In the midst of difficult days, it is helpful to learn from those saints who have endured hard times before us. We are self-centered enough to think that our personal plight is exceptional, when in reality it is not.

Paul Gerhardt, born in 1607, was a Lutheran pastor. Today he is remembered best for his hymns. In Hymns to the Living God alone, we have six hymns attributed to Paul Gerhardt. You know him best for hymns like “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded“; “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me“; and “All My Heart This Night Rejoices.” You find his verses amply scattered throughout the sacred music of J. S. Bach.

I’m talking about Pastor Gerhardt because he was a man who knew acute suffering. Most of his early life was swallowed up in the Thirty Year’s War, one of the most horrific wars in history. By the time this war ended, Gerhardt was 41 years old.

Gerhardt was not able to settle down until he was 44 years old, when he was appointed pastor in Berlin. He married at 48, and only one of his five children survived childhood. His wife also would suffer from a prolonged and grave illness. This was probably the happiest time of Gerhardt’s life, but at the age of 58, he was fired from his Berlin pastorate because he insisted on the freedom of pastors to defend sound doctrine without compromise.

It was during this time without appointment that Gerhardt’s wife died. When he found a new ministry position in Lubben, the people he cared for were not as loving towards him as the flock in Berlin. He died in Lubben after seven years of ministry in 1676.

Today, on his memorial plaque in Lubben are inscribed the words, “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus,” which is roughly translated, “A theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve” (compare Luke 22:31).

From all we can tell, however, these fiery trials only served to strengthen Gerhardt’s faith in Christ and hope in God. I mentioned Gerhard’s hymns above. He is certainly one of the best known and loved Lutheran hymn writers. Yet several of his hymns tenderly encourage the believer to trust God’s sovereign care, even amidst trial and suffering. For examples, you could look hymns like:

Commit Whatever Grieves Thee
If God Himself Be For Me” (based on Romans 8)
Give to the Wind Thy Fears” (no. 314 in Hymns to the Living God); and
Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?

These are all superb, well-loved hymns, deserving your attention. Again, they show how Pastor Gerhardt sheltered under the wings of the Almighty in times of great difficulty. I want to leave you with another example from these lesser-known words he wrote in 1653 and translated (thankfully) into English by a Mrs Findlater in 1858:

What God decrees, child of His love,
Take patiently, tho’ it may prove
The storm that wrecks thy treasure here;
Be comforted! thou need’st not fear
What pleases God.

The wisest will is God’s own will;
Rest on this anchor and be still;
For peace around thy path shall flow,
When only wishing here below
What pleases God.

The truest heart is God’s own heart,
Which bids thy grief and fear depart,
Protecting, guiding, day and night,
The soul that welcomes here aright
What pleases God.

Oh! could I sing as I desire,
My grateful heart should never tire,
To tell the wondrous love and power,
Thus working out from hour to hour
What pleases God.

The King of kings, He rules the earth,
He sends us sorrow here or mirth,
He bears the ocean in His hand;
And thus we meet, on sea or land,
What pleases God.

His church on earth He dearly loves,
Altho’ He oft its sin reproves,
The rod itself His love can speak,
He smites till we return to seek
What pleases God.

Then let the crowd around thee seize
The joys that for a season please,
But willingly their path forsake,
And for thy blessed portion take
What pleases God.

Art thou despised by all around?
Do tribulations here abound?
Jesus will give the victory,
Because His eye can see in thee
What pleases God.

Thy heritage is safe in heaven;
There shall the crown of joy be given;
There shalt thou hear and see and know,
As thou could’st never here below,
What pleases God.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).