For most of church history, singing songs of repentance was part of regular, weekly corporate worship, a practice with precedent in Psalms like Psalm 130. During the Reformation in particular, men like Martin Luther wrote songs of repentance, one of which is a paraphrase of Psalm 130.
“Aus Tiefer Not”—“Out of the Depths”—was Luther’s German version of Psalm 130, and it has been translated into English and sung even today. Luther wrote both the text and the tune to this song. He recognized the power of singing songs of repentance in worship, and so he translated this inspired song of repentance and composed a tune that fit the German language and that expressed well what true repentance should feel like so that his people would be shaped into those who lived lives of true repentance.
Take a moment to listen to Luther’s hymn:
Now I want to pause here for just a brief moment to make a comment about Luther’s tune. Luther composed this tune following a very common form that was used in German folk music. You have probably heard someone say that Luther used bar tunes for his hymns; well, this is a bar tune. But a bar tune is not something taken from a bar! A German bar tune was a form of German folk melody that Luther often used because it was easy for people to remember. It is an AAB form. Notice that the first two lines of this hymn are exactly the same melody, and that’s followed by two lines that are a different melody. That’s German bar form: AAB. It was easier to remember since it repeated part of the melody. So the next time you hear that Luther used bar tunes, realize that this doesn’t mean he used drinking songs! It means that he wrote melodies in a common folk form that were easy to learn and sing.
Notice also that Luther, and Catherine Winkworth who translated Luther’s text into English, retained much of the artistic imagery of Psalm 130. They recognized the power of these images to shape our imaginations of what repentance is like.
And notice also what Luther did with his melody. Luther knew well the power of music. He said, “Music is a glorious gift of God, and next to theology. I would not exchange my small musical talent for anything esteemed great. We should accustom the youth continually to this art, for it produces fine and accomplished people.” “This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music, . . . so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed the truth through Psalms and songs.”
And Luther knew that he needed to write a melody that expressed moods and emotions that fit the theme of the text—repentance. He did not write a melody for this Psalm like he wrote for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That melody is stately and majestic, which fits with the themes of that text. This tune expresses reverence, acknowledgement of guilt, and fear of God, while at the same time expressing a rest and sweet confidence in God’s forgiveness and steadfast love. It does that my mimicking what those emotions feel like.
Luther knew that regularly singing songs of repentance like this and others in corporate worship would help to shape people—it would help create a rhythm of repentance for life.
Let’s commit to regularly repenting through singing in our families and our corporate worship so that we can be shaped into people who live lives of repentance.