Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
“Entrust Your Days and Burdens” This combination of text and tune is unique to Lutheran Service Book, the text having been set to a more somber tune in prior hymnals. This new tune, composed by Brooklyn-based LCMS composer (there aren’t many of those!) Stephen Johnson (b. 1966) arguably expresses the confident hope expressed in the text.
The hymn writer is Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), one of the greatest hymnwriters of all time. Much has been written about Gerhardt’s life, positioned historically as he was not only during the Thirty-Years War, but also during a time of great syncretism within the Lutheran Church, ie, doctrinal compromises encouraged (and eventually required) by the regent, Frederick Wilhelm I of Brandenburg. The king sought to bring Lutheran and Reformed clergy into agreement about doctrinal points which had separated the two churches for a century. The differences being so significant, this was a task beyond even the most astute theologian, not to mention an obtuse king. Being Reformed himself and frustrated by the increasing lack of cooperation between the two churches, eventually the Lutherans, including Paul Gerhardt who was a pastor in Berlin at the time, were required to renounce the Formula of Concord in order to keep their church positions. Of course, Gerhardt refused and lost his position and income. These days, of course, compromise is seen as a virtue, extending even to bureaucrats within the LCMS who ignore the divergent doctrines and practices within the Church in order to foster some sort of feel-good notion of unity. Paul Gerhardt, like many of those of prior generations, would have nothing of it. Gerhardt eventually found a pastorate in Lübben, where he served for eight years until his death.
Not only was he plagued by professional troubles due to his unwillingness to compromise the faith, he suffered, along with many people in Germany, the ravages of the Thirty Years War. His wife and four out of five children all died due to various causes relative to the conflict. One historian estimates that one-third of the population of the German lands (remember, there was no Germany until 1871) died as a result either of direct warfare, plague or pestilence, or due to the famines sweeping the land along with the marauding armies. Living and ministering the Word and Sacrament within such context has earned Gerhardt the label of a modern Job, one for whom persecution and trial was well-known.
His hymn texts, however, do not exhibit the sadness or grief which he surely must have known well. Instead, they focus on Christ and His work. His texts are replete with scriptural imagery and nuance. Perhaps Isaiah 41: 10 was in mind when he penned the third stanza, “Take heart, have hope, my spirit, and do not be dismayed; God helps in every trial and makes you unafraid. Await His time with patience through darkest hours of night, until the sun you hoped for delights Your eager sight.” Here, “sun” means both the hopefulness of a new day as well as the “Son,” having earned forgiveness for humankind and providing us the ultimate hope. Even within his trials, Gerhardt could write with such job in the fifth stanza, “O blessed heir of heaven, you’ll hear the song resound of endless jubilation when you with life are crowned. In your right hand your maker will place the victor’s palm, and you will thank Him gladly with heaven’s joyful psalm.” Just as the ancient Olympian of whom Paul writes has “fought the good fight” and “have finished the race,” Gerhardt was able to “finish the course” (II Tim. 4: 7) with joy even within tribulation.