LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH
12 July, 2015
“Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” This hymn is one of the most significant in the corpus of Lutheran chorales. Although much can be said about the text writer Johann Franck (1618-1677) and the composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662), today we shall skip the biographical intricacies of these two men in favour of a closer look at the text and its overall form.
Unlike the “objective” character of the Reformation chorales, which prefer to avoid overt emotionalism, Franck’s text makes no such claim. We consider the evocative first stanza, “Jesus, priceless treasure, fount of purest pleasure, truest friend to me, ah, how long in anguish shall my spirit languish, yearning, Lord, for Thee? Thou art mine, O Lamb divine! I will suffer naught to hide Thee; naught I ask beside Thee.” These English words, given to us through Miss Winkworth, induce certain emotions—“pleasure,” “anguish,” “languish,” “yearning.” These are not stale words. Interestingly, the initial phrase is quite a bit different in German:Jesu, meine Freude, meines Herzens Weide, Jesu, meine Zier, which is literally, “Jesus, my joy, my heart’s pasture, my treasure.” Winkworth has given the word “treasure” prominence in the first phrase, tied to the word “fount,” with its water implications. The cleansing power of water is manifest through the flood and fulfilled in the New Testament through baptism, with St John writing in Rev. 22: 17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Jesus, then, is the water of life for which we yearn as though suffering from a great thirst. But why call Jesus Weide, a pasture? Indeed, this word can also mean “to graze” or “to feed,” for in the German Bible we can read in John 15: 21, “Spricht Jesus zu ihm: Weide meine Schafe!” In English, “Jesus speaks to him: Feed my sheep.” This is not the word essen, which suggests a meal, or fressen, which suggests devouring as an animal might do. Rather, it is a metaphorical use which suggests a “feeding of one’s soul,” which would perfectly explain its use for Jesus’ words as well as in this hymn. There may be sacramental implications here, but there are manifold metaphorical ways in which one’s soul can be fed.
The second and third stanzas are anything but monochromatic. I envision them as a William Blake painting! “In Thine arms I rest me; foes who would molest me cannot reach me here. Though the earth be shaking, ev’ry heart be quaking, Jesus calms my fear. Lightnings flash and thunders crash; yet, though sin and hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me.” Perhaps, when composing this text, Franck had in mind the Thirty Years’ War which began the year of his birth and which ravaged Europe until 1648. One cannot believe in a metaphorical hell or Satan in order to understand fully this text as he continues by addressing Satan (is this the first time Satan has been addressed directly in hymnody?): “Satan, I defy thee; Death, I now decry thee, fear, I bid thee cease. World, thou shalt not harm me nor thy threats alarm me while I sing of peace. God’s great power guards ev’ry hour; earth and all its depths adore Him, silent bow before Him.” In the original German, this stanza makes more sense: Trotz dem alten Drachen, trotz dem Todesrachen, trotz der Furcht dazu! Three times does the writer defy (literally, “in spite”) three objects of scorn: the “old dragon,” the “vengeance of death” and “fear.” One is reminded of the surety of stating something three times which, in ancient times, at least in writing, indicated the grave importance of that being said. Consider Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, or the angels’ tripartite cry of “holy, holy, holy” (Is. 6:3) or the warning found in Rev. 8: 12, “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth. . .” So, too, do we “spite” the devil, death and fear!
The fourth stanza reiterates, “Hence, all earthly treasure! Jesus is my pleasure, Jesus is my choice. Hence, all empty glory! Naught to me thy story told with tempting voice. Pain or loss or shame or cross, shall not from my Savior move me since He deigns to love me.” The word “treasure” here, referring ironically to the offerings of the world, is Schätzen (the connotation here is of gold, silver, and that ever-elusive pirate’s treasure) as opposed to the word for “treasure” in the first stanza when addressing Jesus; there, Zier means a thing of beauty or wonderment. The fifth stanza bids the world farewell: “Evil world, I leave thee; thou canst not deceive me, thine appeal is vain. Sin that once did blind me, get thee far behind me, come not forth again. Past thy hour, O pride and pow’r; sinful life, thy bonds I sever, leave thee now forever.” Again, Franck uses a threefold formula for bidding farewell to the world, sin, and pride and power. In the German, each of these is bid "Gute Nacht," or "good night." As masterful as Miss Winkworth's translations are, the original German seems (to me at least) softer and more hopeful than the English. We bid "good night" with the expectation that we shall rise again. Nonetheless, this doesn't quite come across in English. This was a time during which death was more present and less sterile. Babies died more often than they lived. Depending on which source one consults, life expectancy during the Thirty Years’ War was within the 30s. Consider this: our modern sensibilities would look aghast at anyone, for example, who put a representation of a skull and bones on a headstone—or anywhere in a cemetery for that matter. Our funeral homes are made to look domestic, the sites of our death pleasant. Such was not the case in earlier times—not only did carvings and pictures of skulls and bones adorn places of death (and churches), but also can be found frequently in the frontispieces of theological treatises and Gesangbücher. The same sensibilities that causes us to find these practices morbid will have to be overcome in order to understand the longing for death that this stanza evinces.
The final stanza again reminds us of the source of our joy and salvation: “Hence, all fear and sadness! For the Lord of gladness, Jesus enters in. Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather, still have peace within. Yea, whate’er I here must bear, Thou art still my purest pleasure, Jesus, priceless treasure.” In the original, “Lord of gladness” is Freudenmeister, or “master of joy”! Amidst the verbiage about sin, death, and hell, this joyful title--the German language allows for some great creativity in making up words—stands in stark and pleasant contrast. It is Jesus—which, interestingly, is a more informal and personal way to address the Second Person of the Trinity than is “Christ”—who provides, peace, rest and security, and is truly our “joy.” To reiterate this gospel theme, the final stanza ends with the same phrase with which the hymn begins, “Jesu, meine Freude.”