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These are the Holy Ten Commands

“These are the Holy Ten Commands” Indeed, this is not one of the congregational hymns today, but it will be sung by two superb cantors, accompanied in partly Renaissance style by harpsichord and recorder. The hymn is 581 in Lutheran Service Book, and comes from the pen of Martin Luther, who first published the text in the Erfurter Enchiridion of 1524. (The writer of music notes played a concert in Erfurt last summer based on tunes found in this little hymnal.) In this hymn, Luther seeks to metrify (ie., turn into a singable meter) the Ten Commandments, resulting in twelve stanzas total. The first stanza serves as an introduction, “These are the holy Ten Commands God gave to us by Moses’ hands when high on Sinai’s mount he stood, receiving them for our good. Have mercy, Lord.” The subsequent stanzas metrify each of the commandments, reflecting the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 30 today, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his just decrees then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Luther comments in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians about this Law of the Old Testament,
All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men,that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged and hanged Him for a sinner.
In the final two stanzas, Luther speaks of this power of the Law, “You have this Law to see therein that you have not been free from sin but also that you clearly see how pure toward God life should be, have mercy, Lord.” This hymn follows in the medieval musical tradition of the Leisen, hymns which ended “Kyrie eleison,” or sometimes elided into “Kyrileis,” or Leisen. Our need for mercy is evidenced at the end of each stanza wherein we repeat that Greek supplication. Even in the midst of a hymn that exemplifies the confines of the Law, Luther ends with the Gospel: “Our works cannot salvation gain; they merit only endless pain. Forgive us Lord! To Christ we flee, who pleads for us endlessly. Have mercy, Lord!”
This tune should sound foreign—it is of Renaissance if not medieval background, having originated sometime in the 1200s and was sung by pilgrims to the text, “In Gottes Namen fahren wir,” or “Forth in God’s Name we Go.” In a way, perhaps it is a good pairing of text and tune—singing the Ten Commandments to a syrupy and melodic tune such as the Victorians gave doesn’t seem to convey the strength, or even the harsh message, of the Law.

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with