Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ah, Holy Jesus!

Praise for the Lord #14

Words: Johann Heermann, 1630 (trans. Robert Bridges, 1899)
Music: Johann Crüger, 1640

Heermann (1585-1647) is regarded as one of the best Lutheran hymnwriters of the 17th century, and one of the better German poets of his era in general. His was a difficult life, plagued by weak health and the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, in which his little town of Köben was practically a football kicked back and forth between the Protestants and Catholics. Despite that Heermann lost his home and possessions no fewer than four times during this period, in 1630 he brought out Devoti musica cordis ("Musical devotions of the heart"), a collection of hymns that made a lasting impact on the Lutheran chorale tradition.(Winkworth)

Stanza 1:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Even Pontius Pilate, known as a heartless man (cf. Luke 13:1), said "I find no fault in this man."(Luke 23:4) Not only had He committed no crime, but He had gone about His ministry in a quiet, humble way; "He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench..."(Matthew 12:19-20) When He caused a scene, it was only because the truth He stood for provoked the ungodly, through no fault of His own.

Perhaps we sometimes overlook, in our focus on His physical suffering, the incredible indignity of what His creation did to their Creator. He is the One who will judge the nations (1 Peter 4:5), and here He stood a mockery of a trial before the Sanhedrin; was mocked and dismissed by the godless Herod; and finally, before Pilate, refused the justice that even that so-called authority admitted He deserved. He was abandoned by all but a few of His friends; He was surrounded by a crowd who hurled abuse at the One before whom they will someday stand in judgment. Psalm 22:708 says prophetically, "All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 'He trusts in the Lord; let Him deliver him; let him rescue him, for He delights in him!'"(Psalm 22:7-8) Did it cross Jesus' mind, as He heard those words, how easily He could have left that cross, and brought those mockers to meet their Maker sooner rather than later? We will never know.

Stanza 2:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

"For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God."(Romans 3:23) My sins may not make the evening news, but they were enough. Those who return to sin "they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame."(Hebrews 6:6) We cannot put a better face on this. I can make excuses when I compare myself to my fellow sinners--I can always find someone worse, who makes me look better--but the reality is written in the blood of an innocent Man who died for me.

Stanza 3:
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

The law of the Old Testament had taught substitutionary sacrifice in which the lesser was offered in place of the greater--for the sins of a man, the life of an sheep. It could never pay the moral debt of guilt, and was never meant to: "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."(Hebrews 10:4) Jesus brought the account into balance, forevermore, saying, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."(John 10:11) The Shepherd died for the sheep; the Master died for His servants; the Creator died for His creation. And more than this, He did it without our appreciation, as Heerman notes in the third line, "For man's atonement, while he nothing heedeth." The pronoun is a bit unclear until the uncomfortable realization that the "heedless" ones are us. Jesus died for me, and for you, long before we ever chose to submit to Him. He died for me, and for you, regardless of whether we would ever submit to Him. "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8)

Stanza 4:
For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

That the Creator of this world was born as a helpless human baby and lived as a mortal man is a wonder beyond our grasping. "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh..."(1 Timothy 3:16) God, "by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh."(Romans 8:3) Ephesians 2:14-16 teaches that His incarnation was no mere whim, but was instead a way to redeem us, flesh, spirit, and all:

For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Even after His resurrection, He was "flesh and bone"(Luke 24:39). We see no indication that He ever did, or ever will, give up the humanity He took upon Himself to save us.

Stanza 5:
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

When we examine ourselves spiritually, as 1 Corinthians 11:28 commands, what do we see? We have to do this, of course, not by comparing ourselves to others (we could always find someone worse than ourselves!), but by looking into the "perfect law of liberty"(James 1:25) revealed by God. If we are honest, we will realize that we certainly don't want to stand before God and try to defend or rationalize our conduct. But "blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!"(Psalm 32:1, Romans 4:7)

About the music: This tune is one of several introduced by Johann Crüger (1598-1662) in his 1640 hymnal Newes volk­köm­lich­es Ge­sang­buch, better known under its later title Praxis pietatis melica.(Cyberhymnal) Though Heermann and Crüger predate the era usually identified as Lutheran "Pietism", the soul-searching, confessional earnestness of this chorale is well in keeping with the nature of that movement, which sought for greater personal holiness and a more heartfelt individual relationship with God. Click here to listen to this tune.

Johann Sebastian Bach quoted this chorale (among others) in his choral masterpiece, the St. Matthew's Passion. The first verse appears as Part 1, No. 3, immediately after Christ has announced to the disciples that He must be crucified.(Matthew 26:2); the second verse (in the English version) as No. 19, while Jesus prays in Gethsemane; and the third verse as No. 46, after Pilate pronounces sentence.


Winkworth, Catherine. Johann Heerman. The Christian Singers of Germany. London, 1884.

Cyberhymnal. Johann Crüger.

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