Friday, March 27, 2009

Be Still, My Soul

Praise for the Lord #41

Words: Katharina von Schlegel, 1752, trans. Jane Borthwick, 1855
Music: Jean Sibelius, 1899 (arr.)

Little is known of the life of Katharina von Schlegel except that she was born in 1697, may have been a lady of the court of the duchy of Cöthen, and wrote a number of fine hymns that appeared in the publication Neue Sammlung geistliche Lieder ("New collection of spiritual songs") in 1752.(Routley&Cutts,21) Coincidentally, if she was in the duke's court at Cöthen during her early twenties, she would have had the most enviable opportunity to hear performances of new works by Johann Sebastian Bach, who was court composer from 1717 to 1723.

Our English version of Schlegel's hymn "Stille, mein Wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen" comes from the pen of Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897), who along with her sister Sarah Findlater published an important four-volume series titled Hymns from the Land of Luther.(Routley&Cutts,21) Borthwick, along with the better-known Catherine Winkworth, did the English-speaking world a great favor by introducing poetically beautiful translations of the Lutheran and German Reformed hymns, which up until the later 19th century were virtually unknown in English-speaking churches.

Stanza 1:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Those of us who are parents know what it means to say, "Be still!" Usually it is for our own sake, when the kids are driving us crazy; but sometimes it is for their sake. Sometimes they need to "be still" and stop fretting about things; sometimes they need to "be still" and take their rest; sometimes they need to "be still" so that they will not miss something important or wonderful.

The Bible gives examples of God telling His people to "Be still!", for some of the same reasons. "Be still, and know that I am God."(Psalm 46:10) Sometimes our fretting about day-to-day life keeps us from remembering that He is God, and has promised to take care of us. Sometimes our busyness in pursuing our own affairs keeps us from remembering that He is God, and that obedience to Him should be our first thought every day. But in the application made in this hymn, we are encouraged to "be still" during times of trial. There are some trials that are over in a moment, and some that linger; some will not be ended this side of eternity. Let us remember that Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."(Luke 9:23) For some of us that cross will be "grief or pain", as the hymn says.

The Lord does not promise immediate deliverance, but He does promise relief, with blessings above and beyond the ending of the trials themselves. "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him."(James 1:12) Peter noted that "for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith--more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire--may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."(1 Peter 6-7) Paul, who himself experienced an unspecified "thorn in the flesh"(2 Corinthians 12:7) from which he prayed for relief, learned this lesson personally:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.(2 Corinthians 12:8-9)

Paul did not get the immediate relief he requested; he may have suffered from this "thorn", in fact, the rest of his life. But he got something else instead which made him even stronger: an understanding of his utter dependence on God. He even recognized, in verse 7, that all of this was to keep him from being "too exalted". (Is it at all hard to believe that a man of Paul's talents had to struggle with pride?) As God "works all things together for good",(Romans 8:28) He may use even life's harshest trials to strengthen us and even to humble us. Perhaps that trial may be what gets us, or someone we influence, into heaven.

Stanza 2:
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

There is a feature of the Old Testament writings that is so pronounced, and so often repeated, that German theologians invented a term for it: Heilsgeschichte, or "sacred history". It describes the continual emphasis on, and recitation of, the history of God's involvement with His people. One famous example occurs in Psalm 136, in which the works of God in creation and in the Exodus are recounted, verse by verse, alternating with the refrain "for His mercy endures forever." This shows the point of sacred history: it is not just there to satisfy curiosity about the past, or to entertain us with exciting stories (although it does both quite well); it is there to make a point about who God is, who His people are, and what that relationship should be. "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."(Romans 15:4)

When we see earthly powers rising up against God and His people, we should remember Nebuchadnezzar, whom God humbled so that he (and we) would "know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will."(Daniel 4:32) When we encounter personal suffering, we should remember "the steadfastness of Job, and... the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful."(James 5:11) When we are terrified by the storms of life, we should remember that the One who said "Peace, be still!" to the waves of Galilee (Mark 4:39) is no less powerful today.

The following stanza is omitted in Praise for the Lord, and in many other hymnals:

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

The lesson is hard to bear, but the principle is sound. However dear another person is to us, however beneficial to our spiritual life, we cannot be guaranteed that we will always have them around. A terse but poignant statement from God opens the book of Joshua: "Moses my servant is dead."(Joshua 1:2) It is hard to fathom how this event must have affected the Israelites, and Joshua in particular, who had worked closely with him for so many years. It must have been unthinkable not to have Moses in charge. But the Lord pointed out, gently but firmly, that His care would not end with the departure of His faithful servant: "Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses."(Joshua 1:2-3) It is appropriate that we mourn the passing of dear Christian friends from this life, just as the devout friends of the martyr Stephen "made great lamentation over him."(Acts 8:2) Is it not even more appropriate that we honor their memory by striving even harder to live the faith they loved?

Stanza 3:
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

The inspiration of this stanza may well be the following passage:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, [fn] that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

This stanza takes on even more meaning in light of the omitted stanza that originally preceded it, with its attention to our loss of loved ones to death. Now we are called to look forward to that reunion so happily summarized at the end of the Thessalonians passage, "and so we will always be with the Lord." The closing words also remind us of Revelation 21:4, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." However much these things are part of our life here, there they will be no more. It is difficult to imagine this, but so is much of what we know of heaven! We can trust in God, however, to know best how to make things right. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is."(1 John 3:2)

The following stanza, omitted in Praise for the Lord and in most other hymnals, is the original conclusion of the hymn:

Be still, my soul: begin the song of praise
On earth, believing, to Thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him in all thy words and ways,
So shall He view thee with a well pleased eye.
Be still, my soul: the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.

This stanza encourages us to begin our praises now that we shall continue in heaven, "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God."(Hebrews 11:10) The third line seems to reference Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths." The clouds in life come and go, but the light of our Savior "shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."(John 1:5)

About the music: Seldom has a classical composition been so happily adapted to a hymn! Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the great Finnish composer, wrote the symphonic poem Finlandia in 1899 (under the title "Finland Awakens") as the final number for a concert celebrating the Finnish press. Not coincidentally, Czar Nicholas II had recently implemented a crackdown on the growing independence movement in Finland, which at the time was theoretically a vassal state to the Russia, including suppression of the free press. Finlandia, with its themes of struggle, outrage, hope, and faith, seemed to sum up the Finns' feelings at the time, and became a patriotic rallying cry.

In 1900 it was premiered across Europe, and eventually became the composer's signature work--to his chagrin, since he considered it an immature work, "insignificant" compared to his symphonies. The closing hymn-like theme was particularly loved, and began to spin off vocal arrangements almost immediately, both patriotic and religious. (One of these became the Finnish national anthem.) Sibelius later mused, "It is not intended to be sung; it is written for an orchestra. But if the world wants to sing it, it can't be helped."("Finlandia")

Below is a video of a performance of the entire work performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo:


"Finlandia." Jean Sibelius Website. Helsinki: Finnish Club, 2002.

Routley, Erik, and Peter Cutts. An English-speaking hymnal guide. GIA Publications, 2005.

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