Martin Rinkart lived during a most interesting point in history. Though Luther and the great events surrounding his life had long since past, the Book of Concord had only just been published when Rinkart was born. Kings and queens across Europe were fighting for succession rights—namely, in Britain and Iberia—new lands were being discovered and named, and Shakespeare was just beginning to make a name for himself. Yet in the spring of 1586, in the city of Eilenburg, Saxony, a coppersmith and his wife were blessed with Martin. A simple beginning to a great life that affected many, a life of thanksgiving during a period of much conflict. His life was filled with both blessings and troubles, and in all he gave thanks to God.
Like Luther, Martin Rinkart did not continue in the profession of his father but was able to go to the university at Leipzig. Thanks to his gift of music and studies in theology, Martin became a pastor and served in a church at Eisleben, the hometown of Luther himself. Later he became the Archdeacon in his own hometown just at the start of the Thirty Years War, which did not leave this city untouched. Yet he remained there throughout the entire war, enduring the plague and marauders that visited the city as well. Burdened by refugees, soldiers, and sickness, thousands of people died in Eilenburg. Martin was often left to do much of the work of preaching, feeding, caring, and burying himself. In fact, before the end, he was left to bury his wife.
Yet during all this time, he continued to serve God, caring for His people in all ways. He also continued in his gift for music and wrote a number of hymns. Possibly his best-known was “Nun danket alle Gott”, or “Now thank we all our God.” Some consider this hymn to have been written on the 100th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession.
Though originally written in German, this hymn was later translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. From England, Catherine spent some time during her early years in Germany where she found a love for German hymns. Her Lyra Germanica contains a variety of such hymns she translated. In fact, she is credited with opening up the English speaking world to German hymnody.
Rinkart published his hymn in the Jesu-Herts-Buchelein in geistlichen Oden six years after writing it, though the music was not added until 1647 by Johann Cruger. Cruger studied at Wittenburg and traveled to various neighboring countries. He was a prolific composer and wrote the music to a number of hymns during his life. His works were later adapted and harmonized by composers like Bach, and Mendelssohn’s harmonization of this hymn is what we use today.
Finally, peace came to Eilenburg. Rinkart and his family were not well off by this point, mostly due to the war. And yet, it appears Martin was content in what the Lord had blessed him with. As he is quoted as saying during these trials, “Let us take refuge with God” (BCW). And that is truly what he did, and what he asks us to do in his hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Though this cheerful song reminds us of the blessings of God in the good times, it also encourages gratefulness and humility in what God gives during times of need. He is our helper and our strength; all we have comes from Him, not ourselves. So as always and from the beginning, let us thank our God and Lord, who richly provides us with all things.
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
The first verse is reflective of many of the Psalms, as so much of that book is about singing praises to the Lord. How true it is that we should give thanks for all things at all times, and how often we need that reminder! (Psa. 118:1). We thank God with all we have for all we are given, here focusing on the blessings and wondrous things He has done for us (Psa. 34:3, 1 Thes. 5:18).
This is repeated in the New Testament: that we should love the Lord with every part of our being (Matt. 22:37). But note the interesting way this is written. We are encouraged to thank our God with all we have, then reminded He has done wonderful things (Psa. 139:14, Deut. 10:21, Job. 37:14). But we are also told that besides us, the people made in His image, the whole world is rejoicing in Him, and we should join all His creation in singing His praises (Psa. 145:10).
And why shouldn’t we praise the Lord? He has cared for us from our infancy (Psa. 22:10). And actually, He has known us long before that (Psa. 139:15-17). In fact, a direct translation from the German text specifically says “from our mother’s womb and childish steps.” This reminds us of God’s foreknowledge of our baptism and our walk in faith. He loved us before we could love Him, still steeped in sin and separated from Him, and His Spirit has been guiding us since our baptism (1 Jhn. 4:10&19, Rom. 5:8).
We still often walk in childish steps, constantly needing the hand of our Father. But He is there and forgives us. And not only has He saved us, but He also continues to bless us throughout our lives in innumerable ways. No matter what we endure, He never leaves us (Heb. 13:5, Psa. 136).
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.
I believe a more direct translation of this verse may better help us understand what the author was trying to convey. Here, understood from the original, the verse is asking that our God may give us an ever-joyful heart, peace, and in His mercy to sustain us forever. The book of Philippians, I think, best exemplifies this sort of attitude, especially the fourth chapter, not to mention the very life of our Savior (Phil. 2:5-11).
Like in the last verse, we ask the Lord be with us, but here in times of trouble (Psa. 23, 48:14). That is why we also ask for an ever joyful heart. We know we will not always be happy just as we will not always be in times of plenty (Jas. 1:1-7). Yet we still give thanks to our God and ask that He continue to sustain us, for we know that even our very breath does not come from our own doing, much less material things (Act 17:28).
Thus, we can be in good cheer, joyful, because we have His peace, resting not in ourselves but in His unwavering love and grace (Jhn. 14:27, Gal. 5:22-23, 2 Cor. 9:8-11). And as in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask also that He keeps “all ills” from us and keep us in Him (Matt. 6:8-13, Eph. 6:10-13, Psa. 37:39-40, 2 Cor. 4:8-9). This is obviously not just physical health or temptations in this world but also from the schemes of the evil one.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Finally, we end in praise to our Triune God. The original text does not actually say thanks, but rather, in the spirit of Revelation, says all “glory, honor, and praise be to God,” (Rev. 5:13, 7:12). But as this is a song of thanksgiving, we end with a call of thanks to God and all His wonderful works (Psa. 7:17, 79:13, 100:4).
Though in somewhat different ways, both the translation and the original strongly emphasize the importance of the Triune God and clearly draw wording from the Creeds. This verse also instructs on the supremacy of God. We trust in Him because He is our Lord and Savior, our God and Creator, our Maker and Provider (Col. 1:9-20). He is the author of creation, He is the author of our lives, and He holds the future (Act 3:15, Heb. 5:9. 12:2). This and more is why we give Him alone our thanks and praise.
So, we look to the beginning—to the Lord as our Creator and maker of the world. From then til now and to eternity, all the world sings the praises of the Lord. We look at the present and consider all our circumstances, both good and bad, giving thanks to the Lord for all. And we look to the future with peace and trust, knowing our Savior is Lord even there (Jhn. 16:33, Heb. 13:8, Rev. 1:8).
Blessings to you and yours,
Catherine Winkworth. Lyra Germanica: the Christian Life. 1855. p. 157.
The Harvard University Hymn Book. Harvard University Press. 1964. pp. 288-89.