A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING
A hymn that is written for a special occasion can have a short lifespan. References to specific events and circumstances can make a hymn inappropriate for general use.
This could have been the case with a hymn that was first written as a prayer of thanksgiving for a military victory.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch were seeking independence from Spanish rule. A major turning point in this struggle was the victory of the Dutch in the Battle of Turnhout in 1597. To thank God for this victory, the Dutch poet and composer Adrian Valerius (1575-1625) wrote a hymn.
The original Dutch text of the hymn contains references to the battle and deliverance from oppression, things that would not be meaningful to congregations far removed from the historical situation in which the hymn was composed. For this reason, those who have translated the hymn into English have also tried to adapt it for general use as a hymn of thanksgiving.
References to the original occasion of the hymn are evident in the still widely used translation of Theodore Baker (1894), which begins, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing. He chastens and hastens His will to make known. The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.” The simple act of gathering to ask the Lord’s blessing was significant for the Dutch Protestants because under the Roman Catholic king of Spain they had been forbidden to assemble for worship. And they regarded their experience of oppression as a chastening from God.
In the translation in use among us (1904), Julia Cady Cory eliminated references to war and made the hymn into a song of thanksgiving that can be used by Christians in all times and situations. The “perils” that “o’ertake us” become the dangers that threaten us all. The “battles we win” with the Lord’s help become the battles that we face bearing up under trials and fighting against temptations from the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful nature. The updated version in the Lutheran Service Book makes this even clearer by changing “battles” to “struggles.”
These struggles are not just common in human experience; they are universal. Life itself in this sin-corrupted world is one long struggle from beginning to end. It is for this reason that it has become common among us to refer to Christian funerals as victory services. To continue steadfast in the faith to the end is a victory indeed.
With the hymn we give thanks to God for not forsaking us in our struggles. At all times we can sing, “Thy strong arm will guide us, Our God is beside us.” And this isn’t wishful or fanciful thinking on our part, for God has promised His children, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
This prayer of thanksgiving begins and ends addressing God as our Redeemer as well as our Creator. It is in the name of Jesus Christ that we come to God expressing our thanks for His blessings. It is the “holy name” of the triune God that we bless and to Him that we sing “glad praises.” We Christians do not direct our expressions of thanks to some vague and nameless deity, but to the God Who has made Himself known in His Word and Who gave His only begotten Son to bear our sins and win salvation for us.
The popularity of this hymn is due at least in part to its pairing with the tune “Kremser,” which The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal describes as “almost carol-like in its character.” It was a Dutch folk tune arranged by Austrian choir director and composer Eduard Kremser (1838-1914).
John Klatt is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Loveland, Colorado.