Now Thank We All Our God

Tischgebetlein (Short Table Prayer)
Martin Rinkart, 1636; trans. Catherine Winkworth, 1858
Addressed to one another and, by inference, to God
Now thank we all our God1 Chr. 29:13; Ps. 75:1
   with heart and hands and voices,Ps. 86:12; 2 Chr. 7:6; 29:31; Lam. 3:41; Col. 3:16
who wondrous things hath done,Ps. 72:18; 86:10; 107
   in whom his world rejoices;1 Chr. 16:31; Ps. 96:11; 97:1; 100:1; Luke 19:40
who from our mothers’ arms,Ps. 22:9–10; 71:6; Hos. 11:1
   hath blessed us on our wayDeut. 2:7; 28:6; Ps. 18:32; 119:1
with countless gifts of love,Job 5:9; Ps. 40:5; 71:15; 1 John 3:1
   and still is ours today.1 Sam. 12:2; Ps: 48:14
Oh, may this bounteous GodPs. 13:6; Rom. 10:12b
   through all our life be near us,Ps. 22:11; 23:6; 27:4; 73:26–28; Heb. 13:5
with ever-joyful heartsPs. 4:7; 119:111; John 16:22
   and blessed peace to cheer us;Ps. 29:11; Phil. 4:7
and keep us in his grace,Ps. 67:1; Acts 13:43
   and guide us when perplexed,Is. 42:16; Acts 10:17
and free us from all illsPs. 121:7; Luke 11:4b
   in this world and the next.2 Cor. 4:14
All praise and thanks to GodPs. 69:30; Dan. 2:23
   the Father now be given,Eph. 5:20; Col 1:3; 3:17
the Son, and him who reignsEph. 1:12; 1 Pet. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:4–11
   with them in highest heaven—Ps. 139:7–8; 1 John 5:7 (KJV)
the one eternal God,Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4–6
   whom earth and heav’n adore;Hab. 3:3
for thus it was, is now,Eph. 3:21; see also the “Gloria Patri”
   and shall be evermore.

Of all the attributes of God to prompt thankfulness in our hearts (Col. 3:16), perhaps none does so more directly than His steadfast love. The Old Testament describes this kind of love in many places and gives evidence of it in all of God’s actions. The eternal endurance of it becomes a repeated theme throughout the Scriptures. The hymn printed above organizes our response to God’s steadfast love into a stanza of thanksgiving, a stanza of petition, and a stanza of praise, all held together by a temporal framework of what “was, is now, and shall be evermore.” The evidence of God’s past and present love prompts thanksgiving, the assurance of his future love prompts petition and ultimately praise—praise not just for what he has done but for who he is (and, presumably, for how the one reveals the other). Thus the hymn moves seamlessly. Reflection on God’s wondrous goodness to all things (stanza 1, lines 3–4) leads to recognition of personal blessings (lines 5–8), which, in turn, makes us bold to ask for more in the future (stanza 2), and a look to the world to come leads to a final stanza in which we lose ourselves in God’s eternal glory, making “Now Thank We All Our God” a useful tool for congregations interested in having hearts thankful to God while they sing.

The structures of the poem and of the tune to which it is always joined, NUN DANKET, lend the hymn a sonic and rhythmic coherence to match the coherence of ideas we have just outlined. In the first quatrain of every stanza, the rhetoric, poetic meter, and music all share a certain expository balance. The opening lines introduce a topic (what God has done, what we pray he will do, and the Trinity) to be developed later in the stanza. The seven-syllable poetic rhythms of lines 2 and 4 (with feminine ending) counterbalance the open-ended six-syllable rhythms of lines 1 and 3. The reader may feel how this works by reciting the following aloud:

ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DAH,
ta-DAH ta-DAH ta-DAH-dah.

The repetition of the musical setting of lines 1–2 (measures 1–4) in the setting of lines 3–4 (measures 5–8) extends the balance (heard metrically over two lines) to a higher level of perception (heard musically, and in the rhyme scheme, over four lines—as usual in bar form, melodic repetition coincides with the first rhyme in the poem).

All this calmly, but firmly, sets forth the materials of a discourse that really takes off in the second half of the stanza. In the first half, every two-measure melodic unit begins on the fifth scale-degree, ends on either the fifth or the first, and begins and ends with tonic harmony. The second half of the stanza begins with the same melody as the first, but transposed to begin, by contrast, on the second scale degree (the turn-figure from lines 2 and 4, “hands and voic-,” is rhythmically augmented) harmonized by the dominant chord. We get our second wind. This melody in line 5, so familiar and yet now so energized, leads in line 6 not to a descending melodic unit, as in lines 2 and 4, but to an ascending one—in six syllables (no feminine end-rhythm!). This, in turn, leads in line 7 not to repetition, as in lines 3 and 5, but to continued development (the first two measures of the tune compressed into three notes). It’s all very exciting, provided the congregation reads the notated fermatas (in this and in other German hymns) as an indication for a mere breath release and not for a protracted cessation of musical activity, and provided the accompaniment does not get bogged down in intricate polyphony. The God who would make a world where such musical and verbal structures are possible—the God who would put us in such a world and then give us so much to sing about—is truly faithful in his love. And when we enjoy such music and poetry, we are hearing one small way in which God’s world “rejoices” in him.