In 1617, at the age of 31, Martin Rinkart must have thought his professional dreams were coming true. He was appointed Archdeacon and pastor in the town of Eilenburg, Germany. No sooner did the appointment come then tragedy struck in the advent of the Thirty Years War. The ordinary people of his town were ignorant of the reasons for the conflict. All they knew that was army after army laid waste to their lands and homes.Famine and disease were rampant, destroying farms, livestock and crops with relentless fury. People weakened by hunger were no match for disease. Before it was over, the war would have ended the lives of almost half the male population of the country. Nearly a third of the total population of the German states succumbed to death, primarily due to hunger and disease.
In 1636 there was only one pastor left in Eilenburg, Martin Rinkart. When Martin began his ministry he was one of four pastors. As the war went on, one would flee and Martin would bury the other two. Because the city was walled, it became a refuge and the strain nearly decimated it.. 8000 people would die in Eilenburg and death showed no mercy to any age, position or gender. During the war, Martin would bury 4000 people including his own wife. At one point he was conducting 50 funerals a day but the death so overwhlmed the city that corpses had to be buried in trenches with no service.
How in the world would a man in Martin’s position find it possible to give thanks?
Martin found inspiration in the book of Ecclesiastics 50:22-24:
And now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders,
who fosters our growth from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.
May he give us gladness of heart, and may there be peace in our days in Israel,
as in the days of old.
May he entrust to us his mercy,and may he deliver us in our days!
The inspiration would lead Martin to pen the hymn Nun danket alle Gott. We know the hymn as Now Thank We All Our God. It is stunning to think that this man, having endured the horrors he did, could be able to say that God has blessed us, ‘With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today’, No mention of their immense suffering appears in the hymn, only a request that God will, ‘keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed; And free us from all ills, in this world and the next’.
In 1637, the Swedish army controlling the town demanded a payment of 30,000 florins from the people – an astronomical amount to the sick and impoverished people. Martin led a group of citizens who went to plead for mercy from the Swedish general. He refused. Martin turned to his companions and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” They fell on their knees and prayed with such heartfelt earnestness that the general relented and lowered the tribute amount to 2,000 florins.
Peace finally came to Martin’s town in 1648 but he would not enjoy it for long. He died in the town on December 8, 1649 at the age of 63. His entire ministry had been spent in a cradle of suffering faithfully loving and serving his flock. His gift of Now Thank We All Our God is a lovely call to all of us who enjoy lives of such relative ease to turn from our murmuring ways and cultivate grateful and generous hearts.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
– Martin Rinkart