Martin Rinkart knew a thing or two about thanksgiving. He was just 31 years old when he became pastor of the Lutheran Church in his hometown of Eilenburg, Saxony. A year later, one of Europe’s deadliest wars broke out. During the years from 1618 to 1648, more than 8 million people died in what historians refer to as the Thirty Years’ War. For more than a decade, Eilenburg avoided direct involvement in the war, but by 1631, the war moved to the city. Sometime in 1636, according to historians, Martin Rinkart penned the words to the thanksgiving hymn Nun Danket Alle Gott – “Now Thank We All Our God.” The next year brought the greatest devastation of the war to the city. Thousands fled the war, and Eilenburg became a place of refuge. But in 1637, overcrowded conditions and the devastation of war brought famine and plague to the city. During that one year alone, 8,000 souls were lost.
At the beginning of 1637, four pastors served the city of Eilenburg. Soon after the plague struck, one of those pastors abandoned his post and fled to safer regions. As the death toll mounted, Pastor Rinkart and the remaining two pastors conducted sometimes as many as 40-50 funerals in a day. Then the two other pastors died. Pastor Rinkart, sound in body but no doubt suffering in spirit, was left alone to deal with the dead and dying. Over the course of that year, Martin Rinkart conducted more than 4,000 funerals. Then, his own wife died. By the end of the year, with no suitable burial ground remaining, the city of Eilenburg was forced to dig trenches to bury the dead.
Despite his grief, in the face of such extreme suffering and starvation, Martin Rinkart remained steadfast. He organized efforts to feed the hungry, opened his own home to provide refuge for those in need, gave away his own wealth and all the provision not needed by his own hungry family, and faithfully served Christ and His people.
The story is told that towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish army surrounded Eilenburg and demanded a huge ransom in exchange for an end to the siege. The tribute required much more money than the devastated city could ever possibly afford. Some have said that Martin Rinkart led a delegation to the Swedish general to plead for mercy. When the Swedes refused, Rinkart turned to the delegation and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men; let us take refuge with God.” Then, falling to his knees, Martin Rinkart pleaded with God for his people. Seeing his passion, the Swedish general relented, reducing the tribute to an affordable amount.
Out of the depth of such extreme suffering came a song that continues to be a classic thanksgiving hymn nearly 4 centuries later. “Now Thank We All our God” stands as a lasting testimony to the triumph of joy and the faith of the believer in the face of hard trials.
The Apostle Paul said of the Macedonian believers that
…in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. (2 Corinthians 8:2)
True Christian joy can only be a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. There can be no other explanation for it. We do not say that extreme sorrow or suffering is necessary for fullness of joy. Where the Holy Spirit indwells the human heart, joy will be evidently present. Great trials of affliction do not produce joy. They are not necessary for joy. But they do cause our joy to shine. They make our joy evident.
How else can we explain the way joy lifts us up and causes us to triumph in the face of great trial and affliction? How else can we understand the way joy overflows out of the cup of our sorrows, so that it seems the deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy. When weeping endures for a night, joy comes in the morning. Joy outlasts our sorrows. When pain and sorrow weighs us down, joy outweighs our afflictions and lifts us above them. Joy is a display of the power of God in the life of the believer to give him happiness when happiness is the last thing anyone would expect.
If we can only be thankful on warm, sunny days with favorable winds at our backs, then we need to learn the lesson of thanksgiving.
By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
Now Thank We All Our God
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.
Oh, may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And guard us through all ills in this world, till 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 Heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.