Some notes on the hymn that will be sung at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Brighton Lutheran Mission as the hymn of the day tomorrow, Trinity 14, 2016:
This hymn was written by Ludwig Helmbold (1532–98), a teacher, academic, poet and (in later life) pastor in central Germany. While he was serving as headmaster in Erfurt in 1563,a terrible plague broke out in the town, killing about 4,000 people. When a family of friends was about to flee the town, leaving the Helmbolds behind, he wrote this hymn (of 9 verses) to console the two mothers about to be parted from one another.
The text is based on Ps. 73:23:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
The author takes comfort in God’s promise never to leave His own. Echoing the words of St. Paul in Romans 8, he reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love—which is evident not only in all the earthly good we still enjoy but chiefly in all that Jesus Christ has done for us. Even if life should for a time be filled with suffering, God is faithful and He will eventually turn all sorrow into joy and, having destroyed death itself, give us eternal life.
The hymn tune is a folk song that was very popular all over Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, first printed (as far as we know) in France in 1557, but also widespread at least in Germany and Netherlands.
Helmbold was the first to compose sacred words to this tune. Subsequently, other hymns were written for this tune, and ultimately it was as a hymn that this haunting melody would come to be known in future centuries, up to our own day.
John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology Revised ed. (London: John Murray, 1915), 508
Anne Leahy, J. S. Bach’s “Leipzig” Chorale Preludes: Music, Text, Theology (Lanhanm, Toronto, Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 121–122