The hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, has been around for hundreds of years, but it may not be as familiar as some hymns of the same age. Why? Maybe because we only sing it once a year, during Advent. Maybe because some congregations do not observe Advent. Maybe, sadly, because some congregations no longer sing hymns.
French Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) wrote the tune GENEVAN 42, also known as FREU DICH SEHR, to accompany the text of Psalm 42. In 1547, Bourgeois moved to Geneva and became the choirmaster for John Calvin. His responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter. There was much controversy surrounding Bourgeois and his work. He learned what we are still learning today – change does not come easily. He was jailed in 1561 for making alterations to popular hymn tunes “without a license.” After his release, he left Geneva, eventually moving to Paris where he died in 1561.
Bourgeois is credited with many of the tunes in the Genevan Psalter, a source for music in both the Reformed Church and the church in America. Of all his compositions, perhaps the most famous is OLD 100th, which many protestant churches sing weekly as the tune for the Doxology.
The text of this hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5, in which the prophet looks forward to the coming of Christ. More specifically, the coming of the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, is foretold. German hymn writer Johann Gottfried, better known by the Latin version of his name, Johannes Olearius, versified the biblical text into a hymn in 1641 in honor of Saint John the Baptist day. In addition to being a hymn writer of over 300 hymns, Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible.
Olearius’s text was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in her Chorale Book for England (1863). For a time, Winkworth lived in Dresden, Germany, and there developed an interest in German hymnody. She is known for her well-crafted English translations of German hymns including Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Now Thank We All Our God. In addition to her translation work, as a pioneer in promoting women’s rights, Winkworth did much to encourage higher education for women.
The text of this hymn was meant to show the promise of better days ahead with the coming of the Messiah. After the opening words of “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” the remaining text describes how to impart that comfort. This is not “comfort” in the sense of being “comfortable.” It is more like the comfort that a parent gives a misbehaving child after the consequences of his actions have been administered. God’s comfort is more than empathy. It removes the cause of the discomfort through healing.
“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”
For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.
Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken