Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

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

I Have Decided to Follow Jesus

“Decide (verb): come to resolution in the mind as a result of consideration.”

“Consequence (noun): the effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier.” So says dictionary.com.

Every decision has consequences, whether big or small, good or bad.  Some things happen to us because of decisions we make.  Some things happen to us because of decisions other people make.  Most of us heard a lot about consequences as we were growing up .  I know I did, and so did my kids.

My earliest recollection of singing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is at summer camp, singing with friends around a campfire.  We sang casually, not giving much thought to the words of the song, and certainly having no idea to the story behind the song.  In later years, I knew people who would not sing the song because they felt the text emphasized a human decision instead of divine grace.  I don’t think they knew the story behind the song either.

The text of the song is based on the last words of a man who lived in a region of India called Assam (which later gave the tune its name, ASSAM).  In the middle 1800s, the tribes who lived in this area were known to be aggressive head hunters, yet there were missionaries who made the decision to preach the gospel in that dangerous place. As a consequence of their preaching, one particular native family decided to profess their faith in Christ and be baptized.   The man of the house decided to share his experience with others in his community, and as a consequence, additional families came to Christ.  The village leaders were not pleased and decided to make an example out of this family by demanding they renounce Christ or face the consequence of execution. The believer declared, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  As a consequence of his statement of faith, the man saw his two children and wife executed as he continued to say, “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”  The man was executed as he said his final words, “The cross before me, the world behind me.”  The example of faith demonstrated by the family so moved the village leaders that they began to open their hearts to the gospel and revival broke out in the village.  Those that had executed the first converts had now become converts themselves.

As this story became widely known, Indian evangelist Sadhu Singh decided to take the martyr’s words and pair them with a traditional tune to create one of the first uniquely Indian hymns.  As a consequence of Singh’s work, the words and testimony of a man from a remote village in India are known world-wide.

Obviously, most of the decisions we make are small and inconsequential compared to the ones made by the Indian family from Assam.  Still, we make daily decisions with eternal consequences. Think about it.  Pray about it.