By Julie Barrier, Crosswalk.com
Plagues and suffering have often produced the greatest hymns of hope, help, and joy!
Read the lyrics of songwriters who rose above darkness, depression, and disease by singing praise. See what you can learn from these men and women of faith who praised and thanked God during disease. Perhaps you will be inspired to write your own song of praise!
Miriam, the sister of Moses, witnessed the ten terrible plagues of Egypt. God spared His people from disease and death. After the Jews’ divine rescue, Miriam sang:
“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! The Lord my God, my strength and song, has now become my victory.” Exodus 15:20-21 KJV
Satan cannot steal our song! In Job 2, he begs God to inflict a deadly disease upon Job to make God’s righteous servant curse God. Job sang, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:20 LB (By the way, one of my favorite praise choruses “Blessed be the name of the Lord” by Matt Redman, is taken directly from Job’s words).
King David, in his arrogance, defied God by counting his soldiers. He commanded over 1.5 million troops. God demanded punishment (1 Chronicles 21-22). Because of the king’s disobedience, 70,000 Jews died of the plague in three days. Even in his deep remorse, David knew to sing to God.
“I will praise you, Lord, for you have saved me from my enemies. You refuse to let them triumph over me. O Lord my God, I pleaded with you, and you gave me my health again. You brought me back from the brink of the grave, from death itself, and here I am alive! Oh, sing to him you saints of his; give thanks to his holy name. His anger lasts a moment; his favor lasts for life! Weeping may go on all night, but in the morning there is joy.” Psalm 30:1-5 LB
We are not alone in our distress. Godly men and women throughout the ages praised God in the midst of disease and disaster. I was deeply moved when I learned of so many great hymns of praise that had been written by Christians during plagues throughout church history.
My favorite is “Now Thank We All Our God,” composed in 1636 by Lutheran pastor Martin Rinckart. Eilenberg, Germany, his tiny hometown, was ravaged by the Thirty Years War. The Swedish army set siege around the city wall. War refugees seeking safety overran the crowded town. Soon after, the Bubonic plague erupted there and almost 5,000 people perished within a year. Rinckart was the only pastor left alive to bury the dead. He often performed 40-50 funerals per day, including the burial of his own wife. In the midst of such pestilence and heartbreak, Rinckart wrote:
“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 mother’s arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today!”
“Come to Your Temple Here on Earth,” composed by pastor Paul Gerhardt, was written around the same time as Rinckart. Europe was besieged with war and plague, yet these words of assurance came to this beloved pastor’s heart:
“Arise and make an end of all our heartache and our pain; Your wandering flock at last recall and grant them joy again. To peace and wealth the land restore, wasted with fire or plague or sword; Come to Your ruined churches, Lord, and bid them bloom once more.”
Isaac Watts wrote “When We Are Raised from Deep Distress” during the London cholera outbreak in 1666. Cholera outbreaks were prevalent in various parts of the British Empire, including parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. In 1854, 23,000 people died from cholera in Great Britain. Read Watt’s inspiring lyrics inspired by Psalms 89 and 90:
“Pains of the flesh seek to abuse our minds with slavish fears; Our days are past and we shall lose the remnant of our years. Jehovah speaks the healing word and no disease withstands; fevers and plagues obey the Lord and fly at His command!”
This great Congregational minister wrote 750 hymns! Watts always found a reason to praise God.
James Montgomery, born in 1771, Scottish-born hymn writer and poet wrote 400 hymns in the midst of controversial quarantines for yellow fever, cholera, and bubonic plague. “Sing Hallelujah; Sing” is one of his most famous:
“Sing Hallelujah, Glory to God alone…Bring your thank-offerings to the throne. The Lord put forth His hand, He touched us and we died. Vengeance went through the land, but mercy walked beside. He heard our prayers; He saw our tears and stayed the plague and quelled our fears.”
What a statement of faith!
Dr. John Ryland was an English Baptist pastor and a close friend of John Newton, composer of “Amazing Grace.” The deadly Cattle Plague, or Rinderpest, (similar to smallpox, but even more deadly) ravaged Britain and many other parts of Europe. Ryland paraphrased Psalms 139 and 34 into lyrics for his hymn, “Sovereign Ruler of the Skies:”
“He that formed me in the womb shall guide me to the tomb. All my times shall ever be ordered by His wise decree….Plagues and deaths around me fly ‘til He bids I cannot die. Not a single shaft can hit ‘til the God of love thinks fit.”
Swiss pastor Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was one of the most influential voices in the Protestant Reformation. Black plague broke out in Zurich and he raced to minister to the sick. Zwingli caught the dreaded disease and almost died. But the hymn he wrote gives us an inspiring glimpse of his faith. The first four verses of his hymn were penned when the disease struck. Verses five through eight were written as his health deteriorated. Verses nine through twelve were written after God healed him. What a great model for us as we fight sickness:
“Help me Lord, my strength and rock, Lo at the door I hear death’s knock. Lift up your arm once pierced for me, that conquered death and rescued me. Yet if your voice in life’s midday recalls my soul, then I obey.”
During his illness:
“My pains increase, haste to console; for fear and woe seize body and soul. Death is at hand, my senses fail, my tongue is dumb, now Christ prevail. He (Satan) harms me not-I fear no loss. For here I lie beneath the cross.”
After his recovery:
“My God! My Lord! Healed by your Hand, upon the earth once more I stand. Let sin no more rule over me-my mouth shall sing alone to Thee. Though now delay, my hour will come-involved perchance in deeper gloom. BUT LET IT COME, MY JOY WILL RISE. And bear my yoke straight to the skies.”
What a great picture of how to handle suffering!
Do you have a song? You need one!
My dear friend has a debilitating condition caused by chronic disease. She suffers from crippling anxiety and fear. The doctors have tried behavioral therapy, psychiatric meds, and homeopathic remedies. Nothing has helped. Until one day I remembered that singing occupies both sides of the brain. When my friend suffers most, we sing hymns and praise songs. Relief comes. Jesus’ peace washes over her.
“You did it! You turned my deepest pains into joyful dancing;
You stripped off my dark clothing
and covered me with joyful light.
You have restored my honor. My heart is ready to explode, erupt in new songs!
It’s impossible to keep quiet!
Eternal One, my God, my Life-Giver, I will thank You forever! Psalm 30:11-12
christianitytoday.com – Black Death Inspires Zwingli's Plague Hymn
desiringgod.org – Job Reverent in Suffering
worship.calvin.edu – Hymns for a Pandemic – A Brief Historical Introduction
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Paha_L
Dr. Julie Barrier, along with her pastor-husband, Dr. Roger Barrier, have taught conferences on marriage and ministry in 35 countries. The Barriers are founders and directors of Preach It, Teach It providing free resources in 10 languages to 5 million visitors in 229 countries and territories. The Barriers pastored 35 years at Casas Church in Arizona, Julie has served as a worship minister, concert artist and adjunct professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. She has authored or composed of over 500 published works.