By Heather Judd
This article is part of a series on Lutheran hymns that address the “unholy trinity” of sin, death, and the devil. Although it seems counter-intuitive, hymnody that addresses these evils actually makes a stronger confession of Christian faith than songs that merely focus on praising God. By singing about the unholy three, Lutherans deny the theology of glory and find comfort in the theology of the cross, proclaiming that even while we are beset by these enemies, Christ has conquered them and our holiness, life, and salvation are secure in Him.
Lutherans sing hymns about death.
Lutherans sing lots of hymns about death.
According to the Lutheran Service Book Concordance, there are nearly 300 instances of the word death or death’s in our hymnal. This is not just the prejudice of a few gloomy German hymn-writers. This an essential substance of our church’s singing. Moreover, these are not just funeral hymns. You will find hymns that sing of death for almost every season of the church year.
Sin’s dreadful doom upon us lies;
Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.
O come, lead us with mighty hand
From exile to our promised land.
(LSB 355:6 – Friedrich von Spee)
…True man yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us
And lightens ev’ry load.
(LSB 359:3 – Friedrich L. C. Layriz)
... He comes, the king anointed,
The Christ, the virgin-born,
Grim death to vanquish for us,
To open heav’n before us
And bring us life again.
(LSB 402:2 – Elisabeth Cruciger)
O my God, my rock and tower,
Grant that in Your death I trust,
Knowing death has lost its power
Since You crushed it in the dust. …
(LSB 421:5 – Johann Heermann)
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!
(LSB 458:4 – Martin Luther)
…Lord, by your pow’r prepare each heart,
And to our weakness strength impart
That bravely here we may contend,
Through life and death to You, our Lord, ascend.
What kind of morbid people are we Lutherans? We sing about death at the most joyous and high holy days. Should we not instead banish all such macabre references?
But we are a people whose lives are shaped by our theology. Thus, we sing about death first because we recognize who we are. We are condemned sinners who have by our own most grievous fault earned the wages we deserve: death. We may still live and breathe now, but we know that we are dead men walking.
Without this understanding, we have no theology, for we have no need of theology. To misquote Charles Dickens, “You are dead: to begin with. …This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Unless we understand the terrible wage of death that will be paid us, we cannot understand the significance of Christ’s sacrifice. For our salvation comes by death, too, and without His death, it would indeed be an awful thing to sing of our own death. But by death, He has defeated death, so that it is no longer a shadowy valley of fear but an entrance into exponential life.
In some ways, then, it is not death itself that is our danger, but life. In death, we pass to the eternal presence of God, but while we yet live, we struggle and pray that God would strengthen our feeble faith until that end.
Be Thou my consolation,
My shield, when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee.
Who dieth thus dies well.
(LSB 450:7 – attr. Bernard of Clairvaux; German ver. Paul Gerhardt)
Evil world, I leave thee;
Thou canst not deceive me,
Thine appeal is vain…
Past thy hour,
O pride and pow’r;
Sinful life, thy bonds I sever,
Leave thee now forever.
(LSB 743:5 – Johann Franck)
It is Christ Who is our strength in the face of death, and it is through Baptism that we are joined with Him. In our Baptism, we have died to sin and been buried with Christ. When the devil threatens us with fear of death, we can laugh in defiance. “What can you do to me, Satan? I have already died, and if you kill me again, I shall yet live!”
Death, you cannot end my gladness:
I am baptized into Christ!
When I die, I leave all sadness
To inherit paradise!
Though I lie in dust and ashes
Faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
Baptism has the strength divine
To make life immortal mine.
(LSB 594:4 – Erdmann Neumeister)
Thus, to sing of death is to sing of joy. Christ’s death as our atonement is joy! Our death to the pain of this life is joy! Death as the passage into life eternal is joy!
Jesus lives! The vict’ry’s won!
Death no longer can appall me…
(LSB 490:1 – Christian Fürchtegott Gellert)
Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall;
You have opened paradise,
And Your saints in You shall rise.
(LSB 633:5 – Latin, c. 5th-10th cent.)
Now in Christ, death cannot slay me,
Though it might,
Day and night,
Trouble and dismay me.
Christ has made my death a portal
From the strife
Of this life
To His joy immortal!
(LSB 756:5 – Paul Gerhardt)
Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming. The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up, and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call. When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.