Martin Rinkhart’s Hymns, 1636

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

– Psalm 126:5-6

Martin Rinkart was born in Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire on April 23, 1586. His father was a cooper, a relatively prosperous tradesman who sent his son to the local Latin school for his education. Even in youth Martin displayed musical gifts, which won him a scholarship to the University of Leipzig in 1602.

In 1610, his university theology studies complete, Rinkart asked to become a deacon for the Lutheran church in his hometown of Eilenburg. The Superintendent who was in charge of examining and appointing deacons refused, saying that Rinkart was a better musician than theologian. Rinkart instead became a cantor and Latin teacher in the neighboring town of Eisleben. He continued his theology studies, completing his M.A. at Leipzig in 1616. Finally, he was made a deacon in Eisleben. The following year, he returned to his hometown as an archdeacon, where he remained until his death in 1649.

Life in Eilenburg was not easy. Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War, one of the most ruinous conflicts in human history, raged through Saxony. Since Eilenburg had stout walls, refugees from the surrounding countryside fled to the town for protection. Death, famine, and disease followed, constant companions of the War. In 1637, an outbreak of the the bubonic plague struck Eilenburg. For some months, Rinkart was the only clergyman in the town; during the worst of the plague, he was reading almost fifty burial services a day. By its end, he had buried almost 5,000 people, not counting those buried in mass graves without any funeral services at all. Rinkart’s first wife, too, died in the outbreak. Plague was followed by famine. As archdeacon, Rinkart was responsible for organizing church resources to help those suffering. He was intimately familiar with grief. He died at age 63, one year after the Peace of Westphalia ended the war.

Martin Rinkart, Archdeacon of Eilenburg, born 1586

Although Rinkart was well-known in Saxony as a musician and poet during his lifetime, few of his writings have survived. Today, he is primarily known for his hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” in the English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1855):

Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.


O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next
.

This hymn was most likely written during the plague outbreak of 1636, although it is often ascribed to the time of the Peace in 1648. Seen in light of the plague, the hymn is less a triumphant proclamation of gratitude, and more a poignant statement of simple faith in a time of crisis.

The Plague of Boils (Exodus 9:8-12) illustrated in the Wittenberg Bible, 1572


One of Rinkart’s lesser-known hymns uses more complex imagery to reflect his trust in God. Written just after the death of his wife, this hymn uses agricultural imagery to reflect on John 16:20: “You shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” The refrain, “those who sow those tear-seeds now will soon mow with joy,” refers to the regular progression of sowing and reaping, the constant round of toil in the countryside around Eilenburg. (I have chosen to use “mow” instead of “reap” to reflect Rinkart’s German with the rhyme.) Verses 1-7 speak of the hardships and grief in this world as seeds planted in fields, seeds that eventually yield a harvest of joy in heaven. Just as a well-tended field requires back-breaking labor to yield a good harvest, so too life in this world must contain suffering in order to reap the coming rewards. Note, too, the way the verses allude to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

1. Do not, you precious souls,
Let the sorrowful tear-seeds
Afflict thee unduly;
Sow! Sow early and late
Thy small seeds;
Oh, till thy field and prepare thy house;
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

2. Which field in this world did bear
Which was not worked with toil?
So our holy soul-field will bear
Sin-thorns and lust-thistles
If it is not worked with might and strength
Early and late:
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

3. Which farmer in the field
Lowers his hand and his courage,
When the wind blows fiercely,
And the snow blinds his view?
This capricious weather will not last long,
But is merely a transition:
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

4. Which orchard or garden bears fruit,
Unless you first plow the soil under?
And when you crush the herbs and flowers,
Does not their scent fill the air?
Wind and rain are necessary,
If you want to reap a good harvest:
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

5. Which rose is without thorns?
Which ointment is not first mixed?
Which sheaf yields good grain,
Unless you resolutely thresh it?
Then why do we desire
To be without cross and sorrows?
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

6. Vines need to be pruned
In order for the grapes to grow.
Grapes need to be pressed,
In order to fill barrels with wine.
Through much sorrow and bitter pain
Leads the path to heaven’s joy:
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

7. Therefore, oh thou valiant souls,
Do not let the tear-seeds
Afflict thee unduly.
Sow! Sow early and late
Thy small seeds;
Oh, till thy field and prepare thy house;
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

Rinkart moves on in verses 8-11 to meditating on the joys of the harvest to come. Even in the midst of grief for his dead wife, he is comforted by contemplating the laughter, joy, and songs of heaven that will redeem life’s suffering.

8. When the Lord redeems us
The earth-bound dead,
And we finally stand before him
Free from all malice:
Then the words will blossom,
Which we often heard below:
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

9. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter
And our hearts will abound with joy,
Then our tongues will awake
And slowly join the song,
Then everyone will praise the Lord
for what He has done for us.
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

10. Come, oh Jesus, come and change
Our aptitude to sin,
Bring this world to an end,
Along with all the misery and anguish.
Take us home and welcome us
Into our longed-for Canaan.
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

11. We brought forth such a harvest,
With all the tear-seeds that we sowed;
Now we will dance with abundant joy,
We who travailed in sowing.
We sowed and sowed,
Now we mow and mow.
Those who sow those tear-seeds now
Will soon mow with joy.

Merry-making in a 17th c. German garden


The German text is taken from Johannes Link, Martin Rinkarts geistliche Lieder nebst einer in Verbindung mit Heinrich Rembe aus Eisleben nach den Quellen bearbeiteten Darstellung des Lebens und der Werke des Dichters, (Gotha: Friedrich Undreas Perthes, 1886), pp. 254-257. Grateful thanks to Lisa Doughty for help with translation.

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