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Friday, November 28, 2014

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
he chastens and hastens his will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side; all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender wilt be,
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

Adrianus Valerius’s “We Gather Together” (tune: Kremser)
trans. Theodore Baker
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

I have always thought of this beloved hymn as a Thanksgiving hymn. That is probably because it is listed in our old blue hymnal in the “Thanksgiving” section and many congregations always sing it on the Sunday closest to that national holiday! I was surprised, therefore, when I opened our new hymnal and found it in the section labeled “The Life of the Nations.” I did not understand that categorization at all. But after researching the origins of this hymn, I have new clarity. Dr. Michael Hawn, Professor of Church Music at Perkins Seminary in Dallas, offers a detailed history of the hymn:

This hymn is a late sixteenth-century expression of celebration of freedom by the Netherlands from Spanish oppression. . . . The Dutch, long a stronghold for the Reformed theology of John Calvin, were in a struggle against Spain for their political independence and against the Catholic church for religious freedom. A twelve-year truce was established in 1609, giving young Prince Frederick Henry a chance to mature into an able politician and soldier.

During this time, the Dutch East India Company extended its trade beyond that of the English. The high period of Dutch art flourished with Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Under the guidance of Prince Frederick Henry’s leadership, Spain’s efforts to regain supremacy on land and sea were finally overcome in 1648. There was indeed much for which to be thankful. (

I had no idea that this was a “war” hymn! But once we know that history, the hymn reads differently. With that background, it is easy to slip into reading the hymn as a triumphalist cry of victory. And yet, even though that probably rings true to the original intent, the last stanza stands on its own. The last stanza truly is an eschatological verse. It speaks of freedom, but not from Spain. It speaks of freedom from pain and tribulation, from tears, perhaps from war. The poetry also lifts up God as our true Sovereign, echoing Psalm 143 that reminds us, “do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” By claiming God as Sovereign, they are reminding themselves and us under whose reign, in whose household, we truly live. And that is a verse I can sing with gusto at Thanksgiving time, as well as all year long. 

Gracious Sovereign, we are truly thankful that you continue to call us together as part of your body in this world. We are thankful that we can help each other sense your guidance, your blessing, your order in our lives. Yet most of all, we are deeply grateful for the way that you continue to be our Home. For only when we are abiding in your household, your reign, are we truly able to be free. Amen.

Written by Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor

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