Pastor Philipp Nicolai: Hero of the Faith and Gift to the Church….The Story of the Queen of the Chorales: “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”
I was looking at the German for “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” yesterday and recognized that there are several very clear references to the Lord’s Supper that are missing from most English translations.
We need to be clear about one thing. “Translating” hymns is not merely a matter of putting the original language into English. There is quite an art and skill in rendering the hymn into English in such a way that it retains a poetic structure and style and, most importantly, still is able to be sung. So, before we ever get too hard on translators of hymns, we need to keep this in mind, but, having said that, it is good at times to take a look at the original language from a more literal/literalistic point of view to better see and understand the original words and the intent of the author.
Now, as you read these words, keep in mind the context in which they were written. Pastor Nicolai was watching as, literally, thousands of bodies were being carried out of town for burial due to the plague, and he himself was performing many of the funerals. Here is more information on Pastor Nicolai, who was a staunchly orthodox Lutheran, a great defender of Biblical truth against Calvinism, and a deeply spiritual, pious pastor and hymnist.
Here is a great mini-biography of Pastor Nicolai, and following it, you will find the literal translation of “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star.” If you read on to the extended entry, I’ve placed there a longer biographical article on Nicolai, from the Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia that offers a more complete look at his theological work.
Nicolai was born at Mengeringhousen in Waldeck (near Arolsen), Hessen,
Germany, August 10, 1556, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Dieterich Nicolai. In 1575 Nicolai entered the University of Erfurt, and in 1576 he went to Wittenberg graduating in 1579 (D.D. at Wittenberg July 4, 1594).
For four years after his graduation, he lived at Volkhardinghousen,
near Mengeringhousen, and frequently preached for his father. In
August, 1583, he was appointed Lutheran preacher at Herdecke, but found
many difficulties there, the members of the Town Council being Roman
Catholics. After the invasion by the Spanish troops in April, 1586, his
colleague re-introduced the Mass, and Nicolai resigned his post.
In the end of 1586 he was appointed diaconus at Niederwildungen, near Waldeck, and in 1587 he became pastor there.1
He then became, in November, 1588, chief pastor at Altwildungen, and
also Hofprediger (Court Preacher) to the widowed Countess Margaretha
of Waldeck, and tutor to her son, Wilhelm Ernst, Count of Waldeck in
Wildungen, Hessen (died at Tubingen, September 16,
1598, the result of the bubonic plague, and who formed the inspiration
of one of Nicolai’s greatest hymns, Wachet Auf). In this position he found himself in disagreement with the Calvinists on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper (the “the
Sacramentarian controversy”), and was, in Sept. 1592, inhibited from
preaching by Count Franz of Waldeck. However, the prohibition was soon
removed, and in the Synod of 1593 held at Mengeringhausen, he found all
the clergy of the principality of Waldeck willing to agree to the Formula of Concord.
went to Unna in Westphalia in 1596 where he again was involved in
controversy with the Calvinists. The city of Unna fell victim to the
plague in 1597 and 1598, which took the lives of over 1,300 of its
inhabitants. From the parsonage which overlooked the churchyard,
Nicolai was deeply saddened by the continual burials. On one day thirty
graves were dug. On December 27, 1598, Nicolai was forced to flee Unna
before the invasion of the Spaniards, and did not return till the end
of April, 1599.
From these scenes of death he
turned to the study of St. Augustine’s “City of God” and the
contemplation of the eternal life, and so absorbed himself in them that
he kept himself “comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly
content.” It was in the midst of this distress (e.g., 1599) that he
wrote a series of meditations to which he gave the title, Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens,
(“Joyful Mirror of the Eternal Life”; opens in a new window at an
external site). It was a book of pious and devout reflection, which
included two hymns that quickly attained a wide popularity, and are
indeed admirable for their fervor of emotion and mastery over difficult
but musical rhythms.
Previously, the hymns of the
Reformation had been distinguished by their simplicity and
appropriateness to church use; their models had been found in the
earlier Latin hymns, or in the Psalms of the Old Testament and the
hymns handed down to us by St. Luke.
in Nicolai’s writings there is a new style, afterwards very prevalent,
which is similar to some of the later mediaeval hymns addressed to the
Virgin and saints, and finds its scriptural ground in the Song of
Solomon and the Apocalypse. As yet most hymns were addressed to God the
Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, or to the Holy Trinity, or in the
case of hymns of sorrow and penitence to the Savior. But afterwards the
mystical union of Christ with the soul became a favorite subject; more
secular allusions and similes were admitted, and a class of hymns
begins to grow up, called in Germany “Hymns of the Love of Jesus.”
Of his hymns, only four seemed to have been ever printed. Three of his hymns were first published in his devotional work entitled Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens, published at Frankfurt-am-Main, 1599. Two of them — “Wachet auf” and “Wie schön” — rank as classical and epoch-making.
“Wake, awake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!”
is well known in England from the use of its splendid chorale in
Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” to the words, “Sleepers, wake, a voice is
calling.” The opening lines of Wake, awake are probably
borrowed from a medieval “watch song”, but while those voices were
admonishing the workers of darkness to flee from discovery, “with
Nicolai it is a summons to the children of light to awaken to their
promised reward and full felicity.” The tune to the lyrics is also
ascribed to Nicolai (although adapted from an earlier hymn by Hans Sachs).
The other hymn, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“O Morning Star, How Fair And Bright“)also
possesses a very fine chorale; and so popular did it soon become, that
its tune was often chimed by city chimes, lines and verses from it were
printed by way of ornament on the common earthenware of the country,
and it was invariably used at weddings and certain festivals. It is
still to be found in all German hymn-books, but in a very modified form
to suit more modern tastes.
marks the transition from the objective churchly period to the more
subjective and experimental period of German hymn writing. It began a
long series of Hymns of Love to Christ as the Bridegroom of the Soul,
to which Franck and Scheffler contributed such beautiful examples. Marked by a new sincerity, they gave the church a new voice in song. Published just a few short years before Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, they reflect a similar feeling of devotion about Jesus.
in April 1601, he was elected chief pastor of Katharinenkirche (St.
Katherine’s Church) in Hamburg, where he began his duties August 6,
1601. In Hamburg, Nicolai was universally esteemed,
was a most popular and influential preacher — he was hailed as a
“second Chrysostom” — and was regarded as a “pillar” of the Lutheran
church. In his private life he seemed to have been most lovable and
estimable, although some of his writings, according to Julian, were
“polemical” and “acrid in tone.”
On October 22, 1608, he took part in the ordination of a colleague, the diaconus Penshorn,
and returned home feeling unwell. He developed a violent fever, and
died October 26, 1608. He was buried at Katharinenkirche, Hamburg.
Sadly, the Katharinenkirche was almost destroyed in World War II,
though it was restored in the 1950’s.
Besides his fame as a preacher, his reputation rests mainly on his hymns.
According to another account, from 1586 to 1588, Nicolai had moved to
Köln (Cologne), a thoroughly Catholic city, and was a preacher of the
Lutheran congregations, who at that time met secretly in houses. Return
Rev. Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, Fourth Edition, 1908)
John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology. 1892, 1907; reprinted by Dover, 1957.
Here then, from the hymn-translating-machine, Matthew Carver, of
Hymnoglypt fame, is a literal translation of “How Lovely Shine the
Morning Star” which he produced at my request.
1. How beautifully the Morning-star blazes (to us),
full of grace and truth from the Lord,
you sweet root of Jesse;
You—Son of David, from Jacob’s branch,
my King and my Bridegroom—
(You) have occupied my heart,
lovely, friendly, fair and splendid,
great and honorable, rich in gifts,
high and very nobly exalted.
2. Ah, my Pearl, You precious Crown,
true Son of God and of Mary, a high-born King,
my heart calls You a Lily,
Your sweet Gospel is sheer milk and honey.
Ah, my Flower, Hosanna,
heavenly Manna which we eat,
I cannot forget You.
3. You bright Jasper and Ruby,
Pour very deeply into my heart the flame of Your love,
and gladden me so that I may remain a living rib in Your elected body.
My heart is sick and smoldering for You
Gratiosa Coeli Rosa (Gracious Rose of Heaven)
(my heart is) wounded by Your love.
4. From God a glow of joy comes to me,
Whenever You give me a friendly look with Your eyes.
O Lord Jesus, my trusty good,
Your Word, Your Spirit, Your body and blood revive me inwardly.
Kindly accept me in Your arms, so that I may be warmed by grace.
At Your word, I come burdened.
5. Lord God Father, my strong champion,
You loved me in Your Son eternally before the world.
Your Son pledged Himself to me,
He is my treasure, I am His bride, greatly overjoyed in Him.
He will give me heavenly life yonder above;
Forever shall my heart praise Him.
6. Strike the cithara-strings
and let sweet music resound all full joyfully,
so that I may well up with constant love for Jesus
my wondrously beautiful Bridegroom.
Sing (you all)!, Jump (you all)!
Jubilate, be triumphant,
thank the Lord;
great is the King of Glory.
7. How heartily happy I am indeed
because my treasure is the Alpha and Omega,
the Beginning and the End;
He shall surely take me up to His prize into Paradise
for this reason I clap my hands.
Come, you beautiful Crown of Joy,
Do not tarry long,
I wait for you with yearning.