Philipp Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor in Unna, Germany from 1596-1601, and during his time there a severe plague swept through. From July 1597-January 1598, over 1,400 of Pastor Nicolai’s parishioners died because of the plague. During the worst of it, he was burying 20 or 30 people per day.
As a refuge from the death round about him, Pastor Nicolai spent much time reading the Scriptures, reflecting on eternal life, and praying. The result of his meditations (besides personal comfort) was a book titled Mirror of the Joys of Eternal Life, which was meant as a comfort for those who were sick, dying, or mourning. A great treasure has passed to us from this work: two hymns that Pastor Nicolai wrote and included in the book, namely, “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star.”
These two hymns are called respectively the King and Queen of the Chorales. The Lutheran church has loved them for centuries, and they gain an added significance when we consider that Pastor Nicolai wrote them in the midst of a devastating plague and while burying dozens of people a week. Here’s the text of “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star.” Notice that it’s a concrete poem, meaning the stanzas have a shape: that of a communion chalice.
1 How lovely shines the Morning Star!
The nations see and hail afar
The light in Judah shining.
Thou David’s Son of Jacob’s race,
My Bridegroom and my King of Grace,
For Thee my heart is pining.
Great and glorious,
Prince of graces,
Filling all the heav’nly places.
2 O highest joy by mortals won,
True Son of God and Mary’s Son,
Thou highborn King of ages!
Thou art my heart’s most beauteous Flow’r
And Thy blest Gospel’s saving pow’r
My raptured soul engages.
Whilst Thy love in songs repeating.
3 Now richly to my waiting heart,
O Thou, my God, deign to impart
The grace of love undying.
In Thy blest body let me be,
E’en as the branch is in the tree,
Thy life my life supplying.
For the savor
Of Thy favor;
Till I rest in Thee forever.
4 A pledge of peace from God I see
When Thy pure eyes are turned to me
To show me Thy good pleasure.
Jesus, Thy Spirit and Thy Word,
Thy body and Thy blood, afford
My soul its dearest treasure.
In Thy favor,
O my Savior!
Thou wilt cheer me;
Thy Word calls me to draw near Thee.
5 Thou, mighty Father, in Thy Son
Didst love me ere Thou hadst begun
This ancient world’s foundation.
Thy Son hath made a friend of me,
And when in spirit Him I see,
I joy in tribulation.
He that liveth
To me giveth
Nothing me from Him can sever.
6 Lift up the voice and strike the string,
Let all glad sounds of music ring
In God’s high praises blended.
Christ will be with me all the way,
Today, tomorrow, every day,
Till traveling days be ended.
Praise the God of your salvation.
7 Oh, joy to know that Thou, my Friend,
Art Lord, Beginning without end,
The First and Last, eternal!
And Thou at length-O glorious grace!-
Wilt take me to that holy place,
The home of joys supernal.
Come and meet me!
Quickly greet me!
With deep yearning,
Lord, I look for Thy returning.
Painting: The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1562