Every so often, I run into someone who has a negative attitude about these kinds of hymns. They think they are old-fashioned and that contemporary music is the only way to be relevant. I have nothing against modern music. I often listen to contemporary Christian music on the radio, and I am convinced that such music does have its place. However, I am appalled by the dismissive attitude that many have toward these hymns, these treasures of our faith. When we neglect these hymns, we are depriving ourselves of much of the great wisdom of those saints who have gone before us. In times of joy and trial, these hymns speak to us and comfort us with God’s promises, as they did for the generations that have gone before us.
As our society is currently dealing with the fallout from the outbreak of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, our lives have been significantly altered for the moment and for an undetermined length of time. School has been cancelled in many places, meaning that parents are taking on additional responsibilities for education. Work responsibilities have changed. Social lives have been disrupted. Even churches have had to alter their worship schedules in order to allow for “social distancing.” The economy has been negatively affected. All of this, of course, is on top of the very real fear of people getting sick. For many, there is a new or renewed awareness that we do indeed live in a dangerous world filled with uncertainty. We walk in danger as we go through this life.
Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764), active in the eighteenth century, was the Lutheran bishop of Ribe, Denmark. However, much more than his work as an ecclesiastical official, he is known for his many hymns. Some of his more well-known contributions to Christian hymnody are as follows: the Christmas hymn “Your Little Ones, Dear Lord, Are We”; another Christmas hymn “My Heart Is Filled with Wonder”; yet another Christmas hymn “I’ve Found Now the Fairest of Roses”; an Ascension Day hymn “I See You Standing”; a hymn giving thanks for the departed faithful based on Revelation 7 “Behold the Host Arrayed in White”; and a hymn praising God for His creation “Rise Up, All Things that God Has Made.” These six barely scratch the surface of Brorson’s voluminous collection of hymns. They were used especially by later generations of Scandinavian Lutherans, and over the years a few of them, such as those listed above, have been translated into English.
Yet there is one more hymn by Brorson with which English-speaking Lutherans developed some familiarity. At our little church in Lindy, Nebraska, we have sung this one a few times over the years. I love it. I would sing it much more often, but I try to restrain myself from using it too much. The reason is that it is far from a “feel good” hymn. In fact, it is brutally honest about life. It can be said that this hymn is roughly based on the words of 1 Peter 5:8-10 in the New Testament:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. (English Standard Version).
The hymn by Brorson to which I refer goes by the title “I Walk in Danger” (Danish: Jeg gaar i fare hvor jeg gaar). Far from being a “day brightener,” the first three verses speak honestly about the danger a Christian faces in the world from the devil, various trials, and death:
I walk in danger all the way, the thought shall never leave me: that Satan, who has marked his prey, is plotting to deceive me. This foe with hidden snares may seize me unawares if I should fail to watch and pray. I walk in danger all the way.
I pass through trials all the way, with sin and ills contending; in patience I must bear each day the cross of God’s own sending. Oft in adversity I know not where to flee; when storms of woe my soul dismay, I pass through trials all the way.
Death does pursue me all the way, I cannot rest securely. He comes by night; he comes by day, and takes his prey most surely. A failing breath and I in death’s strong grasp will lie and face my own eternity; death does pursue me all the way (Lutheran Hymnal for Church and Home # 250)
Compared to the eighteenth century, we live in a pretty sanitized world. We live in the most prosperous time in human history, with lifespans far exceeding that of previous generations. Modern medical care and vaccines have given us a sense of security, and we sometimes forget that it was not all that long ago that people had a much more precarious existence. Things such as sinus and ear infections that are today mostly considered minor inconveniences were sometimes fatal. Childbirth was much more dangerous. People faced real physical dangers every day in their struggle to survive. And so Brorson’s hymn would not have sounded nearly as shocking to those of his time as it does to us.
Because of our sanitized world, we might be tempted to dismiss “I Walk in Danger” as a relic of a bygone era. But this recent scare with COVID-19 reveals that in spite of all of our technology and advancements in medicine, we still face physical danger. And in the end, no matter how much technology we have at our disposal, we still face death. This is one of the reasons that the annual observance of the season of Lent is so important. It is a constant reminder of our limitations, our mortality, and our need to be connected to the God who has created us and all things.
And this leads us to the most important point: aside from whatever physical danger we face, our Christian tradition affirms the reality of a greater danger, expressed in that verse from 1 Peter: Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
God calls us to “be sober; be watchful.” There are always spiritual forces of darkness that seek to pull us away from God and lead us to spiritual ruin, and at times dealing with crises can lead us to cling to our Lord more tightly. In trying times, may our eyes be opened even more to the greater danger that we face. And with faith, we trust that God does not abandon His people to ruin. The first three verses of Brorson’s sobering hymn speak of the danger we face, but the last three verses speak of the comfort we find in God’s promises in Christ:
I walk midst angels all the way; they shield me and befriend me, and keep the devil’s strength at bay when heavenly hosts attend me. They are my sure defense, they send my sorrow hence! Unharmed though foes do what they may, I walk midst angels all the way.
I walk with Jesus all the way, his guidance never fails me; within his wounds I find a stay when Satan’s power assails me. With Jesus there to lead, my path I safely tread. I spite of ills that threaten me, I walk with Jesus all the way.
My walk is heavenward all the way. Await, my soul, tomorrow when you will see a brighter day without your sin and sorrow. All worldly pomp be gone; to heaven I now press on. For all the world I would not stay; my walk is heavenward all the way.
I cannot guarantee that our lives will be untouched by COVID-19 or any other calamity. And it is good to take the danger posed by this illness seriously. But I can communicate the message of our faith that God always looks upon us with love and desires to keep us in His grace. In times of trial, let us also look to what God might be trying to teach us about our lives and also how we might be of service to others. In the words of the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life in the struggle against Nazism in his country, “May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.”
- Pr. Thomas E. Jacobson, March 19, 2020