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The Midweek Hymn: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

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TO my knowledge, the writer of this hymn is the only one with a species of early man named after him.

Joachim Neander (1650-1680) wrote about 60 hymns and provided tunes for many of them. He is regarded as the outstanding hymn writer of the German Reformed Church.

He was born in Bremen. When he was a teenager his father, a Latin teacher, died leaving the family short of money. Neander was therefore unable to go to one of the famous German universities and signed up to be a theology student at a local institution.

He had no particular interest in studying and soon gained a reputation for having a wild lifestyle. A contemporary wrote that ‘his student life was spent in vanity of the mind, forgetfulness of God, and the eager pursuit of youthful pleasures’.

One Sunday, when he was 20, he and two friends went to church not to worship but laugh at it. As Neander listened to the sermon he suddenly realised he had religious feelings. Another incident reinforced his conviction: walking on a steep and rocky hillside, he became lost in the dark. He prayed that if God would lead him to safety, his life would be dedicated to God’s service.

He graduated in 1670 and took a job as a private tutor in Heidelberg, and in 1674 he became a teacher and assistant minister at a grammar school in Düsseldorf.

The minister or headmaster was another Bremen man called Sylvester Lürsen, a few years older than Neander. Lürsen and the elders of the Reformed Church had complete control of the school.

At first he and Neander got on well, but soon the independent-minded younger man began to hold prayer meetings of his own, without informing or consulting the minister or elders, and became less regular in his attendance at the ordinary services of the Church. He compounded his offence by drawing up a new school timetable, ordering alterations to the buildings, and holding examinations and setting holidays without consulting anyone. Worst of all, he was popular with the local people and Lürsen was jealous.

On February 3, 1677, Neander was suspended from the school and the pulpit. A fortnight later, on February 17, he signed a declaration that he would not repeat any of the acts complained of and was permitted to resume his duties as a teacher but not as assistant minister.

This was a humiliation which he must have felt keenly. A few months later there was a further blow to his pride when Lürsen left and was replaced by the second master, Neander being passed over.

With all the stress in his working life, Neander relaxed by walking in the nearby valley of the Düssel river, a deep ravine between rock fac­es and forests, with numerous caves, grottos and waterfalls, gaining inspiration from nature for writing poetry and hymns. He held gatherings and services in the valley. In the early 19th century, a large cave was named Neanderhöhle after him. In the mid 19th century, the cement industry started to quarry the limestone, and the narrow ravine became a wider valley, which was renamed Neanderthal (Neander Valley) in his honour. The fossil remains of ‘Neanderthal Man’ were found there in the summer of 1856.

In 1679, Neander left the grammar school and returned to Bremen to be a pastor. A year later, at the age of 30, he became ill with tuberculosis, then incurable.

He knew he was dying and on one occasion during a thunderstorm, he cried, ‘I hear my Father’s voice; would that it were his chariot-wheels, coming for me!’

On May 31, 1680, the doctor asked how he felt. He replied, ‘Now the Lord has made out my reckoning.’ Quoting from Isaiah 54:10, he said, ‘The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee.’ Soon afterwards, he died peacefully.

His hymn Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (‘Praise the Lord, the mighty King of Honour’) was published the same year. Among its references are Psalm 103, which begins ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.’ (Verses 15-16 are some of my favourites: ‘As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.’) Another is Psalm 150, the final line of which is ‘Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.’

The hymn has been translated several times and the one in use today was published in 1863 by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She also translated Now Thank We All Our God which I wrote about here.

In that article I wrote: ‘She was the daughter of a silk merchant, born in London and brought up in Manchester and Bristol. She is credited with one of the best puns of all time. At the age of 16, after hearing about British General Sir Charles Napier’s capture, against orders, of the (then) Indian province of Sindh, she remarked to her teacher that Napier’s despatch home should have read “Peccavi”, which is Latin for “I have sinned”, and a pun on “I have Sindh”. She sent her joke to the humorous magazine Punch which printed it as a factual report, incorrectly attributing it to Napier, under the heading “Foreign Affairs” on 18 May 1844.’

These are the words:

1 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation;
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation:
Come ye who hear,
Brothers and sisters draw near,
Praise him in glad adoration.

2 Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth:
Hast thou not seen
All that is needful hath been
Granted in what he ordaineth?

3 Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work, and defend thee;
Surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew
All the Almighty can do,
He who with love doth befriend thee.

4 Praise to the Lord! Oh let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him!
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him!

The melody used by Neander, first published in 1665, exists in many versions and is probably based on a folk tune. It is now called Lobe den Herren.

When I started looking on YouTube for performances I feared that there might not be much variety, but in fact the hymn has been given many good arrangements.

Here it is at the Westminster Abbey Commonwealth Day Service on March 9 this year, with a terrific descant in the last verse. (This was the last appearance by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as working royals.)

This is by Don Moen.

Another contemporary version by Logan Shelton.

Here is a great lockdown brass performance.

Pulling out all the stops, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg.

I thought this arrangement by Camp Kirkland had a West Side Story Feel. It is played by the Immanuel Symphony Orchestra who I think are students at the Immanuel Music School in Bangkok.

Finally, the A Capella Choir of Samford University, Alabama, in a lovely arrangement by F Melius Christiansen. Wonderful acoustics!

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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