When Georg Neumark was 18 years old, he was traveling across Germany to school when he was robbed of all his personal possessions and money. He spent the next two years looking for work amidst the economic hardships of the Thirty Years War. Finally, at the age of 20, he found employment as a tutor for a judge in Kiel. He was apparently so relieved and grateful that later that night he wrote this text of trust and gratitude, saying, “This good fortune, which came so suddenly and, as it were, from heaven, so rejoiced my heart that I wrote my hymn ‘Wer nur...’ to the glory of my God on that first day” (Psalter Hymnal Handbook, 611). Neumark knew of the trials we face every day – whether they are economic, emotional, spiritual, or physical. And he knew that, even if it is not how we would have first asked or imagined, God provides for His people. During those two years of living in the unknown, Neumark knew one thing: God was always with him. Later in his life he again lost all his possessions to a fire, but he had these words of trust to say in the face of adversity. And in the face of our own hardships, we sing these words of trust, knowing that God is with us.
Neumark’s original German text, written in 1641, consisted of seven verses. In 1855, Catherine Winkworth translated the text into English, and in 1863 drastically revised her translation, the first line now reading, “If thou but suffer God to guide thee.” Her revisions of the original stanzas one, three, and seven are found in most modern hymnals. Changes in word choice abound between hymnals, but despite different wording, the different texts all ultimately say the same thing. For example, in the Psalter Hymnal, the third stanza reads, “Sing, pray and keep his ways unswerving, offer your service faithfully...” compared to the same line in the Presbyterian Hymnal, which reads, “Sing, pray, and swerve not from God’s ways, but do thine own part faithfully.” Other changes between hymnals amount to changing “thy” and “thine” and other antiquated language to a more modern text.
The tune WER NUR DEN LIEBEN GOTT (same name as original German hymn) was composed by Neumark in 1657 to accompany his text. This became a very popular tune, used in organ variations by Lutheran composers, and in a number of Bach’s cantatas. This is a rather interesting tune because, as Paul Westermeyer states, it can be sung at a number of different tempos, and the meaning of the text will change depending on the speed. For example, you would sing the hymn at a faster tempo when celebrating God’s faithfulness, and at a much slower tempo when singing it in a time of crisis or hardship. The words stay the same, but the meaning changes quite drastically depending on how fast you sing those words. For example, Madeline Robison's slower version in a minor key speaks of heartache much more than Bach's Orgel Buchlein, BWV 607.
Throughout the year we have reasons to remind ourselves to rely on God alone for our help and our safety. This hymn is thus appropriate at any time during the liturgical calendar, but especially during times of crisis in your church or when you need a reminder of God’s faithfulness. It can also be very powerful in services of celebration in which you remember and re-tell the stories of how God has been faithful to you and your church.