Walther’s Translator Got It Wrong (And Gerhardt Was Close) [Yes, I updated the title.]
There is one Easter hymn in Lutheran Service Book that should absolutely never be sung. Unfortunately for the LCMS, the hymn was written by her first president.
LSB 480, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen”
1. He’s risen, He’s risen, Christ Jesus, the Lord;
He opened death’s prison, the incarnate, true Word.
Break forth, hosts of heaven, in jubilant song
And earth, sea, and mountain their praises prolong.
2. The foe was triumphant when on Calvary
The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.
3. But short was their triumph; the Savior arose,
And death, hell, and Satan He vanquished, His foes.
The conquering Lord lifts His banner on high;
He lives, yes, He lives, and will nevermore die.
4. O, where is your sting, death? We fear you no more;
Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door.
For all our transgressions His blood does atone;
Redeemed and forgiven, we now are His own.
5. Then sing your hosannas and raise your glad voice;
Proclaim the blest tidings that all may rejoice.
Laud, honor, and praise to the Lamb that was slain:
With Father and Spirit He ever shall reign.
Stanza one is actually pretty good. It’s a bold proclamation of the resurrection. Jesus is alive. Death is defeated. Let’s praise God. Great.
But stanza two is a complete rejection of the Word of God. “The foe was triumphant when on Calvary”? In what way was the foe “triumphant”? If I recall the Gospel readings from Lent this last year in Series B of the Three-Year Lectionary, we heard repeatedly that “it is necessary for the Son of Man to be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and the third day rise again” (cf. Mark 8:31 from Lent 2; John 2:18 from Lent 3; John 3:14 from Lent 4; Mark 10:33-34 from Lent 5). To say that Calvary was the moment of triumph for the foe is to declare that Christ was not supposed to go to the cross; but rather that the Devil somehow managed to trick Him into doing something apart from His divine will. The resurrection, then, is simply correcting the mistake of the crucifixion.
Furthermore, at Christ’s death there were all the signs: the curtain tearing, the earthquakes, the dead rising (Matthew 27:51-52). The foe would not have seen these and thought, “Oh, hey, I just won!”
That absolutely flies in the face of the fundamental doctrine of the Christian Church: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross was not a mistake. The cross was not the victory for the foe. The cross was the victory of Jesus Christ! The Devil would have prevented Christ from going to the cross had he been able.
And if that’s not bad enough, look at how he expounds upon this point throughout the rest of the stanza. “In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer”? Where in Scripture does it ever speak of the crucifixion in terms such as these? And he even continues this thought at the start of stanza three.
Stanzas four and five do get us back on track, with four drawing us to the burial rite where we proclaim victory over death and five being an ascription of praise which ties us back to Palm Sunday.
But even if stanzas two and three were removed, I still would not want anyone singing this hymn, at least not as it is given to us in LSB. For in addition to having a poor text, this hymn also has a terrible melody. That is to say, we should not be singing hymns to the tune of “Oh, My Darling, Clementine.” Had you ever noticed that before? Go look at it. It’s there. That’s the melody for the entire first verse (please note that there is a difference between the term “verse” and the term “stanza”). There are four other melodies in LSB that follow the same meter (11 11 11 11), but only one of them would be appropriate to use as a substitute. The melodies for “Away in a Manger” would not work, nor would the melody for “How Firm a Foundation.” However, the melody for “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” would be acceptable. So if we could eliminate the two stanzas of false doctrine and change the melody, this would actually be an acceptable hymn to sing. Until that time, however, it should be stricken from our hymnals.
Now, I mentioned Gerhardt. Gerhardt comes very close to treading down the same path as Walther in his hymn, “Awake My Heart with Gladness” (LSB 467).
1. Awake, my heart, with gladness,
See what today is done;
Now, after gloom and sadness,
Comes forth the glorious sun.
My Savior there was laid
Where our bed must be made
When to the realms of light
Our spirit wings its flight.
2. The foe in triumph shouted
When Christ lay in the tomb;
But lo, he now is routed,
His boast is turned to gloom.
For Christ again is free;
In glorious victory
He who is strong to save
Has triumphed o’er the grave.
3. This is a sight that gladdens—
What peace it doth impart!
Now nothing ever saddens
The joy within my heart.
No gloom shall ever shake,
No foe shall ever take
The hope which God’s own Son
In love for me has won.
4. Now hell, its prince, the devil,
Of all their pow’r are shorn;
Now I am safe from evil,
And sin I laugh to scorn.
Grim death with all its might
Cannot my soul affright;
It is a pow’rless form,
Howe’er it rave and storm.
5. The world against me rages,
Its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages,
Its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free,
No trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play,
And night is bright as day.
6. Now I will cling forever
To Christ, my Savior true;
My Lord will leave me never,
Whate’er He passes through.
He rends death’s iron chain;
He breaks through sin and pain;
He shatters hell’s grim thrall;
I follow Him through all.
7. He brings me to the portal
That leads to bliss untold,
Whereon this rhyme immortal
Is found in script of gold:
“Who there My cross has shared
Finds here a crown prepared;
Who there with Me has died
Shall here be glorified.”
As with Walther, the verse in question comes in stanza two: “The foe in triumph shouted when Christ lay in the tomb.” Again, this is not quite accurate. The foe wanted to prevent Christ from going to the cross.
The difference between Gerhardt and Walther, however, is that Walther attributes the cross as victory to the foe. Gerhardt merely presents the foe as thinking he was triumphant, when it fact he never was. The latter is still not entirely accurate, but it is a much more defensible theological statement than Walther’s (for it could be argued that the foe thought he was triumphant seeing as he is the one who entered into Judas to have him betray Christ, Luke 22:3). And considering Gerhardt’s history, he is granted a bit broader poetic license in his hymns. As with Walther’s hymn, this one stanza could be removed if one’s conscience were so convicted, though it would not be necessary as it would with Walther’s hymn.
But again, we see from how the demons reacted to Christ (cf. Mark 5:7; Luke 4:34) that they wanted nothing to do with Him. They knew why He had come for they knew who He was. They knew what His purpose was. Satan knew the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. He knew that his defeat and His victory were at hand. So there was not a moment of victory for Satan–actual or perceived–upon the cross. Christ’s is the victory; and yours is the prize!