“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” So opens Isaiah 40:1–11, the Old Testament lesson used by many congregations of the Missouri Synod this past Sunday, the second in Advent. For those using the historic lectionary, the same lesson will be heard this coming Sunday. And what more fitting to accompany such a lesson than Johann Olearius‘s hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (“Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben“)?
In point of fact, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” was not written as an Advent hymn. Olearius prepared it for inclusion in his hymnal Geistliche Singe-Kunst, Leipzig, 1671. This resource introduced many new hymns by Olearius, hymns that tended to be brief but carefully constructed. They were meant to provide something to sing for those days in the Church Year that had not already had a large body of hymnody devoted to them. “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” was written for the Feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24. The first lesson for that day was Isaiah 40:1–5, of which Olearius’s hymn is a paraphrase, and a skillful one at that, even in Catherine Winkworth’s masterful translation.
Stanzas 1 and 2 make clear the source of the comfort and peace which God speaks to His people: the forgiveness of their sins. “Tell her that her sins I cover,” says God to His preachers. With the forgiveness of sins comes the conversion of “pining sadness” into “ever-springing gladness.” Stanza 3 introduces John the Baptist, the “herald” who is “bidding all men to repentance,” as well as the motif of leveling: “Let the valleys rise to meet Him / And the hills bow down to greet Him.” Olearius’s wording suggests that God is speaking here not primarily of topography, but of the hearts of men. The haughty are to be made humble, bowing before God, and the humble are to be exalted, standing confident in His presence. This application is made more explicit in the fourth stanza, where the straight and the plain are interpreted as “hearts” made “true and humble,” though Olearius’s German speaks more in terms of a humble mode of living. In the end, the message of comfort through the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ will be made manifest to the entire world, as “all flesh shall see the token / That His Word is never broken.”
The tune is known in Lutheran hymnody by the name “Freu dich sehr,” for the text “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.” The tune originated in the Genevan Psalter as the melody for the metrical version of Psalm 42, but among English-speaking Lutherans, the tune is now most closely associated with Olearius’s hymn.
Though not originally intended for Advent, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” surely embodies both the penitence and the joyful anticipation so characteristic of that season. John the Baptist, after all, figures prominently in the Advent observance, and his entire preaching was a testimony to Christ. Though Christ is not mentioned by name in the hymn, the fulfillment of Isaiah 40 in the preaching of John the Baptists reveals that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world, is the one who brings comfort to Jerusalem and to the world.
May Olearius’s hymn, and the prophecy on which it is based, bring comfort to your household this Advent season.