I saw this the other day – “It’s not happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy.” Great line. What does it mean?

“Now Thank We All Our God” comes to mind, the classic Thanksgiving hymn. The writer must have been thinking of bountiful harvests, a healthy family gathered around an overloaded table, a beautiful landscape of fiery-colored trees and peacefully grazing cattle.

If that’s what you’re picturing, you’d be wrong.

Martin Rinkart, the German author of these lyrics, lived through the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648), three decades of bloodshed, famine, starvation and disease. He was a pastor in Eilenberg, a walled city overcrowded with political and military refugees. Several waves of a deadly plague swept through the city, reaching its height in 1637. There were four ministers in Eilenberg – one moved away to somewhere safer, two died of the plague, and Martin was left to conduct between forty and fifty funerals a day, for a total of nearly five thousand. His generosity to refugees was so great that he often had trouble feeding his own family during the famine that followed the plague.

In 1637, while the world was literally falling apart around him, Martin sat down to write this:

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son and Him who reigns
With Them in highest heaven.
The one eternal God
Whom earth and heaven adore-
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

At our Thanksgiving tables we typically thank God for family, home, health, friends and food. For Martin, all five of those were disappearing.

We have to ask, what exactly was he thankful for?

If you carefully read the lyrics, you will find that Martin was content with God himself – God’s love, peace, grace, guidance, and sovereignty, “the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore.” Life was excruciating, but God was enough. Certainly Martin prayed for outward circumstances to change, but his faith was anchored in the God who was present in the incredible human suffering that surrounded him. You could say that in the midst of disaster he was happy.

This Thanksgiving some will have a Hallmark experience, but many others will not. “Now Thank We All Our God” reminds us that nothing can take God from us. Not conflicted or broken families, not financial reversal, not a political and social world in turmoil, not illness, nothing. In our joy he smiles with us, and in our pain and grief he tenderly surrounds us with himself. He is an unshakeable resting place.

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalm 147:11).

It truly is thankful people who are happy, not the other way around. Thank God for his faithful servant, Martin Rinkart, who showed us how it’s done.

Listen to the hymn here:

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