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“When in the Hour of Deepest Need” – 4th Sunday in Lent

Posted on 22 Mar 2020, Pastor: Rev. James Fritsche

When In The Hour Of Deepest Need – LSB # 615

March 22, 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,

This morning I would like to base my message on Hymn # 615 – “When In The Hour Of Deepest Need”.  Please turn to this hymn in your hymnal.  This hymn was written by a pastor and professor by the name of Paul Eber.  He was a contemporary of Martin Luther, although a few years younger.  He was, in fact, a student of Luther at the university of Wittenberg and later became a professor at the same university.  Eber was a very gifted composer and hymn writer for the cause of the Reformation, considered second only to Luther.  As a young high school student, he was returning home from his boarding school because of the onset of a serious illness when he was thrown from his horse and painfully towed for more than a mile.  Because of this incident, it should not surprise us that many years later he would compose a hymn that speaks of great sorrows wrapped in endless days of anxious thought and helpless counsel, and yet gives thanks to God whose grace always abounds in every circumstance of life.

In 1964, a broadsheet of this hymn was discovered dating back to the year 1576.  At the bottom of the broadsheet the following sentence was written:  “Paul Eber wrote this hymn in the year 1566, when the Turks raged in Hungary and the pestilence in this our region”.

In its earliest print, the hymn is titled: “The prayer of Jehoshaphat 2 Chronicles 20 made into song”.

Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, was facing a most desperate situation when three enemies planned to join forces against him.  The Moabites, the Ammonites, and an army from Mt. Seir prepared for battle and together they presented a fearsome force that Jehoshaphat could not possibly counter.

Knowing that humanly he could not possibly withstand the onslaught of such an enemy, Jehoshaphat calls for an assembly of the people of Judah.  When they had gathered together at the temple in Jerusalem, King Jehoshaphat offered this prayer:

“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven?  You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations.  In your hand are power and might so that none is able to withstand you.  Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?  And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you – for your name is in this house – and you will hear and save.’  And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mt. Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom ehty avoided and did not destroy – behold they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit.  O our God, will you not execute judgment on them?  For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

This is the prayer upon which Paul Eber based his hymn.  The hymn has been used at notable occasions – particularly in times of war and apparent eminent disaster. For example, an account from 1639 relates that the hymn was sung in Eilenburg when Swedish forces threatened the town.  It is said that the singing impressed the Swedish commander so much that he greatly reduced the payment he was demanding to keep the town safe.  Another incident occurred in Pergau, near Leipzig, in 1644.  That city refused to surrender to Swedish forces, and so the Swedish general ordered grenades to be launched into the city.  The city was soon burning, and a hailstorm hindered attempts to put out the fire.  Women and children fled into the streets, then into the fields, where they were forced to spend a cold December night in the open.  City leaders tried to open negotiations with the Swedish general, but for him the time to negotiate was long past.  Finally, the chief pastor of the city made a last desperate attempt, walking through the Swedish onslaught with twelve boys clad in white all the way to the Swedish general’s tent.  Upon arrival, the pastor had the boys kneel and sing “When in the hour of deepest need”.  When they were finished, the pastor had barely begun to speak when the general rose and embraced him, recognizing him as an old school friend.  In the end, the general ordered that food and supplies be provided to the city and he treated the people well.

Perhaps this hymn is also most fitting for us to consider in our present circumstances.  We are not being invaded by a deadly army, but by a deadly virus, against which we have no apparent defense except by social distancing.  It is an enemy which causes fear and panic purchasing by many.  As King Jehoshaphat and Paul Eber turned to the Lord in their distress, so we also today in humility and repentance seek our Lord’s deliverance.  Let us use Eber’s hymn to guide us.

Stanzas 1 and 2 make clear that in times when earthly measures fail and all hope seems lost, even then our God will not forsake us.  He is faithful and will hear the cries of His people for deliverance and will free them from their misery, whether their freedom be given by earthly victory and physical restoration or by the eternal victory over the second death, which, because of Christ, has lost its sting.  (Sing St. 1 & 2)

When in the hour of deepest need

We know not where look for aid;

When days and nights of anxious thought

No help or councel yet have brought,

Then is our comfort this alone

That we may meet before Your throne;

To You, O faithful God, we cry

For rescue in our misery.

Stanza 3 wrestles with God, holding Him to His promises just as Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32 and as the Canaanite woman wrestled against the testing by Christ in Matthew, chapter 15.  St. Paul declares such suffering to be tools of God to draw us closer during hours of dire need.  We call upon God for help through His Son, Jesus Christ our advocate.  We hold Him to His promises, and we are certain that he hears us. (Sing St. 3)

For you have promised, Lord, to heed

Your children’s cries in time of need

Through Him whose name alone is great,

Our Savior and our Advocate.

The stage is now set for a right understanding of our relationship with God during times of trouble, and so now also is the Christian spurred to act.  Stanza 4 paints the portrait of woeful, tired, perplexed Christians gathering before the throne of grace to plead the Lord’s help, knowing with full confidence that he will answer.  Stanza 5 makes this approach one of confession, asking first for pardon from sin, unbelief, and self-trust, but with full confidence that the Lord absolves repentant sinners and delivers them.  (Sing St. 4 & 5)

And so we come, o God, today

And all our woes before You lay;

For sorely tried, cast down, we stand,

Perplexed by fears on every hand.

O from our sins, Lord, turn Your face;

Absolve us through Your boundless grace.

Be with us in our anguish still;

Free us at last from every ill.

The Bible tells us that the prayer of Jehoshaphat was answered when the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mt. Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed.  Those armies rose up against each other and helped to destroy one another.  When the army of Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped.  All that remained was for Judah to pick up the spoils of the battle, which took them 3 days.

Stanza 6 of our hymn brings the lives of the Christians full circle as they receive absolution and are refreshed once again to trust their faithful God, clinging to His Word and discerning that even when a war arises against them, they will ever thank and praise Him and wait for His time and way of deliverance, for it is always good!  (Sing St. 6)

So we with all our hearts each day

To you our glad thanksgiving pay.

Then walk obedient to Your Word.

And now and ever praise You, Lord.

In times of distress God’s people turn to their Lord for help.  That turning first of all acknowledges that we have turned away from God through our disobedience and sin.  We have turned to false idols – seeking to replace God with material goods, with the desires of our own heart rather than what God desires for us.  Are we not seeing that today?  We have not loved God with our whole heart, nor have we loved our neighbor as ourselves.  It can be a frightening thing to confess our sins, especially to God.  And yet, he assures us in His Word that “if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

God is eager to forgive us for the sake of Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son who went to Calvary’s cross to pay the price our sins demanded.  This is the Good News that all the world needs to hear, that for the sake of Christ you are forgiven all your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.