Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Church History Tuesday

David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was… (1 Chronicles 25:1)

One of Martin Luther’s gifts to the Protestant churches was music. He understood music itself to be a gift from God, and that our joyful response to the grace of God would inevitably take the form of singing. Not only did he write hymns himself, but he also composed the tunes. If you have sung ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, then you have not only sung his words but also his tune.

Two hundred years later, the Lutheran church produced a great - the greatest? - church musician in J S Bach, a man who also saw his music as being created in praise of God. He was no mean musician, but he also had studied Latin, Greek Hebrew and Theology as a youth. Amongst the many books in his library is an edition of the Bible which contains his own handwritten annotations, and one of these can be found alongside 1 Chronicles 25, a chapter which describes King David organising the musicians. Bach wrote: “NB, This chapter is the true foundation for all church music that is pleasing to God.”

This understanding was shot through his vast number of compositions. His manuscripts often ended with the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or “to God alone be glory”), and some began with the letters JJ (Jesu Juva or “Jesus help me”). He understood that singing can be a great tool to teach, and so many of his most famous works tackle Biblical themes and were written for the cycle of the church year. Although his music is extraordinary, it also a means to an end: the glorification of God.

As Bach’s prolific life was drawing to close, he made revisions to his organ chorale named “When We Are in the Direst Need”. Once amended, he also changed its title to “Before Thy Throne I Step Herewith”. Such was the sure and certain faith of the great musician of the church.

Creating a New Heart

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:9-12) - In the end, sin places a cloud between us and the glory of God. David wishes to experience once more the full warmth and brilliance of God. He wishes once again to know the presence of God’s spirit. We have a God who is merciful, and when we acknowledge our faults to him in prayer, he works in us to overcome these shortcomings.

Bearing Witness

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:13-15) - Many people are, I know, anxious about talking to people about their faith as they fear they will not have all the answers. The point is that you don’t need all the answers in order to simply say why Christianity is important to you.

  1. Blog
  2. The Rectory Bulletin
  3. 2020
  4. October
  5. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)