Hymn Guide: Be Still My Soul

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Little is known about the life of Catharina von Schlegel, the 18th-century German author of “Be Still My Soul.” She was likely never married, which may have appealed to her unmarried translator, the 19th-century English hymn writer Jane Laurie Borthwick. Then there’s another striking similarity: Borthwick’s most famous hymn is “Come Labor On,” which, like “Be Still My Soul,” contains an elegiac reflection on the end of life.

What adorns this hymn with a special power is its tune, added later, from Jean SibeliusFinlandia. Finlandia begins with dramatic brass and drums, representing the struggle for Finnish Independence, but concludes with a serene melody, pulling together the themes from the earlier drama. When we sing this hymn, we feel the serenity on the other side of the struggle. It is, therefore, a fitting hymn in times of grief, struggle, patience, or pain.

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Verse by Verse

Each verse of the hymn begins with a reflexive command: “Be still, my soul.” The theme is drawn from Psalm 37, where David exhorts himself to “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in ev’ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Many Christians today know that “patience” is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But we forget that patience is more than waiting to the Biblical mind. In scripture, patience also means suffering; the King James Version translates the word as “longsuffering.”  Thus this first verse ties together the concept of patience with “cross,” “grief,” and “pain.” Stillness is contrasted here, not to experience, but rather to wrath. It’s an inner stillness that refuses anger at God, believing instead that “in every change, He faithful will remain.”

The second verse brings us into the life and power of Jesus:

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

The “waves and winds” refers to Mark 4, where Jesus falls asleep in the boat as a storm comes on. Like the disciples, we can sometimes wonder if Jesus knows and cares about our trials. Jostling Jesus, they asked in great anxiety, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” When he awoke, Jesus “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” (Mark 4:38-39).

The third verse explores the response of faith when even Christ chooses not to stop the storm:

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the veil of tears,
then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
from His own fullness all He takes away.

The mystery of God’s providence is that he does indeed choose to take his gifts away. And the mystery of faith is not only to trust God to sustain his gifts to us but also to trust God when he does not. Thus Jesus, having rebuked the storm, goes on to rebuke the disciples: “Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Jesus asks each of us to consider: is our faith in the gifts of God or God himself, the giver of the gifts?

For the Lord will take not only “our dearest friends,” but each one of us, to himself.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Paradoxically, it is through death that we most fully anticipate the hope of eternal life, in which “disappointment” and “grief” and “fear” and “sorrow” are no more. In the Lord, “we shall meet at last,” that is, meeting both God and the saints who have gone before us. The love of God and neighbor is not only our mission on earth; it is also our “purest joy” in heaven.

In the end, faith sacrifices all to the Lord. And in the end, faith restores all by the Lord.

On Video

The first is a choral setting by the Exultate Singers at St. Alban’s in Bristol, accompanied by a harp. The second is a contemporary rendition with keyboard and guitar, sung by Alanna Glover and produced by Emu Music, an Anglican music ministry centered in Australia. The final video is not the hymn but rather Sibelius’ Finlandia, from which the tune for the hymn is taken.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Published on

July 8, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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