Songs in a Pandemic - Part 3, Be Still My Soul
Today is day 32 of what was originally a 21-day lockdown in South Africa. When I first posted in this series back on 31 March 2020, there were about 750,000 cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and almost 35,000 deaths. Today, just 28 days later, there have now been over 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths. The scale of the pandemic has taken the world by surprise. A surge of this magnitude (with no end in sight) has caused such a mix of reactions as to boggle the mind. Very few and far between are those voices who deny the seriousness of our global situation. The sober reality is that the more common reaction today is not denial, but panic. Fear. Anxiousness. Even hysteria.
And these reactions are to be expected, aren’t they? These are indeed fearful times. No one, no political leader, no medical expert, knows exactly how this pandemic will continue to spread or how high the number of infections will rise. By all accounts, even here in South Africa, the peak for many regions of the world is still months away. The unknowns are great, the danger high, the economic situation dire, and the opinions on what we should all do about it are myriad. It’s no wonder people are fearful. It’s no wonder there is anxiousness about the future. It’s no wonder there is panic. These are natural, human, reactions.
The unnatural response would be calm. Resting. Peace. Stillness. Confidence even. Only the Christian can have these reactions in the truest sense. I’m not saying that the non-Christian cannot hold it together, cannot be calm, cannot show great courage in the face of trial. Indeed, they can. The secular worldview would say these are survival instincts kicking in, a sort of steeling of oneself to accomplish what must be done, for this is how we have evolved to survive. For the Christian, we explain this because of the image of God, the Imago Dei, embedded in each human. But the first response of the natural person is not calm, it’s panic. It is not confidence, it’s fear. It is frenetic activity, not stillness. It is anxiousness, not a peace “that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
For the Christian, for those with a biblical worldview, a Christ-infused perspective, we can be still in the truest sense. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even when the whole world seems to be running scared, we can rest. Why? Because God is still God. It’s as simple as that really. And because He is God, we can be still.
I have been pondering a particular song over the last few weeks. Be Still My Soul, written by Katherine von Schlegel, an otherwise-unknown German noble-woman, was part of Neue Sammlung Geistlicher Lieder (A new collection of spiritual songs) published in 1752. It was over one hundred years later, in 1855, that the text was translated into English by Jane Borthwick, a member of the Free Church of Scotland. It is Borthwicks translation that is still widely used today.
But perhaps the most significant reason that the song has gained such a wide popularity as it has today is because of the stunningly beautiful tune which has traditionally been paired with the text. Finlandia was written around the turn of the 1900s as a patriotic anthem celebrating the people of Finland, by famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. But it was not until 1927 that David Evans, a Welshman and Oxford-trained organist and choirmaster, paired the tune of Finlandia to the poem Be Still My Soul. And so was birthed one of the most incredible examples of text and harmony working together to produce a message that conveys strength, assurance, and biblical truth, a pairing that in many ways remains unmatched nearly one hundred years later.
There are many dozens of artists to choose from when looking for this song, and one would find it difficult to go wrong with their choice. But the one that I’ve chosen to highlight is by a newer group, who takes a very simplified translation of the poem, keeps the Finlandia tune, but keeps a very simple, relatable feel to the song. I hope you enjoy Be Still My Soul by Page CXVI. The text is in the video but is also below.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change, He will remain.
Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
To guide the future, as in ages past.
Your hope, your mind, your will let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's joys restored.
Be still my soul, Be still my soul
What comfort are the words of this song! “In every change, He will remain.” God is always the same, unchanging, always ordering and providing for us. Always guiding the future, just like He has in the past. While we don’t know all that God is doing in the world, we know from His own character that it is always ultimately for His own glory, which is ultimately always what is best for us. And while we have mystery now, all will be revealed in God’s own good time. That timing is probably not in our lifetimes, but rather is after we are forever with the Lord. And when that time comes, when disappointment, grief, fear, virus, lockdown, when these are all gone, they’ll actually all be forgotten. And then our souls will be perfectly at rest, perfectly still when God has restored all things.
But the power of this song is not simply its stirring melody, not even in its beautiful and convicting text. But it’s real power is that it echoes the very Word of God. Every time I hear this song, I am instantly reminded of Psalm 46. Read through just a few of these verses, see how it is infused through the text of our hymn:
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though hits waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
Regardless of what is going on in the world around us, God is with is, the Lord is on our side. Though it appears all is falling apart, He still orders and provides. Though there is trembling and fear without, there is stillness within. Though creation is groaning now, one day, all will be made right.
But then the Psalm comes to this stunning command:
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
Be still. Know that I am God. I am still in control. Don’t fear. I am still here. This verse is so well-known, and rightfully so. It is on Christian art, on coffee mugs, even on bumper stickers. And we must remind ourselves of this truth. We are so prone to forget, so it is good to remind ourselves: be still. God is still God.
But my fear in all of these quick ways to remind ourselves of this truth, we always leave off the rest of the verse. It is in the second half of the verse that gives the command to be still its foundation. Ultimately, why can we be still? Why must we be still? Because God has a plan. His mission to redeem a people from every nation, His promise to make worshippers from all peoples of the world, is the bedrock upon which we can place our hope. This is why we can be still. Because no matter what the world throws at us, be it earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, or viruses, the plan of God to exalt himself among all peoples remains. This is the picture we see throughout all the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. God says, in effect, “Be still, calm down, remember I am God. I have a plan to make myself known to all the peoples of the world. That plan is unchanged. I’ve still got everything under control. Be still.”
As I was preparing for this article and researching for the short the background of our song, I was struck by how God works. Did you notice who God used to bring about this great anthem? A German noble-woman in 1752, a woman from Scotland in the 1855, a Finnish man around 1900 and a Welshman in 1927. Two women, two men. Three different centuries. Four different ethnic groups. Wow! In this (very) brief history of one song, we have just a small glimpse of what God has been doing from all time and will continue to do until the end of the age: God is on a mission to redeem a people from every people group. I daresay that we will meet many thousands of Germans, Scots, Finns, and Welsh in the redeemed multitude that no one can number from Revelation 7. Maybe some will be there in part because of the truths of the gospel they heard in this very song. What a God we serve! Be still. He has everything under control.
And PS…for another stunning arrangement of this hymn, check out Eclipse 6, a men’s A Cappella choir here!