History of Hymns: "Jesus, Priceless Treasure"
“Jesus, Priceless Treasure”
Johann Franck; translated by Catherine Winkworth
UM Hymnal, No. 532
Jesus, priceless treasure,
source of purest pleasure,
truest friend to me,
long my heart hath panted,
till it well-nigh fainted,
thirsting after thee.
Thine I am, O spotless Lamb,
I will suffer naught to hide thee,
ask for naught beside thee.
Like the poet Johann Franck (1618-1677), we live in a dangerous, cruel and merciless world.
It is a world without peace in which many people die because of money, drugs, power interests, oil, sexual interests or sadism. One can never ultimately rely on human beings. Humans fail, pretend to be somebody they are not, are weak, die, are dependent and are not masters of their own lives.
What is reliable in such a world? Is there anybody or anything that can give us hope? Hope is one of three Christian virtues—faith, hope, love—about which the Apostle Paul writes.
We find in “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” one on whom we can ultimately rely: God’s son, Jesus Christ!
The German hymn “Jesu, meine Freude” which literally means “Jesus, my joy,” is the model for Catherine Winkworth’s translation. It was written by Johann Franck, who was born in Guben, a small town in Brandenburg. His birth year, 1618, was the first year of the Thirty Years’ War, one of the most violent wars humanity has ever seen. An advocate by profession, Franck wrote both sacred and secular poems.
The famous tune of JESU, MEINE FREUDE that normally appears in C minor today was composed by Johann Crüger (1598-1662), who also wrote many tunes for the poems of Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), a famous Lutheran pastor. The tune and text were first published in 1653. The war was over by then, but we can be sure that that the times were not easy, because vast numbers of people had died in the war or because of the plague. Entire areas were left unpopulated in Germany.
The translation by Winkworth, the most famous translator of German hymns into English, was first published in her Chorale Book for England (1863), with five of the original six stanzas. The UM Hymnal includes only three of the stanzas. Winkworth’s translation is not literal, but it is well written in English and expresses the mood, capturing the German version very well. The descriptions are very vivid.
Stanza two, especially, paints a lively picture in front of our eyes:
In thine arms I rest me;
foes who would molest me
cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking,
every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms our fear;
sin and hell in conflict fell
with their heaviest storms assail us;
Jesus will not fail us.
Whatever happens, this hymn tells us, Jesus Christ is on our side and those who believe in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit do not have to be afraid of anything. Jesus is our hope and will rescue us.
This insight is no less important today than it was during the Thirty Years’ War. While most people may not be starving in the United States and Europe, many live in very difficult, even life-threatening situations. People still seek hope, and the task of the Christian is to offer hope wherever we can. Many people need hope for various reasons, and it is our task to help and to give them stability.
Some people may think we do not need older hymns such as this one in today’s hymnals; but I think they forget that our world never really changes. The fears and anxieties of humans remain the same from generation to generation. It is important for us to see and hear that former generations had similar problems and hoped for Jesus. We should not believe that we know everything better than our grandparents and ancestors.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made this tune and text famous by creating a composition based on “Jesu, meine Freude.” He used the text and the slightly altered tune for his famous third motet in E minor, BWV 227, composed in 1723. If you have not heard this motet, I would like to encourage you to listen to this great music. It is indeed a joy and a pleasure!
Ms. Müller, a Lutheran from Germany and a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.