Befiehl du deine Wege; Commit your way

“Befiehl du deine Wege” first appears in the 1653 edition of Crüger’s hymnal and, along with “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”, is one of the best-known and most popular of Gerhardt’s hymns across denominational boundaries. Its main motif is that of the journey, which is an important motif for many of Gerhardt’s compositions. It is constructed as an acrostich in which the first word of each verse renders Psalm 37:5: “Befiehl dem Herrn deine Wege und hoffe auf ihn; er wird’s wohl machen” (“Commit your way to the Lord and trust in Him, he shall bring it to pass”). (NB The acrostich is not rendered in Kelly’s 19th-century translation, also given above, but has been approximately rendered in the more literal translation given in the central column.)

The main aspect of this hymn is consolation. Several of Gerhardt’s hymns dwell on the horrors of war, a reflection of the impact of the Thirty Years’ War on German-speaking society. Yet while Gerhardt maintained the idea of war as a just punishment for sinful behavior, hymns such as “Befiehl du deine Wege” conveyed consolation to the faithful in difficult and uncertain times, such as the years of the mid-17th century. The hymn appears to involve three ‘actors’: the believer who sings the hymn, an apparently uncertain Christian in need of direction and God. The uncertain Christian is addressed by the singing believer first (stanzas 1-2), cajoling them to place their trust unconditionally in God and explaining how to do this. The following two stanzas then address God: yet by describing the power of God to God, the singer in fact demonstratively plays out the act of placing their faith in God, before turning once again to the uncertain Christian. The next stanzas 6-8 are characterised by imperative opening lines once again, before stanzas 9 and 10 provide the key consolatory aspect of the hymn, contrasting the difficulties, struggles and despair of the believer with the relief that will be experienced if faith is placed in God. Stanza 11 is then a celebration of the believer who has maintained his or her faith, personified as a figure of victory who sings(!) the praises, specifically psalms, of God. The hymn finally closes on a prayer to God for strength for all believers in times of trouble and throughout life, thus widening the scope of the hymns effectiveness from the individual to the congregational. The end of the hymn is the destination of the journey: heaven.