Sifted in Satan’s Sieve: “Give to the Winds Thy Fears,” Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676)

Give to the Winds Thy Fears

Paul Gerhardt was an eleven-year-old boy when war engulfed his homeland of Germany. What began as a political dispute over succession to the throne of Bohemia turned into a primarily religious conflict, as Catholic and Protestant troops battled across central Europe. War reached into France, Holland and Denmark, but Germany suffered the worst devastation of all. By the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the population was decimated, the countryside was destroyed, and the people were demoralized. 

Even in these difficult times, Gerhardt had a desire to serve the Lord. He enrolled at the University of Wittenberg, near his hometown, at the age of twenty-one. Here, one of his teachers, Paul Röber, frequently took his sermon texts from hymns. Gerhardt saw first-hand the pastoral value of hymnody. However, when Gerhardt graduated, he could find no position in a church. Instead, he took a job in Berlin tutoring children. During these years of waiting, he met hymn tune composer Johann Crüger, who was serving as choirmaster at St. Nicholas’s Church in Berlin. Crüger encouraged Gerhardt to write hymns, and when Crüger published a hymnal in 1648, it included several of Gerhardt’s hymns.

At the age of 44 or 45, Gerhardt was finally ordained and took his first church position, in the village of Mittenwalde, outside Berlin. Here he also married Anna Barthold and their first children were born; however, their firstborn died in infancy. Three more of their children would later die in childhood. But at Mittenwalde, Gerhardt also continued writing hymns, including “Give to the Winds Thy Fears.”1The original hymn, “Befiehl du deine Wege,” following the beautiful translation by John Wesley, is typically divided in English hymnals into two separate hymns, “Commit Thou All Thy Griefs” … Continue reading

Gerhardt returned to Berlin in 1657, serving as an assistant pastor at the St. Nicholas Church alongside his mentor Johann Crüger. But Berlin was a city divided—religiously, rather than politically as in more recent times. Controversy between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches roiled the city, and Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I, an adherent of the Reformed tradition, sought to quell the controversy. The Elector arranged for meetings between the two sides in hopes of finding common ground, but his efforts had the opposite effect—perhaps because Friedrich Wilhelm obviously favored the Calvinist side. Eventually, the Elector forbade all discussion of the differences between the two systems. 

Though Gerhardt was well-respected for his fair treatment of people in both church systems, he found himself in an untenable position. Rather than avoid preaching about the Lutheran faith he held, he resigned from St. Nicholas in 1666. The people of the city successfully appealed to the authorities to make an exception for Gerhardt, but he declined reinstatement, believing that it would not be honest given the circumstances. He lived without steady employment for a year, during which time his wife died. Gerhardt was left alone with only one son. 

But Paul Gerhardt’s ministry was not over. Though he apparently wrote no more hymns after 1667, he took a church position in Lübben in 1668. He served faithfully, though perhaps more obscurely, until his death in 1676. After Gerhardt’s death, the church in Lübben commissioned a portrait of Gerhardt, with an inscription that reads, “A Divine Sifted in Satan’s Sieve.”

Gerhardt’s powerful hymn “Give to the Winds Thy Fears” may well represent his reflections on his time of hope deferred (Prov 13:12). What he wrote as a new pastor in Mittenwalde, however, could have served to sustain him in the trials he was yet to face. Paul Gerhardt, despite a life of disappointments and tragedies not of his own making, apparently still reached the end of life trusting in the One whose sovereign will governed and guided all these trials. 

Hymnals often set this text with a triumphant tune, such as DIADEMATA or FESTAL SONG. This is appropriate when one sings these words in a more defiant manner, refusing to let circumstances overwhelm the soul. But in more reflective or contemplative times, a tune such as TERRA BEATA (“This Is My Father’s World”) may fit the singer’s mood more appropriately.

This hymn also reflects Gerhardt’s role as a transitional figure in German hymnody, moving from the more overtly doctrinal texts of Luther and his successors toward the personal reflection of the Pietists. The text challenges us to make our fears like chaff, throwing them to the wind. God is well aware of what His children face (Ps 56:8). “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5).

The second stanza below encourages us to trust more fully in the sovereign God of all creation. What God has done is rightly done. The third stanza alludes to Isaiah 55:8–9—God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways not our ways. Because of this, we need not fear (Ps 56:3). Our only response is to wonder at the wisdom and strength of the God who loves us, our heavenly Father who gives us bread and fish, not stones and snakes (Mt 7:7–11).

Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope, and be undismayed;
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head,
Through waves and clouds and storms
He gently clears the way;
Wait thou His time, so shall the night
Soon end in joyous day.

Still heavy is thy heart?
Still sink thy spirits down?
Cast off the weight, let fear depart,
And every care be gone.
He everywhere has sway,
And all things serve His mind;
His every act pure blessing is,
His path unsullied light.

Far, far above thy thought
His counsel shall appear,
When fully He the work hath wrought
That caused thy needless fear.
Leave to His sovereign will
To choose and to command:
With wonder filled, thou then shalt own
How wise, how strong His hand.

— Paul Gerhardt, 1656
tr. John Wesley, 1739

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1 The original hymn, “Befiehl du deine Wege,” following the beautiful translation by John Wesley, is typically divided in English hymnals into two separate hymns, “Commit Thou All Thy Griefs” and “Give to the Winds Thy Fears.”

James Anderson

James Anderson has been involved in bivocational ministry for nearly 20 years, having served at various times as a children’s choir director, executive director of a non-profit, a church minister of music, and an assistant pastor of a church plant. He holds a BS in Church Music from Faith Baptist Bible College (Ankeny, IA), and master’s degrees in choral conducting (University of Minnesota) and theology (Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, MN). He and his wife Marisa have two daughters and live near Minneapolis, Minnesota.