Caspar Neumann’s Meditation on Death

Translator’s Preface

Pieter Schenk, Caspar Neumann, copperplate engraving. Neumann was called the “Chrysostom of Breslau” for his preaching ability.

Caspar Neumann’s (1648-1715) hymn, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben,” did gain some ground in German Lutheran hymnody – including in the Wisconsin Synod’s German hymnal, where, however, it was titled “Lieber Gott, wenn werd ich sterben.” But its fame consists primarily in the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) chose it as the basis for the cantata he composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, September 24, 1724. (He had just been hired as the St. Thomas Cantor in Leipzig the previous year.) Considering that Neumann had passed away less than 10 years earlier, and had only composed this hymn perhaps 30 years earlier (c. 1690), this was a high compliment from the great composer.

Bach selected Neumann’s hymn text in light of the Gospel appointed for that Sunday, Luke 7:11-17, the account of Jesus raising the son of the widow who lived in Nain. Bach simply incorporated sts. 1 & 5 into the cantata as they were, for the first and sixth movements (opening chorus and closing chorale), respectively. The remaining stanzas were paraphrased and reworked into different schemes by an as-yet unknown poet:

  • Original st. 2 (AB AB CC DD, 87 87 77 88) – 2nd movement (Tenor Aria; AB AAB, 98 998)
  • Original st. 3 – 3rd movement (Alto Recitative; AAB CCB DE DE, 649 687 69 65)
  • Original st. 4 – 4th movement (Bass Aria; AB CC AB, 12-11 5-5 12-11) and 5th movement (Soprano Recitative; AA BCCB DEED, 9-11 8-10-8-10 9-8-8-5)

I have retained the meter of the original in my translation, but my rhyme scheme is slightly different – AB CB DD EE.

The usual tune originally suggested was “Freu dich sehr” (used, e.g., with “Comfort, Comfort All My People”). I would also suggest “Der am Kreuz” (used, e.g., with “Jesus, Grant that Balm and Healing”). You can read the original German text along with a prose translation here. You can listen to a performance of the cantata here.

May Neumann’s meditation on death lead us to see what blessings, comfort, and assurance we have in Christ Jesus, and thus become our own meditation.

Dearest God, When Will Death Meet Me

1. Dearest God, when will death meet me?
Precious time keeps slipping by,
And heirs of the sinful nature,
With whose number, too, am I,
Have from Adam as their lot
But a brief and fleeting slot
on this earth to live in sorrow,
ere becoming earth tomorrow.

2. I wish not to meet unwilling
The conclusion of my time;
Mortal seeds sown in my members
Guarantee their passing prime,
Not to mention without fail
One and all go down death’s trail,
Many loved ones not omitted,
Who to graves are now committed.

3. Yet, O God, what questions anxious
Shall I raise when death draws near?
Where shall my cold frame be buried?
Where shall then my soul appear?
How my worries swell and soar!
Who’ll assume my treasure store?
Where shall all my loved ones scatter,
While I turn to earthly matter?

4. Stop! What right have I to worry,
Since I’ll go to Jesus’ side?
Better now ’twould be than later,
For my flesh shall be revived.
Pardon glad, world, I bestow
That you keep my goods below;
To my heirs I am supplying
God, a giver never dying.

5. Lord of life and death, I pray you,
Let my end a good one be.
Teach me to give up my spirit
With devout serenity.
Grant that I a decent grave
Next to faithful Christians have,
And at last, with ground my cover,
All disgrace may then be over.

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About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the South of the U.S.A.

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