The first stanza of this Pentecost hymn dates from the middle of the 13th Century, and its author is unknown. Its melody originated even earlier, dating from the early 12th Century. Luther regarded it “einen feinen, schönen Gesang” (“a fine, beautiful hymn”) and composed three additional stanzas which then first appeared in print in Wittenberg in 1524. The use of the hymn is not limited to the Feast of the Holy Spirit, but is often used as an opening hymn (TLH rubric: “A Hymn of Invocation of the Holy Ghost…shall be sung”), a hymn before the sermon, and a hymn of invocation on special occasions and for theological conferences and conventions. Its content quite obviously makes it appropriate for all of these.
Jesus said: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” (Luke 11:13). Except for “enthusiasts,” chiefly among the Reformed, who claim that the Holy Ghost operates immediately apart from the Means of Grace, professing Christians often give “short billing” to the Holy Ghost and to His work, not fully understanding how essential He and His operations in our hearts are to our faith and ultimate salvation. Unlike the twelve men at Ephesus, who said they had never so much as heard “whether there be any Holy Ghost” (Acts 19:2), Christians today, in possession of the complete Holy Scriptures, cannot legitimately make that claim despite deficient and even false instruction on the part of their teachers.
Scripture clearly teaches that there are three essential operations of the Holy Ghost necessary to our faith and Christian life: a) Conversion — including His calling us by the Gospel, earnestly offering to us the blessings of Christ’s redemption and earnestly inviting and urging us to accept them (also called Vocation), and His creation of the very faith whereby we accept those blessings offered and given to us in the Gospel (other terms including Regeneration, Enlightenment, and Spiritual Resurrection); b) Sanctification (in the narrower sense) — namely, His renewing of our hearts by means of the Gospel and the Sacraments so that the regenerate believer can overcome sin and do good works as the fruit and evidence of saving faith (also called Renewal); and c) Preservation — namely, that by the Means of Grace He nurtures our souls, strengthens us to withstand our spiritual enemies, and keeps us in the true faith unto salvation. Luther, in even fewer words, cites these operations in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed.
All three operations are referenced and summarized in the opening stanza of the hymn:
We now implore God the Holy Ghost
for the true faith which we need the most.
That in our last moments He may befriend us
and, as homeward we journey, attend us.
Lord, have mercy!
The Spirit’s first operation, namely conversion, regeneration and enlightenment — the bestowal of faith in Christ Jesus as our Redeemer (I Peter 1:18–19) and our only Way to heaven (John 14:6) — is acknowledged in the second stanza, and His continuing enlightenment of our heart by His precious Word is begged of Him as follows:
Shine in our hearts, O most precious Light,
that we Jesus Christ may know aright,
clinging to our Savior, whose blood hath bought us,
who again to our homeland hath brought us.
Lord, have mercy!
We then implore the Holy Spirit’s work of renewal — sanctification in the narrower sense — whereby, according to the New Man, we zealously treasure and keep “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) “in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10) and “love one another” (John 13:34–35) as the fruit and evidence of our faith (I John 3:14):
Thou sacred Love, grace on us bestow;
set our hearts with heavenly fire aglow,
that with hearts united we love each other,
of one mind, in peace with every brother.
Lord, have mercy!
Finally, we beseech our Holy “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26) to preserve us in the true faith, even to our end, and to embolden our courage to resist Satan, our “adversary” or Foe (I Peter 5:8) “steadfast in the faith” (v. 9) in his evil efforts to “accuse and assail us” (II Corinthians 2:11; Ephesians 6:11ff.) even as we face the perils, trials and tribulations through which we must go (Acts 14:22b) on the way to our “homeland” in heaven:
Thou highest Comfort in every need,
grant that neither shame nor death we heed,
that e’en then our courage may never fail us
when the Foe shall accuse and assail us.
Lord, have mercy!
Finally, note the familiar prayer at the end of each stanza, common from ancient times already in its Greek form, “Kyrie eleison!” — recognizing, as Luther points out in his explanation of the Fifth Petition, that “we are worthy of none of the things for which we pray, neither have we deserved them, but that He would grant them all to us by grace…” References to the Lord having mercy upon poor sinful mortals abound in the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, some being mere statements of fact, some being doxologies of praise, and some being petitions in prayer. Just a few examples are Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 4:31; I Chronicles 16:34; II Chronicles 5:13; Psalm 4:1; 6:2; 9:13; 41:4, 10; 51:1; 98:3; 107:1; 118:1; Isaiah 30:18; 54:10; Micah 7:20; Matthew 15:22; 17:15; 20:30; Luke 1:72, 78; 18:13; Titus 3:5; etc. Most of these examples include an object (“upon us,” “on me,” “upon Israel,” etc.), so that the cry, Kyrie eleison, in the liturgy of the Christian church is a shortened form of “Lord, have mercy upon us!” (Cf. TLH, pp. 7, 17, 28, 39, 44 and p. 110 – the Litany.) And, as in the hymn before us, Luther used this cry frequently in other hymns he wrote, such as TLH 287, 313 and 590; and we find it commonly in the hymns of the medieval church through the 16th Century (Cf. TLH 146, 147, 187, 237, 238, 415, 548). Indeed, what prayer, though brief, could be more appropriate for us poor, undeserving sinners to offer heavenward than that which recognizes our redemption, justification, reconciliation, preservation, and ultimately our final salvation as the result of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, our Savior! And what a blessing is ours in the work of God’s Holy Spirit that He creates, strengthens and preserves in our hearts saving confidence in the mercy of God which remits sins for Christ’s sake, totally apart from the works of the Law! Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy upon us! Amen!
— D. T. M.