“Then in Distress We Upraise” (1)

Time for another “Melanchthon Monday”! 

Now, you may be surprised, given that today’s poem is not (um) by Melanchthon. But wait! It still works! However, you won’t see just how well it works until a future installment. 

Our poem for this week, while it is included in Petrus Vincentius’s 1579 edition of Melanchthon’s poetry, is actually by his good friend Joachim Camerarius (and its authorship is correctly attributed to him). 

Camerarius’s poem is a versified prayer based on the prayer of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:5-12. Here it is in the AV:

5 And Jehoshaphat stood in the congregation of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, 6 and said, O Lord God of our fathers, art not thou God in heaven? and rulest not thou over all the kingdoms of the heathen? and in thine hand is there not power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee? 7 Art not thou our God, who didst drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and gavest it to the seed of Abraham thy friend for ever? 8 And they dwelt therein, and have built thee a sanctuary therein for thy name, saying, 9 If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help. 10 And now, behold, the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir, whom thou wouldest not let Israel invade, when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them, and destroyed them not; 11 behold, I say, how they reward us, to come to cast us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. 12 O our God, wilt thou not judge them? for we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee. 

The lovely poem of Camerarius is much more brief, consisting of only six lines in elegiac couplets. The Latin:

In tenebris nostrae, et densa caligine mentis,

#########Cum nihil est toto pectore consilii,

Turbati erigimus Deus ad te lumina cordis,

#########Nostra tuamque fides solius orat opem.

Tu rege consiliis actus pater optime nostros,

#########Nostrum opus ut laudi serviat omne tuae.

And my metrical translation:

When in the vaporous darkness that sickens our mind with its thick gloom,

     Searching our heart as we may, still we find no cure at all,

Then in distress we upraise the dim eyes of our heart to you, O God:

     Faith looks for no other aid; you alone hear us and help.

Father, all glorious in might, by your counsels rule all of our actions,

     So that our work may praise, always, your glorious name.

The prayer is the plea of one in despair, of one who can find neither hope nor help in man, of one whose devices and plans have all come to nought. The speaker’s futility is represented by image: darkness and thick fog. Man will never find help scratching around in the dirt. 

It is only when he realizes that he must perform the sursum corda–must lift up his heart to the Lord–that he finds aid and a way out of despair. The light of the second person pronoun (ad te), where the etymological meaning of the word Camerarius uses for “eyes” (lumina, “lights”) shades into the pronoun because of its position (ad te lumina), balances and counteracts the darkness of the first person possessive adjective (in tenebris nostrae…mentis, “in the darkness of our mind”).

This resolution is carried on and strengthened in what follows–particularly in line 4, where nostra tuamque (“ours and yours”) begins the pentameter line. The adjectives do not agree with each other grammatically, but they express by juxtaposition the necessary connection that the rest of the line unfolds semantically: we can bring nothing to God but our faith that has despaired of all else, and our faith relies on nothing but God’s help alone.

Thus our own plans and counsels count for nothing unless they are directed by God (line 5; God’s consiliis again balance and counteract the speaker’s consilii in line 2, though my translation obscures that fact).

What is the result? If (and only if) God hears and guides, we can work and act in a rightly ordered way, one that brings glory to God. This Camerarius signifies by bracketing the final line with nostrum (“our”) and tuae (“your”): “May all our work,” he says, “be in service to your praise.”

On the Melanchthon connection, I will have more to say next time.  


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