“On St. John the Baptist” by Philip Melanchthon

Because June 24 marks the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and because St. John the Baptist was the theme of our church’s recent Vacation Bible Study, I decided to translate one of Philip Melanchthon’s poems on John.

What follows is my rendering of a skilful little hymn of praise to God in gratitude for St. John’s ministry. The poem contains some of Melanchthon’s characteristic emphases: the primacy of the Word; the division of that Word into its two parts, Law and Gospel; the necessity of God’s herald proclaiming both of those divisions together in order to lead his hearers to saving faith; and the reminder that that faith is a struggle in which we must rely on God absolutely. Only he can give it, and only he can sustain it. The poem essentially says: “St. John’s ministry was to direct people to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins through the proclamation of the Law’s deadly condemnation and the Gospel’s free gift of life. This is true. But, O God, we need your grace to believe that this is true. Please make it so for me. Amen.”

The poem is written in iambic dimeters, for which I have used the English equivalent of iambic tetrameters, while adding an aa-bb pattern of rhyme. If one desired, it could be sung to any hymn tune that uses Long Meter (LM), such as Duke Street, Old 100th, Tallis’ Canon, or Vom Himmel Hoch.

De S. Iohanne Baptista, Iambicum Dimetrum.

Aeterno gratias patri
Omnes canant Ecclesiae,
Quod nuncium verbi sui
Iohannem nobis miserit.

Hic mores exui malos
Iussit, metuque Iudicis
Mox adfuturi terruit
Superbas mentes omnium.

Rursusque perculsos metu,
In spem vitae certam vocat,
Et monstrat agnum digito
Qui placat unicus Deum.

Haec ille firmo pectore
Docet, et Christum praedicat
Venire, ceu Solem novum,
Prodire aurora nunciat.

Nec Pharisaei spiritum
Fregerunt ingentem viri,
Helias alter hic fuit,
Hypocritas tunc arguit.

Te summe rogamus pater,
Ut corda nostra suscites,
Ut vere possint credere
Iohannis testimonio.

“On St. John the Baptist”

To God, eternal Father, sing,
All churches: Let your praises ring,
Because he sent St. John to tell
His twofold Word that tramples hell.

He ordered moral evil purged;
With terror of the law he urged
That all repent of pride, in fear—
The Judge would soon be drawing near.

But those cut down by terror’s knife
He called to certain hope of life,
And with his finger marked the Lamb
Of God, who only can undamn.

These things, with adamantine heart,
He taught; the herald played his part,
Proclaiming that the King would come
As dawn foretells the rising sun.

The Pharisees could not grind down
The hero’s spirit. He was found
To be Elijah, come again
To castigate their two-faced sin.

You, highest Father, we implore
To raise our weary hearts once more,
So that we truly can believe
St. John’s divine testimony.


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