Defy the Old Dragon: Johann Franck, Hymnist

As with nearly all the great Lutheran hymnists, Franck took up the pen in times of suffering and cross bearing.

The poetry of Johann Franck is sharp, crisp, to the point, and vivid: Trotz dem alten Drachen. / Trotz des Todes Rauchen. / Trotz der Furcht darzu!I defy the old dragon. / I defy the jaws of death. / I defy fear as well!”1 We know this as stanza three of “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (Jesu, Meine Freude) in our English hymnals using these memorable words: Satan, I defy thee; / Death I now decry thee; / Fear, I bid thee cease!

This poetry is deeply personal. The hymnist wanted each singer to sing it as his very own confession of what comforts him in every time of need. I delight to sing these words with all my might with the memorable tune of Johann Crüger carrying the words forward! In German, singing that bright and sharp “Trotz” (Defy!) three times, thus invoking the most Holy Trinity against three of the great enemies of God and His Kingdom, stirs the heart to great confidence—indeed God has and will continue to put down His enemies and He does so for my sake. He answers these prayers in Jesus Christ.

Johann Sebastian Bach in his well-known funeral motet, Jesu Meine Freude (BWV 227), makes use of “Trotz” as he sets Franck’s text, using the Crüger tune, in choral movements completed by settings of comforting texts from Romans 8. (One can see references to Romans 8 all over Franck’s original hymn text.) After Bach has the choir sing Romans 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death,” in comes Bach with “Trotz! Trotz! Trotz dem alten Drachen!”

Who is Johann Franck, who wrote these vivid words that inspired such a response some seventy years later from the greatest Lutheran Kantor and composer, and whose words still inspire Christian singers and musicians to this day?

As with nearly all the great Lutheran hymnists, Franck took up the pen in times of suffering and cross bearing. Franck was born in Guben, Brandenburg, on the first of June, 1618, just at the beginning of the horror that was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

Johann’s father was a lawyer and town council member in Guben, but he died when Johann was only two years old. He was adopted by his uncle Adam Tielke, the town judge. Tielke provided for Johann’s education from early Latin school through the Gymnasium. In 1637, Johann went on to university studies at Königsburg, which was somehow undisturbed by the great war. There he studied with poet and hymnist Simon Dach (author of “Oh, How Blest Are They Whose Toils Are Ended” and “In God, My Faithful God”) while he studied law.

His widowed mother asked for Johann to come home to Guben after his marriage to Anna Kastner in 1640. He returned to support his mother as the war raged about the town. Guben was 80 miles to the southeast of Berlin, an area certainly Lutheran in theology and practice, but nevertheless negatively affected by both Swedish and Saxon troops swirling around. As with Paul Gerhardt’s hometown of Gräfenhainichen, Lutheran towns were often beset by pillaging armies who were moving through to battlefields. Citizens were forced to pay tribute to “Lutheran” troops demanding tribute money and food at spear point. Especially in a time like this, things were uncertain for a widow all alone.

There in Guben, Franck survived the war and became a practicing attorney and town councilor, and was elected mayor in 1661. After a life of civic service to the people in practicing law and serving in government, Johann Franck died on the eighteenth of June, 1677.

Through the war and his early career, then on into his later adult life, Franck stuck to crafting poetry. It was more than a hobby or a distraction. Not forgetting the lessons of his teacher and mentor Simon Dach, Franck, as a faithful layman, produced devotional, pious Lutheran hymns much in the style of his contemporary Paul Gerhardt. These men were building on the stirring “doctrine and comfort” hymns of the Reformation which taught the faith into the hearts of Lutherans so reverently and steadfastly. But these new Lutheran hymnists were moved by the almost universally difficult circumstances and horrors of the times they lived in—war, poverty, plague, death all around—to write hymns that take all this truth of the Lutheran doctrine and apply it to me—me, the suffering sinner living under the cross.

For example, Luther wrote in A Mighty Fortress that “…the old, evil foe (…der alte böse Feind…) now means deadly woe, deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight…”

This is the objective truth taught by the Holy Scriptures concerning the devil and all his wicked works and ways. Of course, Luther and the other Reformation hymnists gave the truth of the Gospel. “One little word can fell him… He’s judged, the deed is done…” This should certainly comfort every fearful sinner!

Just a few generations later, Franck and his contemporary Lutheran hymnists stirred each singer’s heart to know and trust that this truth of the Scriptures is important to me, and is what I need to confess to the world: Under Thy [Jesus’] protection, / I am free from the attacks / of all my enemies (…Aller Feinde frei…).[stanza two]

Franck acknowledges that there are enemies raging against the Christian, but immediately turns to their defeat and why they are defeated. For even if a thirty-year nightmare of a war should break out all around me, not only do I know the devil is judged and defeated, but I know that the Savior did it for me, and nothing will separate me from His love. Let Satan track me down / Let the enemy become embittered / Jesus stands by me. [stanza two]

In the penultimate stanza of “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” Franck has the singer renounce and turn away from the great spiritual enemies by saying a vivid and extended Gute Nacht to them (which does not come out in the English translation used by our hymnals):

Good night, existence which is chosen by the world…
Good night, you sins, stay far behind me…
Good night, you pride and glory…
once and for all, you life of vice, I bid you, good night. [stanza five]

Whether they knew it or not (and in the case of Paul Gerhardt one can argue that he certainly did know it due to the persecution he and his family experienced from Calvinist rulers), the Lutheran hymnists of this generation, in writing vividly of the implications of the Gospel for me, were writing hymns that work very well against the Reformed theologies and their errors. Who could possibly question one’s election in Christ, for example, after singing Franck’s final stanza of “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (Jesu, Meine Freude)?

Depart, you mournful spirits,
for my master of joy,
Jesus, enters in.
For those who love God
even their afflictions
become pure sweetness.
Even if here I must endure shame and disgrace,
even in suffering you remain,
Jesus, my joy. [stanza six]

1 Wooden translations of German stanzas provided by the author.

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Rev. Jacob Sutton

Rev. Jacob Sutton serves as the chaplain of the Lutheran Community Home, Seymour, IN. He previously served as associate pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, Plano, TX, and pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Terre Haute, IN.

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