Pentecost hymns have been passed down for generations. Many of them have intricate and interesting histories to them, including that of “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” found in Lutheran Service Book as hymn 497. Read this excerpt from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns and Eternal Anthems: The Story Behind Your Favorite Hymns, Volume 1 to learn about one of Martin Luther’s Pentecost hymns and its origins.
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord
[This hymn] is among several hymns by Martin Luther that were originally Latin chants. In this case, the original chant is an antiphon for Vespers of the Vigil of Pentecost:
Veni sancte spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium, et tui amoris in eis ignem ascende/incende: qui per diversitatem linguarum cunctarum gentes in unitate fidei congregasti.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of Your love, You who through manifold tongues have gathered the peoples into the unity of the faith.
From this came, in the fifteenth century, a German stanza beginning “Chum, heiliger geist, herre got” (modern spelling “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott”). Luther spoke highly of this German version, remarking, “The hymn ‘Come, Holy Spirit Lord and God’ was composed by the Holy Ghost himself, both words and music.”
Improving on the Hymn
Luther improved this German version and added two additional stanzas. His version first appeared in the 1524 Erfurt Enchiridion under the heading “Der gesang Veni sancte spiritus,” thus associating the hymn with its original Latin chant. It also appeared the same year in Johann Walter’s Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn. Interestingly, this was one of the few in Walter’s collection that placed the cantus firmus in the uppermost voice (discantus) instead of the tenor, which was typical at that time. The hymn was reprinted in a number of later Lutheran hymnals, and Johann Spangenberg’s influential Cantiones ecclesiasticae latinae / Kirchengesenge deudtsch (1545) placed it first in the German section of the book, with the direction that it was to be sung at the beginning of all services.
At first glance, the hymn appears to consist of disconnected statements about the Holy Spirit. Yet these phrases are joined together by a common thread: Jesus Christ.
Understanding the Text
Stanza 1 names the Holy Spirit as God and Lord, beginning a litany of praise in describing the Spirit’s work. First, the Spirit bestows gifts to believers in Christ (“with all Your graces now outpoured on each believer’s mind and heart”). These gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are given to every Christian in Baptism, in the Word of God, and in the Lord’s Supper. Second, the Spirit’s imparting of “fervent love” is recounted. This thought is expressed in the same way in the post-communion collect (“in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another”). Such fervent love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22). The first stanza closes with a plea for the Holy Spirit to grant unity to the Church on earth. True unity is the fellowship of faith and is attained “by the brightness of Your light.” That Light is Christ (Isaiah 60:3; John 8:12).
Stanza 2 describes the work of the Spirit as revealing and delivering Christ and His gifts. The Word of life is Christ, through whom the Church knows God rightly and can even call God “Father” (Romans 8:14–16). The Church is kept from error by remaining in the truth, which is Christ (John 14:6). Or, as Luther states in the Small Catechism, the Holy Spirit keeps the whole Christian Church “with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Stanza 3 names the Holy Spirit as “holy Fire,” which is reminiscent of the tongues of fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–3). This stanza turns to the life of the Christian, who is strengthened and comforted by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5–10) until his Baptism is finally brought to completion in death (Romans 8:11).
Portions excerpted from Eternal Anthems: The Story Behind Your Favorite Hymns copyright © 2022 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Portions excerpted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns copyright © 2019 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Read more about your favorite hymns in Eternal Anthems: The Story Behind Your Favorite Hymns Volumes 1 and 2.