The historic church used to partake in a set of daily services called the Daily Office. This kept people connected to God and in community with His Word throughout their working lives. While most churches do not observe these Daily Offices today, we still retain their settings, and they are certainly beneficial to incorporate into the life of the church, devotions with family, or other settings. Today, we look at the order of Vespers and some appropriate hymns to accompany it. The following has been adapted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services and Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns.
The Daily Office
We know these services by many names, and each name has its own story. To speak of “canonical hours” is to anchor them doubly: they mark the passing of the day as each service clings to an hour, and their heritage in the “canon,” or rule, of the ancient monastic orders is recalled. But these services are more ancient than the monasteries that have sung them. They are “daily prayer,” the perpetual voice of faith that adds discipline to its spontaneous expression. Yet this common name suggests an imbalance that is foreign to Lutheran theology. Prayer is the Christian’s joy and duty, yet it arises always in response to God’s speaking. The Word of God in psalm and reading is as much at the heart of these services as our prayerful reply.
Vespers, sung in late afternoon before the evening meal, included the following: four psalms, a lesson, responsory, hymn and versicle, a canticle from the Gospel (Magnificat), the Litany, Lord’s Prayer, and collect. The psalms are taken from 110–147, omitting those already appointed for other offices—namely, 118–128, 134, and 143. In times of fasting (such as Lent), no food could be taken before Vespers.
Hymns for Vespers
“We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight” — LSB 720
This hymn is by Henry Alford (1810–71), and it connects the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to the life of the Christian.
“We walk by faith and not by sight” contains basic Christian teaching on the promises of God in the resurrection. In stanza 1, Alford notes that we do not hear the Lord speak to us immediately, as did the patriarchs, priests, prophets, evangelists, and epistle writers. He “who spoke as none ever spoke” now speaks to His people through the writings He divinely inspired: the Old and New Testaments.
The hymn assumes from the very first line a Christian and biblical definition of
faith as a supernatural trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, given by the Lord Himself, created by the Holy Spirit in connection with the proclamation of the Good News about Jesus. Such a faith eagerly and regularly receives the Lord’s good gifts.
“Evening and Morning” — LSB 726
This hymn is both a personal prayer for deliverance from the things of this world and a song of praise in both “evening and morning,” at “sunset and dawning.” Stanza 2 starts as a penitential prayer: “Father, O hear me, pardon and spare me.” As it progresses, the singer asks God for guidance, but in the end puts all things under God’s care: “Order my goings, direct all my doings; as it may please Thee, retain or release me; all I commit to Thy fatherly hand.” Stanza 3 points out that ills will “still grieve me” even after one has received God’s grace; Gerhardt eventually points the believer to death and eternal life as the goal as he concludes, “When in His mansions God grants me a place.”
The final stanza is purely doxological. Midway through the text, the Lutheran emphasis on sola fide (by faith alone) reminds the believer that God saves no one by his own effort or righteousness, but through a believing heart: “He well receiveth a heart that believeth; hymns that adore Him are precious before Him and to His throne like sweet incense arise.” When used with Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, these words are particularly meaningful: “This special faith (by which an individual believes that for Christ’s sake his sins are forgiven him, and that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled and sees us favorably) gains forgiveness of sins and justifies us.”
“Abide with Me” — LSB 878
While the LSB version of this hymn downplays Lyte’s autobiographical reflections, it retains the strength of the hymn: an intimate confession of faith in God in the midst of suffering. The hymn, as a whole, chronicles a temporal experience: it begins at the close of day (stanza 1), moves to the close of life (stanza 4), and ends with the beginning of eternal life (stanza 6, lines 3–4). This external flow of time is punctuated by an internal faithful reflection similar to that voiced in the psalms (Psalm 63:6–8; 73:23–26). The physical darkness of the story in Luke 24:29 becomes the spiritual darkness and ultimately the death of the poet. As the darkness increases in intensity, the light of the Gospel ever shines brightly. The evangelist’s sacred record of the brief momentary appearance of the risen Christ (Luke 24) deepens faith’s appreciation of Christ’s powerful love and leads the poet to hope in the midst of suffering because the same Lord abides with him eternally.
At the heart of the hymn lies the heart of God, discovered by the poet in the midst of life’s suffering. For each distressing experience of life, the poet recalls a comforting attribute of God. In stanza 1, helplessness is answered by contemplating God as the “help of the helpless” (Psalm 10:12–14). In stanza 2, “the tempter’s power” is answered by God’s grace, sufficient for temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 12:9), and by His guidance that delivers (Psalm 31:3–4). In stanza 3, the poet’s sinfulness before the “King of kings” on the Day of Judgment is answered by contemplating Jesus as the “Friend of sinners” (Luke 7:36–50), who as prophesied comes with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:2). In stanza 4, this world’s passing glory (Ecclesiastes 1:2) is answered by the
changelessness of God and His eternal covenant (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 7:21). And in stanzas 5 and 6, the prospect of illness, tears, and ultimately death itself is answered.
“I Lie, O Lord, within Your Care” — LSB 885
From the beginning of the hymn, the writer emphasizes the omnipotence and providence of God. God is all-knowing and cares for all His creation, inasmuch as He is its source: “Lord, You alone keep constant watch” (stanza 2). Klepper’s German Lutheran background comes through at the end of the stanza, where he emphasizes faith in the Christian as the result of the power of God’s grace in the Gospel. It can even dispel the devil of darkness: “When darkness fills the night with fear, I will by faith defy it.” This faith suffices, and we need no longer worry about the future: “I need not now discover what hidden plans You have for me” (stanza 4).
Trust is the key word of the fifth stanza. According to the Augsburg Confession,
faith is “the confidence that consoles and encourages the terrified mind.”
Stuempfle brings this teaching out in the last line of the translation as the worshiper speaks directly to God in a sonic act of confidence: “and trust You there will greet me.” Stanza 6 calls out God’s grace as the source of all good things: “and every good my life requires Your grace again providing”; while the last two stanzas recognize God as a constant “guide” and “friend,” even though “troubles still may cloud the sky” and there be “tears of sorrow." (CtH1 p. 1392)
“Only-Begotten, Word of God Eternal” — LSB 916
This is an anonymous Latin office hymn first appearing in manuscripts in the
eleventh century. It is traditionally assigned to Vespers for the consecration of a church.
Three themes dominate this hymn of invocation: the presence of God in the midst of His worshiping Church, the petition that God hear the prayers of His people thus assembled, and a consistent note of the joyful praise that the Church offers to her Lord. These themes are all related. It is the presence of Christ around which the Church gathers. That same presence calls forth praise and adoration. And that gracious presence of Christ bids the Church to pray and to ask God for His goodness, that He “smile” on us (stanza 3).
Quote for “Evening and Morning” is from Ap IV 45; Concordia, p. 88.
Quote for “I Lie, O Lord, within Your Care” is from AC XX 26; Concordia, p. 43.
To learn more about Vespers and other services, read Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services.