Cantata 167, Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe
Feast of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, 1723
Most Christians today are used to attending church each Sunday and not on other days of the week. But in Bach’s time, Sunday services were complimented by feast days that would occur any day of the week. For example, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all three-day festivals. Christmas, of course, begins on December 25, with services also on December 26 and 27, regardless of weekday. Easter and Pentecost always fall on a Sunday and continue with services on the ensuing Monday and Tuesday. Ascension always occurs 40 days after Easter, so falls on a Thursday each year.
The feast of John the Baptist is on June 24, so can fall on any day of the week. In 1723, it was on a Friday and celebrated in Leipzig with a service that included J. S. Bach’s Cantata 167, Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe. The feast celebrates Jesus’s cousin, John, who was born six months before Jesus and was the prophet who pointed to Jesus as Messiah. A key statement from John recorded in the Bible is: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). These words are sung each week in the Christian liturgy in the Agnus Dei (during the Eucharist):
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us your peace.
The nature of the feast day in Leipzig dictated that it was celebrated with a full morning service, Hauptgottesdienst, including Gospel, sermon, cantata, and Eucharist among all the other regular elements. For the feast in 1723, Bach composed and performed Cantata 167, Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe, just five days after he had led the performance of the newly composed Cantata 24 and a reperformance of the Weimar Cantata 185 for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity. Perhaps due to the short time between these days, Bach moved away from his early Leipzig practice of presenting either a large-scale cantata in two parts or two shorter cantatas and instead performed a single five-movement cantata.
The starting point for considering every Bach church cantata is the Gospel for the day, the passage from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that was designated as the focus for that liturgical occasion. The Gospel readings were assigned by Martin Luther and largely consistent with the medieval liturgy on which he based his church reforms. Unlike the modern Revised Common Lectionary that uses a three-year cycle, the readings in Bach’s time were on an annual cycle so that the same Gospel reading returned each year for a particular liturgical occasion.
The Gospel for the feast of John the Baptist is Luke 1:57-80:
Und Elisabeth kam ihre Zeit, daß sie gebären sollte; und sie gebar einen Sohn. Und ihre Nachbarn und Gefreunde hörten, daß der HERR große Barmherzigkeit an ihr getan hatte, und freuten sich mit ihr. Und es begab sich am achten Tage, da kamen sie, zu beschneiden das Kindlein, und hießen ihn nach seinem Vater Zacharias. Aber seine Mutter antwortete und sprach: Mitnichten, sondern er soll Johannes heißen. Und sie sprachen zu ihr: Ist doch niemand in deiner Freundschaft, der also heiße. Und sie winkten seinem Vater, wie er ihn wollte heißen lassen. Und er forderte ein Täfelein und schrieb also: Er heißt Johannes. Und sie verwunderten sich alle. Und alsbald ward sein Mund und seine Zunge aufgetan, und er redete und lobte Gott. Und es kam eine Furcht über alle Nachbarn; und die ganze Geschichte ward ruchbar auf dem ganzen jüdischen Gebirge. Und alle, die es hörten, nahmen’s zu Herzen und sprachen: Was, meinst du, will aus dem Kindlein werden? Denn die Hand des HERRN war mit ihm. Und sein Vater Zacharias ward des heiligen Geistes voll, weissagte und sprach:
Gelobet sei der HERR, der Gott Israels! denn er hat besucht und erlöst sein Volk
und hat uns aufgerichtet ein Horn des Heils in dem Hause seines Dieners David,
wie er vorzeiten geredet hat durch den Mund des Propheten:
daß er uns errettete von unseren Feinden und von der Hand aller, die uns hassen,
und Barmherzigkeit erzeigte unsern Vätern und gedächte an seinen heiligen Bund
und an den Eid, den er geschworen hat unserm Vater Abraham, uns zu geben,
daß wir, erlöst aus der Hand unserer Feinde, ihm dienten ohne Furcht unser Leben lang
in Heiligkeit und Gerechtigkeit, die ihm gefällig ist.
Und du, Kindlein, wirst ein Prophet des Höchsten heißen. Du wirst vor dem HERRN her gehen, daß du seinen Weg bereitest
und Erkenntnis des Heils gebest seinem Volk, das da ist in Vergebung ihrer Sünden;
durch die herzliche Barmherzigkeit unsers Gottes, durch welche uns besucht hat der Aufgang aus der Höhe,
auf daß er erscheine denen, die da sitzen in Finsternis und Schatten des Todes, und richte unsere Füße auf den Weg des Friedens.
Und das Kindlein wuchs und ward stark im Geist; und er war in der Wüste, bis daß er sollte hervortreten vor das Volk Israel. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (New Revised Standard Version)
The story of God’s salvation in Luke 1 is largely the story of two women who were cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and of the births of their sons, John and Jesus. The Gospel for the Feast of John the Baptist picks up the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah that opens the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 1:5-25, the angel Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah with the promise of the miraculous birth of John. When Zechariah questioned the angel, Gabriel caused him to be unable to speak until the child was born. Luke 1:57-80 tells of John’s birth and naming.
The passage includes also the prophecy of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79, which is commonly known by its first word in Latin, Benedictus. The Benedictus is one of three New Testament canticles, Psalm-like texts that are recorded in Luke 1 and 2. The other two are the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 (Magnificat) and the song of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32 (Nunc dimittis). In Lutheran and many other Christian traditions, these texts are prayed each day: the song of Zechariah in Morning Prayer (Lauds), the song of Mary in Evening Prayer (Vespers), and the song of Simeon in Night Prayer (Compline). In the Lutheran church year, Zechariah’s song is included in the Gospel reading for the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24), Mary’s for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation (July 2), and Simeon’s for the Feast of Mary’s Purification (February 2).
The story of Elizabeth’s faith, John’s birth and naming, and Zechariah’s prophecy make for a very different Gospel reading than those for previous Sundays which focused on the teachings of Jesus. But Lutheran interpretation of the Gospel was consistent in its focus on God’s grace, mercy, and salvation as its primary message. This theme of God’s mercy is explicit in Luke 1:57-80. The Gospel tells us that Elizabeth’s “neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her” (Luke 1:58) and that Zechariah proclaims both “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors” (Luke 1:72) and “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us” (Luke 1:78).
Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), explains that on the Feast of John the Baptist, Christians praise God for God’s mercy revealed in the forgiveness of sins (844-45). He states that John’s primary message as “the prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76) was: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; 846). Olearius further writes that eternal life comes through knowing that God is merciful and has given us his son, that all who believe in him may have eternal life (Olearius references John 3:16, 847). He states that Zechariah’s song teaches us that the forgiveness of sins comes to us only through God’s grace and mercy (Luke 1:77-78, 852-55).
For each liturgical occasion in the church year, Olearius asks the question: “Who am I?” His answer for the Feast of John the Baptist summarizes his interpretation of the Gospel: “Praise God! God’s child, filled with the knowledge of salvation, rejoicing in the forgiveness of sins and the unfailing hope of eternal life through the mercies of our God” (857).
Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV167. All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org.
While the poetry for Cantata 167 does not include a Bible verse movement, it is imbued throughout with biblical language drawn largely from the song of Zechariah in Luke 1:68-79. Like Olearius’s reflection on the Gospel, the cantata’s text focuses not on the story of Elizabeth, John, and Zechariah, but on the theological message of Zechariah’s prophecy. This is keeping with Martin Luther’s understanding of feast days of saints, such as John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Luther specified that such days be celebrated not in honor of the saint, but always as a feast of Jesus. Cantata 167 does so by focusing on the song of Zechariah as a celebration of God’s salvation revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ.
Church cantatas in Bach’s time tend to start with a theological declaration of some kind, often a Bible verse that conveys the key message the poet will explore throughout the movements. Recitatives tend to explain theological content, while arias tend to respond to it. In Cantata 167, the poet does not begin with a Bible verse or other theological truth, but instead starts with response. The first-movement aria calls on its hearers to praise God for God’s love and goodness, a response Bach intensifies through an exuberant melisma on the word “praise” (“preiset”). It is only in the second half of the aria that the poet explains the reason for this praise, echoing Luke 1:69: “Because at the appointed time / He gave us the horn of salvation, the way to [eternal] life, / In Jesus, his son” (lines 4-6).
The second-movement recitative is rich in theological content, drawing much of its language from Luke 1:68-79. Like Olearius, the cantata’s poet focuses on God’s mercy in sending Jesus “as redeemer of the world” (line 5). The first five lines of the recitative focus on God the Father, “the Lord God of Israel,” lines 6-8 on John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way for Jesus, the savior, and lines 9-13 on Jesus, who came:
To gladden the poor children of humankind
And the lost sinners
With mercy and love,
And to lead them to the kingdom of heaven, in true repentance.
Bach highlights the message of the final two lines by shifting from a simple recitative style to arioso, with a more elaborate vocal line, repetition of phrases, and an arpeggiated bass line moving in sixteenth-notes.
In the third movement, the poet returns to the poetic form of aria, with six lines divided in two parts (lines 1-2, 3-6), relatively short lines, and a clear rhyme structure (aabcbc). The text, however, does not fulfill the usual role of aria as response, but instead continues as theological explanation. The poet continues to borrow language from the song of Zechariah, with a focus on God’s promise to Abraham (Luke 1:73). The aria focuses on God’s faithfulness to God’s promise, experienced by the patriarchs of Israel in the past (line 5) and by the Christian believer in the present (line 6). In the line “What he promised already in paradise” (line 3), the poet references God’s word to the serpent in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This verse was understood in Lutheran theology as being fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah (see Melamed and Marissen, https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV167, fn. 6).
The poet continues the thought in the fourth-movement recitative, which begins with an echo of Genesis 3:15 in the phrase “Des Weibes Samen,” “the seed of the woman.” As Melamed and Marissen note (fn. 10), the opening lines of the recitative also reference Galatians 4:4: “But when the fulness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Their translation expands, in the bracketed words and phrases, to demonstrate how these lines would have been understood in Lutheranism in Bach’s time: “The [foretold] seed [Jesus] of the woman [Eve] came / When the time [to inherit the promise of faith] was fulfilled” (lines 1-2). The recitative affirms that God’s promise to Abraham “has broken forth like the radiance of the sun,” echoing Luke 1:78b: “the dawn from on high will break upon us.” It continues by offering Zechariah’s song of praise as a model for Christian believers in the present and concludes by returning to the opening movement’s call to praise: “Consider, too, you Christians, what God has done for you, / And strike up a song of acclamation to him” (lines 10-11).
The closing hymn stanza grows out of, and responds to, this call. It begins (lines 1-4):
Acclamation and praise with honor be
To God Father, Son, Holy Spirit,
Who would increase in us
What he, out of mercy, promises us;
The text is the fifth stanza of Johann Gramann’s hymn, “Nun lob, mein Seel’, den Herren” (c. 1530). In quoting it, the cantata’s poet ends where they began, in praise to God for God’s mercy. Bach again emphasizes this theme of praise, in this movement by setting the hymn for SATB framed by exuberant instrumental parts for oboe and strings, with trumpet doubling the hymn tune sung by the soprano. The poet and Bach thereby emphasize the Feast of John the Baptist as a day in praise to God for the gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.