This Psalm was the basis of the hymn of Paul Gerhardt’s, Befiehl du deine Wege, which has taken national rank in Germany, next to Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg. It has become well-known in the English language through John Wesley’s translation:
‘Commit thou all thy griefs And ways into his hands, To his sure truth and tender care, Who heaven and earth commands.’
The story told of its origin is well known. When Paul Gerhardt was banished from Berlin by the Elector of Brandenburg, because he conscientiously refused some conditions attached to his ministry, he turned in with wife and children to a small wayside hostelry, not knowing where to betake himself. Seeing his wife deeply depressed, he quoted to her Psalm 37: 5 ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass;’ and then went out into the garden. There, sitting under an apple tree, he composed the hymn, and read it to his wife for her comfort. That same evening two messengers arrived from Duke Christian of Merseburg to offer him an honourable place in his dominions. There are circumstances which cast a little doubt on a few of these details, but this is certain, that the hymn was the expression of Paul Gerhardt’s character and life; and that it has spoken to the heart of many in troublous times.
Many years ago, it was the custom in some of the high schools in Germany, when pupils were leaving at the close of their course or school year, to accompany them to the gate of the town singing this hymn.
When the first Lutheran church was opened in Philadelphia, in 1743, it was with Gerhardt’s song.
When Queen Louisa of Prussia, in 1806, received the news of the disastrous battle of Jena, she sat down, after her first burst of weeping, and sang this hymn softly at the piano; when she rose, her eye was clear and her spirit calm.
This fifth verse was also the frequent promise with which David Livingstone, the African missionary and traveler, encouraged himself in the midst of his wanderings and perils. Livingston was a courageous man sprung from the island of Ulva, near lona, who one might say caught the mantle of Columba, and with it crossed oceans and planted the seeds of Christianity among races first discovered by himself.
Verse 25 was the promise which Robert Baillie of Jerviswoode left to his young son George, when his estates were confiscated, and he was condemned to death at Edinburgh, December 24, 1684. Robert Baillie was the great-grandson of John Knox, and was called the Scottish “Sidney”, and was feared and hated by the government of the time for his religious and political opinions, though no unlawful act could be laid to his charge. Dr. John Owen, writing to a friend in Scotland, says of him: ‘You have truly men of great spirit among you; there is, for a gentleman, Mr. Baillie of Jerviswoode, a person of the greatest abilities I ever almost met with.’
Bishop Burnet says: ‘This worthy and learned gentleman was brought to his death in a way so full of the spirit and practice of the Courts of the Inquisition, that one is tempted to think the methods taken were studied in them.’ He had a speech prepared for the scaffold, which was erected at the old Cross of Edinburgh, but on beginning, ‘My love for the Protestant religion hath brought me to this ‘ –the drums were beat, and he could say no more. In his dying testimony he says, ‘I leave my wife and children upon the compassionate and merciful heart of my God, having many reiterated assurances that God will be my God, and the portion of mine.’ He bade his son George, who visited him the evening before his execution, trust in the testimony of the psalmist,’ I have been young, and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.’
The son proved worthy of the father, rose to high office in the State after the Revolution, and the descendants of Robert Baillie are found among some of the noblest families in the kingdom.
—————————————————— Written by John Ker, D. D. Taken from, “The Psalms in History and Biography”.