In this video, Dr. Stephen Eccher, Assistant Professor of Church History and Reformation Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, walks us through Zwingli’s Plague Song. Read a transcript below.
Ulrich Zwingli was a Swiss reformer born at the end of the 15th century. He ministered mostly at the beginning of the 16th century. [He was] much a contemporary of the early waves of the Reformation.
In the beginning of 1519, things are going fairly well. His ministry is beginning to flourish. Then we get to the late summer and early fall of 1519. In August, plague swept through the city of Zurich. Zwingli was actually away from the city at the time. Once plague hits, interestingly enough, he rushes back to the city while in that day and age, it would not have been uncommon for people of means to have actually fled cities, moving themselves away. Of course, most people, the poor of society, wouldn’t have the privilege to be able to do that, but as a minister of the gospel, he’s rushing in to care as opposed to keeping himself from harm’s way.
“Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether.” — Zwingli
Roughly a month later in September 1519 he contracts the illness himself. We’re not sure exactly how long the plague ravaged his body, but we do know that death was real to him in this moment. We know that it was personal. We also know his brother Andrew died of the plague. As he’s really grappling with life-and-death realities, he took pen to paper and wrote a plague song, or a hymn of the pestilence.
Help, Lord God, help in this trouble! I think death is at the door.
Stand before me, Christ, for you have overcome him.
To you I cry: If it is your will, take out the dart that wounds me,
nor lets me have an hour’s rest or repose.
Will you, however, that death take me in the midst of my days, so let it be.
Do what you will, nothing shall be too much for me.
Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether.
This is Zwingli’s chance to really be laid bare before God and to find himself prostrate before God, recognizing that he was solely and wholly dependent upon the sovereign and providential of God in this moment, this desperate hour of need. And that utterly transformed him. It brought him to the point of facing his own mortality with the plague, but also being able in the midst of those trying and difficult times to say what which has for me stood out for many years, this final phrase of the plague song: “Your vessel am I, to make or break altogether.”