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Jesu, Priceless Treasure
Johann Franck; arrangement and motet by J. S. Bach
“What does it profit a man,” says Jesus, “if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That is the judgment of sin, the judgment that it carries along with it. “No man can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “for he will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. No man can serve both God and mammon.” The judgment we await is a judgment by Love, of love, when all our heart and soul will be laid bare, for “all that is hidden shall come into the light,” and then we should say to Jesus what he encourages us to say. “What do you want here?” I imagine the Judge asking, and what can we reply? The words of the psalmist: “Thee alone do I seek.”
That is the essence of our Hymn of the Week, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” written in German by Johann Franck as “Jesu, Meine Freude,” and variously translated: you may find it as “Jesus, All My Gladness.” In my opinion, this is one of the most sublime of all Christian hymns, as it plumbs the depth of human hopes and fears, and grants to the faithful soul words of defiance against misfortune, the storms of life, evil and its temptations, the dark nights of the soul, and death itself. And those words of defiance are of force, because they are words of confident trust: Jesus has overcome, Jesus loves us, so that, as Saint Paul says, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The selection we’re providing for you here, courtesy of King’s College Choir, is of the motet by Johann Sebastian Bach, with words translated into English. Here’s how it’s organized. To begin, you hear the first verse of the hymn, to the haunting melody composed by Johann Crueger, which Bach arranged for five choral parts, plus the organ. Those are boys singing the soprano parts: as always, it stuns me when I consider that some of the greatest works of human art were written to be made real by the cooperation of children, and in fact in these motets, the boys have the most important part, carrying the principal melody, and in their youth and innocence soaring above the mature male voices. Then you hear a verse from Romans, chapter 8. Then comes another verse of the hymn and so on alternating hymn and scripture verses.
Let me plot it out:
Movement 1: First verse of hymn: “Jesu, priceless treasure.”
2: Romans 8:1: “There is therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”
3: Second verse of hymn: “In thine arms I rest me.”
4: Romans 8:2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”
5: Third verse of hymn — sung to a very different melody, with an amplification of the stanza: “Death, I do not fear thee.” This stanza will not appear in most hymnals.
6: Romans 8:9: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. Now, if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”
7: Fourth verse of hymn: “Hence, all earthly pleasure.”
8: Romans 8:10: “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
9: Fifth verse of hymn — again, sung to a very different melody: “Fare thee well that errest.” This stanza too will not appear in most hymnals.
10: Romans 8:11: “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.”
11: Sixth verse of hymn: “Hence, all fear and sadness.”
I hope you will find this motet version of the hymn as beautiful as I do — and a wellspring of consolation and trust. The more I describe it, I fear, the less justice I will do to it, so that if I should ever hereafter meet the great Bach, he may well say to me, “Son, didn’t you know that silence is sometimes the wisest moment in a work of music?”
Below is a representative set of stanzas; the translations are many and various.
Jesus, priceless Treasure, Source of purest pleasure, Truest Friend to me. Ah, how long I've panted, And my heart hath fainted, Yearning, Lord, for Thee? Thine I am, O spotless Lamb! I will suffer naught to hide Thee, Naught I ask beside Thee. In Thine arms I rest me; Foes who would molest me Cannot reach me here. Though the earth be shaking, Every heart be quaking, Jesus calms my fear. Fires may flash and thunders crash; Yea, though sin and hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me. 3. Satan, I defy thee; Death, I now decry thee; Fear, I bid thee cease. World, thou shalt not harm me Nor thy threats alarm me While I sing of peace. God's great power Guards every hour; Earth and all its depths adore Him, Silent bow before Him. Hence, all earthly treasure! Thou art all my Pleasure, Jesu, thou my Choice. Hence, all empty glory! Naught to me thy story Told with tempting voice. Pain or loss, Or shame or cross, Shall not from my Savior move me Since He deigns to love me. Evil world, I leave thee; Thou canst not deceive me, Thine appeal is vain. Sin that once did blind me, Get thee far behind me, Come not forth again. Past thy hour, O pride and power; Sinful life, thy bonds I sever, Leave thee now forever. Hence, all fear and sadness! For the Lord of gladness, Jesus, enters in. Those who love the Father, Though the storms may gather, Still have peace within. Yea, whate'er I here must bear, Thou art still my purest Pleasure, Jesus, priceless Treasure!
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.