Many songs have been inspired by happy times, but this hymn was inspired by the worst of times. Philip Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor in Unna, a small town near Dortmund, Germany when the plague did its terrible work during the winter of 1597-1598. The plague took the lives of more than 1300 people in his community. He kept busy all winter conducting funerals, as many as thirty a day, and comforting the sick and grieving. He wrote this hymn as an encouragement—a statement of faith in the coming of the Christ who overcame death on the cross—and who overcomes death for us as well.
In most cases, a poet writes the words to a hymn and a musician adds the tune. However, in this case, Nicolai wrote both words and music. Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German church musician, came across Nicolai’s hymn and made some small changes to make it more singable. In the process, Bach also helped to popularize it.
The hymn begins with watchmen crying, “Wake, awake!” Watchmen would be on guard against disaster, such as enemy soldiers or fire or flood. In this case, however, they rejoice as they awaken the town to greet the Bridegroom—Jesus Christ— who has come to redeem them. The hymn pictures the hosts of heaven and earth singing to the accompaniment of harp and cymbal—singing joyfully to welcome Jesus.
All too often, we think of the Second Coming (if we think of it at all) as the purview of religious fundamentalists whose proclamation of the Second Coming casts an ominous rather than a joyful tone. To be faithful, we need to recover the joyful character of the Second Coming—of the great banquet that Jesus has prepared for us. Joy is the true meaning of the Second Coming—and it joy the message of this hymn.
— Copyright 2007, Richard Niell Donovan