May 31, 2023

Johann Sebastian Bach


Christian Riedel attended a conference in 1934 for Lutheran pastors in Michigan. He stayed with his cousin who showed him an old Bible he had found with other discarded books. Riedel recognized Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) original signature on the cover page. They went to the attic where the Bible was found and discovered two volumes of Martin Luther’s original study Bible. Bach’s Bible was filled with red and black ink which he used to underline verses and add extensive comments in the margins. Next to the account of Miriam and other women singing with timbrels in Exodus 15, Bach wrote, “First prelude for two choirs to be sung to the glory of God.” Accompanying the reference in 1 Chronicles 25 to worship with musical instruments, he added, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.” Alongside the reference to Levites making music in 2 Chronicles 5, Bach inscribed, “In all devout music God is at all times present with his grace.” The church I served presented several of Bach’s Passions in concert and my role was to provide commentary on the various Biblical references that accompanied his music. Bach’s vast knowledge and breadth of Scripture won my admiration. Bach famously signed his works with the initials SDG which, in Latin, translate, “To God alone be the glory.” Bach believed music was a powerful tool to proclaim the gospel. People with little interest or inclination toward church continue to hear the gospel message through Bach’s music. One of Bach’s cantatas includes the prayer:

We hasten with weak, yet eager footsteps,O Jesus, O Master, for your help alone!
You tirelessly seek out the sick and those who have gone astray.
Oh, hear us, as we, our voices raised, pray for your help!
May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.