The Song of Simeon in the Reformed Tradition

When we read the first two chapters of the gospel of Luke—the stories that surround the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ—we find some characters singing songs of praise to God. These are the songs of Mary as she visits Elizabeth, of Zechariah at the birth of his son John, of the angels as they announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, and of Simeon as he holds baby Jesus in his arms when Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem. In the history of the church, Christians turned these songs in the Bible into canticles that have enriched the worship experiences of God’s people all over the world. Each song has a traditional Latin title taken from its first words: the Magnificat (Mary glorifying God), the Benedictus (Zechariah blessing God), the Gloria in excelsis Deo, (the angels singing praises to God), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon acknowledging God’s kept promise).

In looking at the text of Luke 2:29–32, often referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon, we find Simeon, a righteous and devout man who, according to Luke, was waiting for the consolation of Israel and heard the message from the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. As he takes baby Jesus in his arms when Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple, Simeon sings, in joy and gratitude to God, that he is now ready to die because his eyes have seen the salvation that comes from God.

Here is an English versification of that text:

Now may your servant, Lord,

according to your word,

depart in exaltation.

My peace shall be serene,

for now my eyes have seen

your wonderful salvation.

You did for all prepare

this gift so great, so rare,

fulfilling prophets’ story—

a light to show the way

to Gentiles gone astray,

and unto Israel’s glory.

—Luke 2:29–32; vers. Dewey Westra, 1931, alt., P.D. LUYH 935

In my previous article in Reformed Worship 149 (September 2023), I wrote how John Calvin appreciated Mary’s role in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, Mary is an example of a humble person who serves God as a mouthpiece and an instrument of the Holy Spirit. According to Calvin, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, exemplifies the inward feeling of the heart, which is the correct way to praise God. I also discussed briefly in that article how Calvin insisted that the church sing only the versified forms of the psalms because he believed that God inspired the entire book of Psalms for God’s people to sing God’s praises, to bring their cries and laments to God, and to bless God’s holy name. Calvin strongly believed that in worship, singing is equivalent to praying.


Historical Background

While the metrical psalms remained central to Genevan worship, over time Calvin and the church in Geneva added several canticles, also versified in metrical forms. First on the list of those canticles is the Song of Simeon. As early as 1542, only about one year after Calvin returned to Geneva, the Genevan church published La Forme des prieres et chantz Ecclesiastiques (in English, The Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Songs). This little booklet contains thirty-five metrical psalms followed by the Song of Simeon, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments, also composed in metrical forms. The Song of Simeon is in the collection because it is one of the four songs recorded in the gospel of Luke, and thus as a biblical worship text, Calvin argued that it has authority equal to the psalms. Subsequent publications of the Genevan Psalter published in Calvin’s lifetime contain different selections of canticles, but the Song of Simeon is almost always in those editions. Calvin may have even versified the Song of Simeon for the 1542 edition of the psalter.

It took the Genevan Psalter about two decades to finally have all 150 psalms versified. In 1562, the church in Geneva published the complete metrical psalms in Les Pseaumes mis en rime François (in English, The Psalms Set in French Rhyme). The psalter was the result of the works of Theodore Beza (1519–1605) and Clement Marot (1496–1544). It included two canticles: the Ten Commandments and the Song of Simeon. Marot was the poet who versified the Song of Simeon for this edition. Louis Bourgeois (ca. 1510–61) is believed to be the composer of the tune in this edition. While they share some characteristics, the versification and the tune of the 1562 edition of the canticle are different from those of the 1542. Both editions have the meter of (or 6.6.7 double). This meter results in short stanza lines, which make it easy for singers to memorize. The harmonization of this canticle, as for the entire psalter, was the work of Claude Goudimel (ca. 1505–74). The 1542 version of the canticle has four stanzas, whereas the one from 1562 has only two. The earlier version expands on the theme of God’s grace to humanity beyond what is written in Luke 2:29–32. That elaboration is captured in the second and third stanzas. The later version is more concise, following the Lukan passages closely.

During the Reformation, the church in Strasbourg under the leadership of Martin Bucer (1491–1551) used the Song of Simeon as the closing hymn on Sundays when the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The singing of this canticle came right after the prayer of thanksgiving at the conclusion of the sacrament. Singing this canticle at that point in the liturgy is fitting, considering that in the thanksgiving prayer the minister would reemphasize not just the people’s gratitude for the salvation that God has granted through Jesus Christ, but also the call for the people to exalt God’s glory and to edify each other in faith (“The Form of Church Prayers and Hymns with the Manner of Administering the Sacraments and Consecrating Marriage according to the Custom of the Ancient Church,” in Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 1970, p. 208). Sending the people home with the Song of Simeon on their lips served as a way for the church to remind people to glorify God and become witnesses to their neighbors, just as Simeon in the second chapter of Luke declares that Jesus has become the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people.

In Lift Up Your Hearts, the English version of the Song of Simeon is titled “Now May Your Servant, Lord” (LUYH 935). This English title reminds us of the Latin version of the canticle, Nunc Dimittis. The phrase comes from the first two words of Luke 2:29: “Now, Lord, may your servant depart.” This version has two stanzas, resembling the 1562 French version of the canticle. The words of this English version came from the pen of Dewey Westra (1899–1979), a multitalented high school teacher, musician, poet, and translator of poetry from English into Dutch and Frisian and vice versa (Emily Brink, “The Song of Simeon,” in The Hymn, p. 40).

Contemporary Application of Simeon’s Song

There are many ways we can include this hymn in worship liturgies. Following the practice of the church in Strasbourg at the time of the Reformation, churches today can use this hymn to end a service when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. The message of Simeon in Luke 2 can strengthen the meaning of the sacrament to the congregation. Christ’s work of redemption tangibly present in the bread and wine is echoed and reinforced as the worshiper sings together with Simeon, “My peace shall be serene, for my eyes have seen your wonderful salvation.” The Lord’s Supper makes the salvation of Jesus Christ real in the eyes of faith.

We can also sing this hymn as we visit shut-ins and bring the Lord’s Supper to them. When a minister and elders of the church serve the aged or ailing members of the church and celebrate the Lord’s Supper with them in their homes or hospital rooms, it is fitting that as a group they sing the hymn together. Simeon, the elderly man who carries Jesus in his arms, sings the song of praise of God’s salvation. In the same way, shut-ins may find the joy and the peace of Jesus Christ through the celebration of the sacrament and singing of the song.

I also suggest using the Song of Simeon as the closing hymn for all worship services during Lent. It is good for the church to have a repeated pattern in the liturgy to mark each season. Singing the same hymn throughout the season can help members of the congregation focus on a specific biblical message reinforced over time. Singing this hymn at the end of each Sunday service throughout Lent can serve as a reminder to the congregation that as they contemplate the sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of the whole universe, they have the assurance of salvation and the peace that only Jesus can give through his death and resurrection.

Dr. Yudha Thianto is the P. J. Zondervan Chair and professor of history of Christianity and Reformed theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Originally from Indonesia, he is currently researching the history of psalm singing in the Reformed tradition that traveled from Calvin’s Geneva through the Dutch Reformed Church to the East Indies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Reformed Worship 150 © December 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.