The War as a Visitation of God

by August Pieper
translated by Benjamin Foxen

Translator’s Preface

August Pieper wrote this article in 1943 for the Quartalschrift. For his biography, see the other article by him in this issue. This is only the first half of his two-part article, and unfortunately, I have been unable to find the second half so far. In the event that I do find it, though, it will appear in our next issue. This first part deals with the visitations of God on the world, and the second deals with World War II as a specific visitation of God.

As always, I have tried to produce a translation easy to read in English while preserving as much of the original author’s style as possible. Also, I felt the need to leave out a paragraph of Pieper’s which went into the details of the linguistics of the word “heimsuchung.” I didn’t think it would be helpful in the overall understanding of the article, and (admittedly) it was a pain to translate. That said, here is the article.

To God alone be the glory!

Jeremiah 5:3 O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain, etc.

Lamentations 3:37,38 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?

Deuteronomy 32:3-6 I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God…Is this the way you repay the Lord, O foolish and unwise people?

Preaching concerning visitations of God has always been an offense to the unbelieving world. Today it seems stupid and ridiculous to it. It does not believe that God has a hand in the world’s affairs. Everything just goes along like it always has. It is no surprise; let the foolish people babble!

However, the belief in the visitations of God has been strongly ridiculed also within the present Christian world, as our brothers in California must have amply experienced again with the last earthquake in San Francisco. Even sect preachers have been ashamed of the clear Scriptures and have held out against it with the “cultured,” scoffing world, as the Lutherans over there have matured to repentance. They have held to the latter from Professor Walther up to this point. Walther preached God’s Word faithfully and without timidity. For his book of sermons on the Epistles, he based his sermon for the day of repentance on 1 Chronicles 21:11-14–publicly considered shocking since it was during our Civil War (1861-1865). He did this although he, as a democrat, stood in daily danger of being denounced by several of his own members as an enemy of the country and of being arrested by the government. The sermon also contributed much towards peace among his students at that time and still produces an after-effect with many today. Our American college youth are urging so impetuously towards a change to the English language, and by that they also obstruct the full perception of the mental weight of the natural German expression, “heimsuchen, Heimsuchung, Heimsuchung Gottes.”1 For this term, English, that blend of languages, does not have in its Bible any Anglo-Saxon expression that translates the German expression–perhaps “homeseeking.” In the New Testament it is an expression of such intense power of God’s governing of the world and church, that we, as servants of the church appointed by God, are not at all able to go without the fundamental knowledge of it, for example for the private care of souls, without letting it do spiritual harm or letting it decay more the longer we pass it by.

The word “heimsuchung” denotes something entirely distinct. It has a precise goal. The pastor, as one who cares for souls, does not come into the home of a member of his congregation unintentionally or incidentally. He has something very important to do there, something particular, that is, to teach, admonish, rebuke, or comfort. When God makes a visit on us, he indeed does not first need to strain himself to do so. He is already with us because of the power of his omnipresence. But he has something particular to say to you, which nobody else needs to know, if it does not at the same time concern the other members of the house. Whatever he has to say to you certainly concerns your spiritual well-being, finally the salvation of your soul, because he is your good, faithful Shepherd (Jn 10). That is God’s visitation in its ideal form. It is essentially a preaching of the revealed Word delivered in a ministerial way to one or to several people in the congregation, who have fallen behind spiritually or stand in particular spiritual danger–let’s call it caring for individual souls. He wants to come into your heart, your spiritual home, your heart and conscience.

But the merciful and almighty God has a thousand other means and ways to come into the hearts of men, both believers and unbelievers, by being felt and perceived by them.

Let us lay the foundation. God has revealed to us men his great universal will concerning his plan for the world. He has three great immovable pillars —

  1. The creation of man in his image with the freedom to sin or not.
  2. He has sent his Son Jesus Christ into our flesh for the redemption of his image from the consequences of sin. By this we are eternally saved through faith in him.
  3. He has ordained a final judgment, on which he will bring to light the fruit of the sending of his Son.

This great plan has some particulars, however, the practical main point is faith in Christ. But fallen man can do nothing in regards to that. Thus the God of love does everything by himself and in addition to that uses the means of the Word and Sacraments, filled with the Holy Spirit, and puts his collective fatherly governance of the world into the service of the accomplishment of this one great goal.

To that also belong the so-called visitations of God to men. Since these happen to Christians for the sake of their faith, Scripture calls them crosses and explains them as necessary things, which no Christian ought to refuse. On this see passages in Matthew 10, Mark 8, Luke 9, and 1 Peter 4:16. However since it is an unexpected event of the natural life, be it a delightful or troubling kind, Scripture speaks about a visitation of God more often in small, but also in more important and very great deeds of God. Thus the word “heimsuchen” appears first in Ge 21:1, where it speaks of the unexpected conception of Sarah, who had been barren up to that point. “And the Lord made a visit to Sarah.” The state of being barren, so often as it appears, is primarily a curse of the original sin of the woman, whom the Lord indeed had created and blessed for the propagation of the human race (Ge 1:27,28). Adam named her Eve for this reason: “because she will be the mother of all the living” (Ge 3:20). But after she had committed the trespass (1 Ti 2:14), she first of all had to give birth to children with great pain (who themselves would be subject to death sooner or later) and also be subject to her husband. Therefore the barrenness of a married woman is perceived (mostly by the woman herself) today as a natural deficiency in worldly fortune and as a disgrace, which God in his saving will has limited to a few special cases.

Sarah was, as long as she did not believe the promise, a discontented woman plagued by envy. When the Lord blessed her with fruitfulness even in her old age, she became a happy and excellent mother–according to the promise in Psalm 68:7. Leah was very happy because of her great number of children, but the beautiful Rachel was furious at Jacob out of envy because she could not bear children (Ge 30:1). However when the Lord made her fruitful (30:22), with the result that she gave birth to Joseph, she praised God that he had taken away her disgrace. A similar example of a visitation to a barren woman is that of the mother of Samuel, the wife of Elkanah, whose younger wife, Peninnah, had sons and daughters. Her sorrow was so deep that it even infected her husband. At the prayer and vow of her heart “God visited her” with fruitfulness, and she bore the first pious, powerful judge in Israel (1 Sa 1:2ff). In the New Testament we have the same situation in Elizabeth, the pious wife of the priest Zechariah, who, originally barren, was made fruitful through a special visitation, and became the mother of John the Baptist. On the other side is the greatest saving act of God, the sending of Christ into the flesh, praised as God’s “visit and redemption” of his people by Zechariah, specially seized by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:67ff). And in chapter seven verse sixteen, when Christ raised the young man of Nain, the whole believing crowd exclaimed about Christ, “A great prophet has appeared among us,” and “God has come to help his people.”

Now these are genuine visitations of God, in which God created good from evil and joy from sorrow in simple and great things. We should recognize these as such, not forget them in the foolish pride which is so natural to us, but daily thank him for it, love him for it, and praise him for it—but also with action! Concerning that point the Scriptures are entirely full, especially the Psalms—read only Psalm 103, “…and forget not all his benefits, etc.” Woe to those unfortunate people, who misuse all God’s gifts only for their own carnal self-satisfaction, self-glorification, and for lying to and blaspheming God!

But now it is apparent to every diligent student of the Scriptures that the concept of the visitation more often consists of disaster and misfortune, wrath and punishment, judgment and the threat of rejection. And indeed that applies to individual people, races, cities, countries, nationalities, finally even the corrupted earth itself. Read, for example, chapters 46-50 of Jeremiah, and parts of the New Testament (Mt 24; Mk 14; Lk 19:41-44; 21:7-24).

The understanding of the doctrine concerning the visitations of God presumes the understanding and faith in the eternal, personal, all-effecting, holy, merciful, righteous, and truthful God, in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who helps us in all need, whom the host of angels praises, who effects, does, and creates everything through his great power” (Gesangbuch2 37). The unbelievers do not believe in him. Instead they believe in human reason, which ascribes everything’s existence and every event to a stiff, dead, unknown “nature.” But what kind of reason is that? Men of very sharp and very strong mental abilities were the discoverers of the so-called Copernican model of the solar system: Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Copernicus. But what did they do for the formation of this system? Nothing, not a breath! They have only understood a part of it and explained it according to our ordinary human understanding. Accordingly that solar system which exists is something so beyond every measure of skill and so confusing to man, that our reason (reasonable to some extent) must say, “That is the work of a personal, almighty, wise, and good God.” If, however, the unbelievers would actually be able to create something with their impersonal nature, that is, if they would be able to call something into existence out of nothing by means of a mere word, for example, a flea or a gnat or a flower, indeed, even just a single blade of grass, then I would turn myself to follow their foolish beliefs. But our personal, eternal, almighty, and faithful God speaks, and it happens; when he commands, it stands there (Ps 33:9). It is the Lord who allows good and evil, fortune and misfortune, to come over people, sometimes in single and minor doses, but many times in great catastrophes. “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (Am 3:6; Mic 1:12). Who then can say that such a thing could happen without the Lord’s command! Where then are the greatest cities of the old world now, with their massive populations, sciences, and arts? Let us not forget the truly horrible judgment of God on Jerusalem, “…because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:44). That brings to mind so many old and new examples of the great deeds of God, which do not fail to make the impression of the direct visitation of God. First it reminds us of the struggle for the old Egyptian city Alexandria. Around the year 333 BC, Alexander the Great, the son of Philipp of Macedonia, laid waste to a great part of the nations of the world at that time through perpetual war, until God destroyed him in his own sins. He is said to have killed 14 million people. Secondly, several historians point to Julius Caesar, who, born about one hundred years before the birth of Christ, smashed many European peoples in 56 years (until 44 BC), and by doing that he killed millions of people and then was murdered by his own friends. The third is Attila the Hun, around 450 AD, the great leader of the Mongolian peoples of Asia, who, up to the point when he was conquered in the Plains of Chalon (in which he still slaughtered over 250,000 men even though it was his last battle), had destroyed 5 million people. The fourth3 was Genghis Khan, who in the 12th and 13th centuries AD killed many millions of people. All the world still shudders today over these stories and seeks after their cause. With these “heroes” it was always the same: insane ambition, the desire to rule all the peoples of the world, which no one could oppose. The English writer Pope characterized Alexander with one sentence, “The youth who all things but himself subdued.” Alexander listened to no man, not even his intimately beloved friend and foster-brother, Clitus, who warned him so often and faithfully. In the end, he killed him in a dispute. Julius Caesar was considered the greatest general the world has ever seen, but there was contention with his most faithful friend, Brutus. When Caesar was stabbed 24 times and was dying, he inwardly despaired, saying, “Et tu, Brute?” Genghis Khan was called “the Scourge of God in the world” by the Christians of his time because he left his own beliefs to every conquered people. There are other examples, both known and unknown, but they are all like these. At their time God also made visits to the world.

We can also add several great events of more recent times to these visitations of the old world, which clearly show the character of the visitations of God.

  1. First there is the earthquake, fire, and flood of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, which at the time had a population close to 250,000 people. On November 1, 1755, the city experienced an earthquake, which reduced the greatest and most beautiful part of the city to a heap of rubbish in a single instantaneous shock, killing 30,000 people. At the same time a fire spread, whipped along by the wind, and cost the lives of thousands more. Then the waters of the powerful Tagus River, which flows through the city into the sea, gushed forth over the ruins and made all rescue attempts impossible,4 while a pack of thieves and robbers threw themselves upon the ruins like vultures and plundered everything. All Europe was struck as if by thunder–what was that? “A visitation of God!” said all who were still Christians. The unbelieving world said, “Superstition! It was a natural event!”

  2. On October 8, 1871, the great city of Chicago and the small one of Peshtigo, WI, burned down at the same time. In Chicago a person looked for the cause and finally found a cow, which had knocked over a light with a kick of its hind legs. The owner had placed the light next to herself while she was milking. However, it was dubbed “a lucky thing for Chicago!” Rich people built up the city again with palaces of steel, stone and mortar instead of the great masses of wooden shelters which could burn. Peshtigo also rebuilt again without fear and became more beautiful than the first time, although the people gave up looking for the cause of the fire. The Christians there have commended the new city to God’s care.

  3. Also in the Spring of 1892, the third ward of our own Milwaukee burned down in a great, alarming fire. The damages went into the millions of dollars and cost the lives of many people. The cause has still not been firmly established to this day, and today the ward is still not entirely rebuilt, but is only partly inhabited by a mix of poor foreigners. Was it just a work of man, or did the Lord also have a hand in it?

  4. Finally let us name under this rubric the changeable fortune of San Francisco. This city is entirely peculiar according to both its geographic location on the ocean and the cultural mix of its population. The area was discovered in 1542 by a Portuguese man serving in the Spanish fleet. Later it was taken for England by Sir Francis Drake, Elizabeth’s champion, and named New Albion, but next it came into Spanish, and then into Mexican hands. Then all kinds of foreign rabble looking for gold, along with a mass of Chinese, flooded into the city and made it a scene of bloodshed. During the years 1845-1848 the city and state were occupied by our government and to some extent were brought to order. On account of the 49ers a railroad extended towards California and San Francisco. The recently found gold drew them in. But ever since that time difficult visitations have gone over the city in the form of riots, earthquakes, fires, and floods, which have been repeated even in these last years. The first members of the Missouri Synod cared with great zeal for the founding of the Lutheran church in that city and state. Here are a couple refreshing examples of their courage to profess their Lutheran beliefs: One is the private struggle of the Lutheran, Pastor Buehler, against the well-known and rich “Sugar King,” Claus Spreckles. The other is the synod of the California district, convened in 1906, which professed to the mocking world that the recent earthquake was a visitation of God.

We must take note of three things before we can rightly and blessedly turn from the teaching of Scripture concerning the visitations of God to our present war situation.

  1. When we ascribe all the visitations of God to God himself (as Scripture teaches), it is not said by that, that he puts them to work without using earthly means. On the contrary, for these visitations he puts into his service creatures of any kind, men or animals, earthly elements or powers, fire, air and water, angels and men–all according to his good pleasure (La 3:37; Ps 103:20; etc.). A bird or an electric spark, a volcanic eruption or a burning cigarette butt can accomplish the will of the great Lord of lords. “He does as he pleases” (Da 4). “He always has ways, and he lacks no means.” That is one.

  2. The second is the warning of the Lord: “Do not judge!” (Ma 7:1-6; Lk 6:37) In addition to those belong the examples in Lk 13:1-9. They have been impressed on us all, you and me, by the Lord himself. Also, we still survive in office, business, and life only through the patience of God. But the words of Scripture concerning the visitations of God will remain true for all eternity as God’s will, and they will triumph in the sense of Psalm 41 over the present distress of war.

  3. In light of these things, praying and crying out to the Lord are truly worth something. Read for yourself and hear directly from the mouth of the Lord: “And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” (Ps 50:15); “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” (Ex 14:15); “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” (Ps 40:2); “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Lk 18:7,8). The entire congregation should also pray for the preservation of our youth, for peace, and for parents’ comfort.

(To be continued in the next issue)5

  1. The translator must admit how awkward he feels in doing the very thing Pieper speaks against here by translating the German expressions, but for the sake of any who read this, here is an attempt in English: “make a visit,” “visitation,” and “visitation of God.” These show up many times in this article and will be translated as you see here. 

  2. The Gesangbuch is a German Lutheran hymnal. 

  3. Pieper actually has “fifth” here. 

  4. In fact, the earthquake caused a massive tidal wave to form in the ocean, and it descended on the city. 

  5. Editor’s Note: To the best of our knowledge, this article was never continued in the Quartalschrift as promised. 

August Pieper offers a theological reflection on the European war.

 Aug 4, 2006