J. S. Bach, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Cantata BWV 136)

The biblical readings for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity are Romans 8:12-17 (a text which affirms our identity as children of God, and thus joint-heirs with Christ), and St. Matthew 8:15-23, which warns of false prophets and more generally of hypocrisy: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

The text of this Gospel reading is the link that connects the six movements of this cantata, one of three that Bach composed for use in the liturgy on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. The opening chorus is a text from Psalm 139, a prayer that God will examine us and find that we are indeed sincere believers: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know what I think!”

The ebullient spirit of this chorus suggests (as critic Julian Mincham observes) “a guileless, open, carefree, perhaps almost teasing invitation — come, search me and know my innermost thoughts.” This straightforward and joyful music is the confident expression of a sincere and secure believer. Says Mincham: “There are no hidden depths or depressed recesses of the mind here!”

This chorus is followed by a recitative sung by a tenor soloist. The text is a mini-homily based on the Gospel reading; while the opening chorus is celebratory, this recitative is clearly exhortatory:

Alas, the curse that strikes the Earth has struck also the hearts of men! Who can hope for good fruit, when this curse pierces as far as the soul so that it brings forth the thorns of sin and bears the thistles of vice? Yet the children of hell often want to present themselves as angels of light; with our corrupted nature we are supposed to gather grapes from these thorns. A wolf likes to cover himself in pure wool, but the day dawns which for, you hypocrites, will be terror indeed truly unbearable.

Here is the opening chorus and the tenor recitative, performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Ton Koopman. The tenor soloist is Gerd Turk.


This sober recitative is followed by an aria sung by the alto soloist. The text intensifies the warning against hypocrisy uttered in the Gospel reading:

A day will come when what is hidden will be judged, before which hypocrisy may tremble, for the fury of his jealousy brings to nothing whatever hypocrisy and cunning have invented.

Having been warned of God’s judgment, a bass recitative announces the hope of the Gospel:

The heavens themselves are not pure, how then will it be for a man before this judge? Yet whoever is purified through Jesus’ blood, united with him in faith, knows no harsh sentence would be pronounced against him. If his sins still weaken him, the lack of good deeds, yet he still has in Christ justice and might.

Here is the alto aria and bass recitative. Once again, Ton Koopman conducts the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, joined by alto Bogna Bartosz and bass Klaus Mertens.


In the next movement — a tenor/bass duet — the basic outline of the Gospel is re-asserted.

Indeed, the marks of sin still are on us which Adam’s fall brought upon us. But whoever has found the wounds of Jesus and the great stream of blood will be purified by him.

That duet is performed here by tenor Johannes Kaleschke and bass Ekkehard Abele. The recording is from a concert given by the Choir and Orchestra of the J. S. Bach Foundation, conducted by Rudolf Lutz.


The final movement of the cantata is a chorale which celebrates the blood of Christ as the source of our liberation. It is worth noting that in the Lutheran liturgy, cantatas were sung before Communion.

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Your blood, the noble liquid, has such force and might that even one small drop can make pure the whole world, indeed, from the devil’s jaws themselves can make us free, released and unattached.

The chorale is sung here by the Monteverdi Choir, with the English Baroque Soloists, under the leadership of John Eliot Gardiner.


Finally, here is a complete performance of the cantata as conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists are Robin Tyson, alto; Christoph Gens, tenor; and Brindley Sherratt, bass. You may follow the German text and see an interlinear English translation here.