Because He Comes, He Surely Comes

I have written in the past about why Psalms are appropriate for Advent and Christmas worship (quoting at length from C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms ). Psalms have a long history of being sung during Advent. Before most Advent/Christmas hymns were even penned, churches were singing Psalms to celebrate Christ’s incarnation. Traditional Advent Psalms include (but are certainly not limited to) Psalms 89, 96, 98, and 113. To go back further, the “Advent” hymns in the Gospels are rich in Psalm imagery; Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, is rich in psalm themes, especially Psalms 89 and 92.

Psalms are chock full of themes that have historically been associated with Christ’s incarnation. These include justice for the poor and oppressed, comfort for the downtrodden, judgment for the wicked, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and a cosmic rejoicing in God’s mercy and reign. Singing Psalms with these themes helps to balance the sentimentality of some Christmas songs, as well as center us on the magnitude of the incarnation. Indeed, the baby born in a cattle stall 2000+ years ago is the King and Judge of the universe who came to defeat the prince of this world. Granted, on the other hand, if we sing only Psalms during Advent, we’ll miss out on some sublime and strong incarnational hymnody. C.S. Lewis provides some helpful thoughts on Psalm singing and Advent:

“Psalm 110, the psalm assigned to Christmas Day, has nothing about peace and good-will, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory…The note is not ‘Peace and good-will’ but ‘Beware. He’s coming’…All this emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas does less than justice. For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the judge or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell, and the devil, had at last arrived.”

Since Christmas Day is two days away, I wanted to share one such Psalm that is especially appropriate for Advent: Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is cosmic in scope, calling on all people and all of creation to praise God for his covenant promises, righteous judgment, and imminent coming. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Joy to the World” is actually his christological paraphrase of Psalm 98. He published it in 1719 with the title “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” It’s not difficult to see why Psalm 98 and Advent are closely tied, as the ESV Study Bible notes: “The psalm and the hymn have come to be associated with Christmas; like Psalm 96, this is not inappropriate, provided it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Davidic king who will bring light to the Gentiles is what establishes the connection.”

There are several excellent metrical arrangements of Psalm 98 of which I am aware. My all-time favorite version is from the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing (also included in the Cantus Christi and the forthcoming URC/OPC joint psalter hymnal). This boisterous fuguing tune is called LYGNHAM, published in 1803. This video is from one church’s psalm sing, though I prefer it a touch slower for congregational singing.

My other favorite version has older roots than the British tune above: the Genevan version of Psalm 98. The Genevan Psalms were commissioned by John Calvin in the 1500s and are still frequently sung in Dutch and Canadian Reformed churches. The video below is an excellent Dutch  rendition of this song.

Psalm 98 (ESV)
A Psalm.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98A (Book of Psalms for Singing)

O sing a new song to the LORD,
for wonders he has done;
His right hand and His holy arm
the victory have won.

The great salvation wrought by Him
Jehovah has made known.
His justice in the nations’ sight
He openly has shown.

He mindful of His grace and truth
to Isr’el’s house has been.
The great salvation of our God
all ends of earth have seen.

O all the earth, sing to the LORD
and make a joyful sound.
Lift up your voice aloud to Him;
sing psalms! Let joy resound!

With harp make music to the LORD;
with harp a psalm O sing!
With horn and trumpet raise a shout
before the LORD, the King.

Let seas in all their vastness roar,
the world its living horde.
Let rivers clap, let mountains sing
their joy before the LORD!

Because He comes, He surely comes,
the judge of earth to be!
With justice He will judge the world,
all men with equity.


Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Martin LutherYou may have heard it said, or said it yourself, that Martin Luther used a drinking song for his iconic hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” Or maybe you’ve heard (or said) Luther’s apparent quip, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Either of these pithy truisms have been employed by those hoping to justify the inclusion of popular music in the church’s worship, just as long as the words are at least somewhat spiritual. Rick Warren, for one, is a celebrity pastor that takes this position.

In light of Reformation Day today, I hope to put to rest these false notions that shame Luther’s good name, while leaning on Paul S. Jones’ book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006). Luther never used bar songs for hymns and never said anything about the devil’s good music. First, to dispel the silly quotation: this has never been found in any of Luther’s writings or verified by any Luther scholars. That paragon of all that is good about Christian music, Larry Norman (a pioneer of the CCM-precursor Jesus Movement), popularized the statement in his song with the same title, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The statement has roots older than this 1970s Jesus Movement song, though, with something similar being attributed to William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as well as misattributed in some form or fashion to the likes of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and D.L. Moody.

On to EIN FESTE BURG, the tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” This tune is one of Luther’s own compositions that he wrote specifically for this hymn as well as for a versification of Psalm 46. He also wrote several other very good tunes, including tunes for Psalm 130, an Advent hymn, and a Resurrection Sunday hymn. He, along with many other composers (including Bach) would borrow from other forms, including Gregorian chants and folk music.

The closest Luther got to stealing a drinking song was the tune VON HIMMEL HOCH for his Advent hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This was associated with an old German folk melody, but when Luther heard the tune sung in inns and dance halls, he was embarrassed and the tune was stricken from his hymn collections. Folk songs were traditionally sung in such places, but that does not make them tavern songs. Lastly, a standard Middle Age German musical form is the “bar form.” Perhaps when CCMers were playing the telephone game, “bar form” was misheard as “bar song.”

More important than merely debunking urban myths is the principle inherent when such statements are uttered. Pop music or heavy metal, for example, are not automatically sterilized and sanctified by merely pairing them with religious texts. As Ken Myers argues in his classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989) and T. David Gordon more recently hammers home in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010), popular music has inherent characteristics that are ill-suited for corporate worship. Music is not ideologically or theologically neutral and thus not all musical genres should be used in worship. Since music is not neutral, personal taste does not trump objective standards. For more on this topic, I commend Jones’ chapter to you (on which this post heavily leaned): “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth Please!” in Singing and Making Music. The aforementioned All God’s Children and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are also well worth your time.

So on this Reformation Day, please do not take Luther’s name in vain by attributing to him what he never said, intended, or desired. And in the spirit of All Saints’ Day tomorrow (November 1), here’s a bonus video of the magisterial British hymn “For All the Saints.”

Stopped Heartbeats and Sulking about Christmas

Another excerpt from N.D. Wilson’s Death By Living:

“My wife and I tend to overgift to our kids at Christmas. We laugh and feel foolish when a kid is so distracted with one toy that we must force them into opening the next, or when something grand goes completely unnoticed in a corner. How consumerist, right? How crassly American.

“How like God.

“We are all that overwhelmed kid, not even noticing our heartbeats, not even noticing our breathing, not even noticing that our fingertips can feel and pick things up, that pie smells like pie and that our hangnails heal and that honey-crisp apples are real and that dogs wag their tails and that awe perpetually awaits us in the sky. The real yearning, the solomonic state of mind, is caused by too much gift, by too many things to love in too short a time. Because the more we are given, the more we feel the loss as we are all made poor and sent back to our dust.

“Oh, but we notice heartbeats when they stop. And we beg for more. If we are capable of sulking about Christmas while still around the tree half-buried in shiny paper (and we are), then of course we are capable of weeping when Christmas appears to be over. The ungrateful always farm bitterness in their hearts. Those with faith (yet another gift) rejoice even at the end and after. They wipe tears, more profoundly feeling the full wealth of lives given when those same lives are lost.”

-N.D. Wilson in Death By Living (Thomas Nelson, 2013), pp.108-109

Like Gazing at the Open Sea

C.S. Lewis wrote a masterful essay called “On the Reading of Old Books,” which was originally published as the introduction to a 1940s translation of Athanasius’ fourth century masterpiece On the Incarnation of the Word. Lewis writes that

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.”

I have been struck by the similarities of many contemporary Reformed writers, and found myself gravitating to older books because they correct, remind, and open new doors. I read Lewis’ essay again before reading On the Incarnation, and it’s worth the price of the book, in my opinion. In the essay, Lewis also writes about the devotional value of reading doctrinal books, arguing that they are often more devotional than devotional books. One of my favorite Lewis quotations speaks to this:

“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

Athanasius’ work is brilliantly written, but accessible. I was intimidated to read something so old, but he writes clearly and logically (not to mention concisely, with the book clocking in at just under 70 pages). I highly recommend it as an edifying read, as well as a breath of fresh air if you are stuck in a contemporary theology rut. Here are some choice highlights I came across in my reading:

“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into nonexistence through corruption.” (p. 6)

“For [Christ] alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all, and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.” (p. 7)

“By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.” (p. 12)

“In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one things that one has grasped.” (p. 62)

So God with Man Unites!

In the twelfth book (of twelve) in Paradise Lost, before Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden, John Milton describes the angel Michael showing Adam humanity’s future in a vision. Michael describes the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of the proto evangelion in Genesis 3 and the entirety of the Old Testament. It’s a beautiful and appropriate passage for Christmas:

“‘…at last they seize
The scepter, and regard not David’s sons;
Then lose it to a stranger, that the true
Anointed King Messiah might be born
Barred of his right; yet at his birth a star,
Unseen before in Heaven, proclaims him come;
And guides the eastern sages, who inquire
His place, to offer incense, myrrh, and gold:
His place of birth a solemn angel tells
To simple shepherds, keeping watch by night;
They gladly thither haste, and by a quire
Of squadroned angels hear his carol sung.
A virgin is his mother, but his sire
The power of the Most High: He shall ascend
The throne hereditary, and bound his reign
With Earth’s wide bounds, his glory with the Heavens.’

“He ceased, discerning Adam with such joy
Surcharged, as had like grief been dewed in tears,
Without the vent of words; which these he breathed.

“‘Oh prophet of glad tidings, finisher
Of utmost hope, now clear I understand
What oft my steadiest thoughts have searched in vain;
Why our great Expectation should be called
The seed of Woman: Virgin Mother, hail,
High in the love of Heaven; yet from my loins
Thou shalt proceed, and from thy womb the Son
Of God Most High: so God with man unites!'”

Gustave Dore, Adam and Eve Driven Out of Paradise, from Illustrations to Paradise Lost, 1866

No local boy coming good

Being Passion Week in the church calendar, I thought it would be appropriate throughout the week to post snippets from Sam Allberry’s pastoral book on the resurrection: Lifted: Experiencing the Resurrection Life. It is an excellent little book, and makes for a great Lenten devotional or post-Resurrection Sunday meditation.

“‘God raised him.’ This is the definitive reversal. It is so much more than another story of a local boy coming good in the end. The so-called blasphemer is in fact the Son of God. The one charged with sedition is the true Ruler. The one under the curse of God is saving others from it. The one buried in a tomb has the power to create life. The resurrection is an open challenge to how people see Jesus. He cannot be anything less than the Son of God, the Christ, the Saviour, and the Author of life. God has overturned the verdict of humanity on this man, and calls on us to do the same if we haven’t already. The resurrection lifts Jesus conclusively out of any merely human category. It defies us to declare our allegiance to him and worship him. Jesus is vindicated.”

-Sam Allberry in Lifted: Experiencing the Resurrection Life (P&R, 2010), pp. 30-31

I should be glad of another death

January 6 is Epiphany, a Christian feast day celebrating the eternal Word Made Flesh; Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. The magi’s visit is also traditionally observed on Epiphany. So in observation of this feast day, enjoy this reading of T.S. Eliot’s 1927 poem “Journey of the Magi,” read by the poet himself (this post’s title comes from the final line of the poem). Video is below (with annoying images), or you can listen and read along here.