7th March 2013
‘The Lord's song' that we sing is a song given from the Lord. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that the lord Himself actually sings (as recognised in the ABC radio religious music program ‘For The God Who Sings'!):
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
Note the elements here. Again it is about the Lord's saving action. In His rejoicing over us ‘he will quiet you'. The Hebrew is simply, ‘he will be silent'. The King James Version translated it, ‘he will rest in His love'. There is a place for that in worship. But also ‘he will exult over you with loud singing' (For some reason I always imagine Him doing that under the shower!). Hence we are bidden to join Him in this:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil. (Zeph. 3:14-15).
But this is no triumphalist spree:
On that day you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
in my holy mountain.
But I will leave in your midst
a people humble and lowly (Zeph. 3:11-13).
We can trace in Scripture the song of the Lord, right from the time of creation:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . .
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4a, 7)
No doubt the morning stars and the angelic sons of God were taking their cue from the God who sings. C S Lewis in The Magician's Nephew has Aslan singing Narnia into existence.
After the great deliverance at the Red Sea, when Moses and the people of Israel say, ‘I will sing unto the Lord . . . ‘, they acknowledge ‘The Lord is my strength and my song'. Miriam and the women join in with dancing.
Psalm 106:10-13 relates this, but also tells us what followed afterwards:
So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.
But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.
So the Lord also gave Moses another song, that that he sings in Deuteronomy 32. It tells what will happen in the history of Israel as a result of their unfaithfulness:
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded.
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
and you forgot the God who gave you birth . . .
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
For a fire is kindled by my anger,
and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains (Deut. 32:16-18, 21-22).
We are told:
Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, ‘Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess' (Deut. 32:44-47).
So there is another song, not sung by the people of God, but one they must reckon with. It is ‘the noise of foreigners', coming to conquer them. It is ‘the song of the ruthless' (Isa. 25: 5). It is a reminder of when the Egyptians ‘ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service (Exod. 1:13-14). It is as when ‘ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before themselves (Ps. 54:3). It is as when our sin hardens us to become ‘foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.' (Rom. 1:31).
Even so, God gives a promise:
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless (Jer. 15:21).
That is why ‘cities of ruthless nations will fear you', and ‘the song of the ruthless is put down' (Isa. 25:3, 5). The ruthless have only one song. It is a bitter, carping repetitive drone. And the Lord does something to lay it to rest, and to silence it.
There comes a time when there is nothing to sing about:
The earth mourns and withers;
the world languishes and withers;
the highest people of the earth languish.
The earth lies defiled
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant (Isa. 24:4-5).
All music ceases. There are no more drinking songs:
The mirth of the tambourines is stilled,
the noise of the jubilant has ceased,
the mirth of the lyre is stilled.
No more do they drink wine with singing (Isa. 26:8-9)
But then another sound is heard, in the distance, but clear, getting louder, coming closer. It is not just one song, but many, raised by many voices:
They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
over the majesty of the Lord they shout from the west.
Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord;
in the coastlands of the sea, give glory to the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.
From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
of glory to the Righteous One (Is. 24:14-16).
These have seen and welcomed the righteous saving ruling action of God. Their song is variegated, and multifaceted-from Hillsong to the Hallelujah chorus-and full-throated in praise and grateful acknowledgement of the glory of God.
It is this reality over which God exults with loud singing (as in Zeph. 3:17). We sing from our hearts made new, but we are simply joining the eternal song that is there from before: the song that God Himself sings, with great delight and exultation, over us whom He has saved.
And here it comes:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
The voice of your watchmen-they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God (Isa. 52:7-10).
When the people of Israel were taken forcibly into exile in Babylon in 586 B.C., they sang a lament. We have it as Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres. (Psa. 137:1-2)
-they were not going to sing any more. Here the song of the ruthless had become a taunt-song (as in Lam. 3:14):
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' (Psa. 137:3).
And they reply plaintively:
How shall we sing the Lord 's song
in a foreign land? (Psa. 137:4).
What has happened to reduce them to this terrible disabled muteness? The end of that Psalm tells us:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psa. 137:8-9).
This is what the Babylonians had done to the Israelites. And if you are wondering what that is doing in the Bible, that is what happens. I was reading the story of Jandamarra, who lead the resistance of the Banuba tribe against the occupation of part of the Kimberley region in Western Australia in the 1890s. The settlers had been lobbying the Western Australian government for a free hand against the indigenous peoples, who by law were supposed to be protected as British subjects, and after a number of incidents, the settlers were given that free hand for a time. Those who survived the massacre told afterwards of defenceless men, women and children being herded together and shot, and of babies having their heads smashed against the trunk of a tree. When that has happened-as it has in a number of different ways-how can any of us sing the Lord's song?
And yet the singer of Psalm 137 undergoes, I believe, a change of heart. Even in this appalling situation, the singer hears the approaching songs of the redeemed, and of the Redeemer Himself. After making that plaintive lament, ‘How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?'-which sounds so hopeless-the singer immediately goes on to say:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy! (Psa. 137:5-6).
Jerusalem lies in ruins, but somehow to this singer has come the prophetic promise of the new Jerusalem-not just as a memory, but as that whose coming is so sure that it is worth more than anything else. And if I do not loosen my tongue to sing of it, may it never give utterance again! And if this right hand does not take up the lyre again and strum that song for all it is worth, then let it wither away-as otherwise it surely will.
Some scholars tell us that Israel was still really in exile on the night when a little band of men left an upper room and headed for a garden called Gethsemane. We are told that at that time, they sang. Matthew describes it this way:
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).
This little band was Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was going out to the suffering and death of the cross, and they were going to be scattered in fear and shame. What did they have to sing about?
Well, Matthew had just told us some words that Jesus had just said:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins' (Matt. 26:26-28).
The forgiveness of the Babylonians; the forgiveness of the errant and bloodthirsty Israelites; the forgiveness of us. That which alone can still the song of the ruthless. And in the light and power of that, Jesus had gone on to say:
I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom (Matt. 26:29)
-alive together in the new Jerusalem! That is what they had to sing about, even as they went out into the darkness, where the dark deeds, and the great salvation, would be done.
One translation says: ‘When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives'. It was not just any hymn. We know that at the Passover meal, that they had just had, Psalms 114-118 were sung. So some of the last words they would have sung were these:
The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!'
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has disciplined me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord 's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:14-24).
That is what the disciples sang with Jesus as the ‘stone' himself went out to be rejected-to suffer for us ‘the blast of the ruthless'-and to ‘become the cornerstone'. And we, in whatever situation we are at any time, can sing that song, and all the songs of the redeemed, with them.
The Lord is in His temple
With all His holy throng:
Let all the earth keep silence
To hear the Father-song!
The song of the beginning,
The song that's with us now,
The song that's of the end-time
When every knee shall bow!
The song that is the singing,
That stills all earthly strife,
The song that is the bringing
From death out into life,
The song that gives existence
To things that have not been,
The song that fills with glory
All things seen and unseen!
The song that is the living
In God for evermore,
The song that is the giving
Of covenant and law,
The song that is delighted
To know us as His kin,
The song that weeps with anger
To see us in our sin.
The song that moves on evil
With war and battle-cry,
That sends for us His own Son
To suffer and to die:
The song that is the wonder
Of Father-love for Son-
Empowerment by the Spirit
Of all that's said and done-
The Father-song of glory
As sacrifice is made:
The giving of the Son's life
Till all we owe is paid.
The song that is the silence
Of hanging on a tree.
The song that is the trumpet
Of risen victory!
The song that is the rushing
Of Spirit-wind and fire:
The song that enters fouled hearts
To cleanse and to inspire!
The song that is the gospel,
The word that makes us free,
That sets the world rejoicing
In earth and sky and sea!
The song that builds a city
Of righteousness fulfilled
Where evil cannot enter-
The ruthless songs are stilled.
The song that is a river
That flows to all the earth
And brings the humble lost ones
Their dignity and worth.
The song that is the love-song
Of Father and of Son,
The song the Spirit renders
In hearts that He has won!
The Father joys with singing
That we to Him belong-
Oh, let the earth rejoice in Him
And sing the Father-song!
© 1998 Martin Bleby, New Creation Hymn Book 354
Martin Bleby: 2012