In the first part of the book of Ezra, we see an incredible thing. After 70 years of exile, the people of Judah are returning to Canaan. God had predicted this return through His prophets, but human wisdom would never have believed it possible.
After all, the Jewish nation was destroyed after repeated rebellions against the Babylonians. Because the kings of Judah refused to be good little vassals, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed it (including Solomon’s temple), and carried its people captive. Nations simply don’t come back from disasters like that, but the Jews did.
However, as the events of the first half of Ezra reveal, despite their return, all is not well in the promised land. Even though they have returned to Jerusalem, they are still subjects of the Persian Empire. The Persians have no trouble interfering with their lives, to the point of forbidding them to rebuild the temple for decades.
As a result, the fulfillment of God’s promises can only be described as incomplete. Yes, they’re back in the land, but they’re not free, and they certainly aren’t enjoying the golden age that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah promised. Even hundreds of years later, during the time of Christ, righteous men like Simeon are still “waiting for the consolation of Israel”.
By then, the Jews have exchanged Persian overlords for Roman overlords, but their overall state of bondage has not changed. Even when God fulfills His prophecies through Jesus, many of His people find that fulfillment unacceptably alien. They are so set on a physical understanding of grace that rather than accepting their Messiah, they plunge instead into a doomed revolt against Rome.
Today, we have a much better understanding of Old-Testament prophecies than the Jews did, but it is still our experience that God has incompletely fulfilled His promises to us. Yes, we have life in Christ, but Christians still die. Yes, we have peace in Christ, but we live in a world that is filled with conflict and even persecution. Yes, Jesus is with us always, but no human eye has seen Him for 2000 years.
Like the Jews of the time of Zerubbabel, then, like Simeon, we are still looking for the consolation of Israel. We don’t believe that God has broken faith with us because we recognize that He never intended for us to enjoy the fullness of His blessings in this life. Pop Christianity to the contrary, we are not living our best life now, nor should we expect to. Indeed, if this were our best life, we would be of all people most to be pitied.
Our eyes are not fixed on the here-and-now. Instead, they are fixed on the future. We expectantly wait for the return of Jesus, not because we have already figured out how He will fulfill God’s promises to us, but because we trust that their fulfillment will be better than we imagine. In that day, finally, after thousands of years of waiting, will God’s people enjoy the fullness of His grace.
O arm of God, awake!
Be stirred by Zion’s plea,
As once you caused the earth to shake
And dried the mighty sea.
Awake, O arm of God!
Confirm that you are strong;
Redeem her children from abroad
That they may come with song.
Be strong in Him, and stand;
The Lord will guide your feet and take
Your children by the hand.
You suffered much before,
But hear His word, rely on Him,
And taste His wrath no more.
O Zion, rise! Awake!
Behold, your watchmen see
That God has come for His own sake
With peace and victory.
Awake, O Zion! Rise!
Come out from fear and harm,
For God before the nations’ eyes
Has bared His holy arm.
From time to time, somebody will critique my hymn critiques by saying that I spend too much time on the intellectual side of hymns and not enough on the emotional side. Certainly, when it comes to emotion in worship, there are things worth discussing, and I’ve discussed them extensively.
However, it is true that I don’t spend a lot of time arguing that we need to sing more emotional hymns in worship. Differently emotional hymns, yes, but not really that the emotional level of our repertoire is too low.
This is true for two reasons. First, I think that to the extent that we have emotional deficiencies in worship, those problems are much more likely to lie with the worshiper than the repertoire. God’s people have been struggling with going through the motions since Malachi 1, of not before, and the tradition of apathy in worship is alive and well.
However, the solution to the apathy problem doesn’t lie in the adoption of hymns that manufacture emotion. You can be a spectator at a rock concert and ride the emotional wave, but a-cappella congregational worship works differently. Only enthusiastic participants are likely to experience an emotional reaction. If brethren aren’t eager to participate enthusiastically, no hymn will move them. If, on the other hand, they arrive determined to rejoice, no hymn will prevent them. The cure for apathy must be found in the heart of the worshiper.
Second, overly intellectual hymns aren’t a problem in practice. I cannot think of a single hymn that has entered the repertoire in my lifetime that I would describe as emotionally deficient. Conversely, I have seen (and written!) dozens of hymns that sank without a trace because something about them didn’t work emotionally. In fact, this is the most common reason why my hymns (and the hymns of others in my circle) fail. A hymn that’s all content with no feeling is as dead as faith without works.
This is a problem that solves itself. No song leader selects uninspiring hymns because they have lots of sound Biblical teaching and are good for the congregation, like broccoli (a possible exception: singing “O Happy Day” when somebody’s about to get baptized). Instead, we sing the songs that move us. Not every hymn in the repertoire works for everybody, but all of them work for somebody. Brethren will sing the most vacuous lyrics imaginable if the music is emotionally powerful.
As a result, I don’t critique hymns for lack of emotion, any more than nutritionists critique diets for lack of potato chips and chocolate cake. Christians who have never thought about hymn content in their lives will still intuitively seek out hymns that they enjoy singing. Even people who don’t care about Bible authority and a-cappella worship will still look for an emotional experience in worship. This is the aspect of worship that human beings most naturally get right.
Other aspects, though, are more challenging. Unlike potato chips and chocolate cake, emotion in worship is good for us, but it doesn’t provide a balanced diet by itself. We’re called to sing not only with the spirit, but with the spirit and with the understanding.
However, because thinking about what we’re singing is effortful, brethren often don’t want to invest the effort. Emotional worship that is not also thoughtful is a problem, and it’s a problem that’s hard to avoid when we worship with content-light hymns. As a result, most of my commentary is focused on content. It’s not so much that I’m neglecting the role of emotion in hymns. It’s that I’m taking the presence of emotion for granted.
From an earthly perspective, many of the prophets of the Old Testament got a raw deal. On this list, we certainly must include Jeremiah. He was forbidden to marry and have a family, he couldn’t attend parties or funerals, and he prophesied in a time that was utterly hostile to his message. As a result, he was imprisoned, put in stocks, dumped in a cistern, and threatened with death. Even his own extended family plotted to kill him.
This makes for grim reading, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun for Jeremiah to live through, either. Frequently, he complains to God about his lot in life, but God’s replies are generally unsympathetic. In such circumstances, it would have been easy for Jeremiah to give up on God, but Jeremiah knew very well that he didn’t dare. At the very beginning of his work, God tells him in Jeremiah 1:17, “But you, dress yourself for work, arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.”
In other words, there was exactly one way that Jeremiah could hope to survive the dying convulsions of the kingdom of Judah. He had to stay 100 percent faithful to God. If he wasn’t, if he allowed fear to deter him from proclaiming God’s word, God would meet his silence with the very woes he hoped to avoid. Even though serving God looked like the riskiest choice, it was actually the safest.
Today, few of us have lives that can compare to Jeremiah’s for sheer wretchedness. We enjoy many of the blessings he was not allowed to experience, and we don’t have his surfeit of enemies. However, even in much less trying times, we still experience the temptation to disobey God because of fear.
We go get drunk with our friends because we’re afraid that they won’t be our friends any more if we don’t. We return evil for evil in our marriages because we’re afraid that if we don’t, we’ll get walked on. We’re as touchy as a fresh burn because we’re afraid that others won’t respect us if we aren’t.
And so on. The devil will attempt to use our fears against us in innumerable ways. However, as with Jeremiah, the only way forward is to defy our fears for God’s sake. If we allow ourselves to be dismayed before our spiritual enemies, He will dismay us before them.
This is generally not obvious in the moment. In the moment, it seems that only by giving in to our fears can we protect ourselves. We must remember, though that protecting ourselves isn’t our job. It’s God’s. If we are faithful to Him, He will be faithful to us.