Some people had questions about my recent review of Doug O’Donnell’s book, God’s Lyrics, which I want to attempt to address in this post.
The basic question has to do with the place of singing about God’s judgments. O’Donnell makes the point that many of the songs in the Old Testament rejoice over God’s just judgments (Ex. 15:1-18; 1Sam. 2:10; 2Sam. 22:44-51, etc.) A related theme has to do with God humbling the proud. Both themes are lacking in the song diet of many churches, yet they’re unquestionably present not only in OT songs, but in the New Testament as well (Lk. 1:51-55; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-5).
Are You Kidding Me?
We can struggle with the idea of rejoicing in God’s judgments. Doesn’t that contradict what Jesus said when he told us, “Love your enemies?” Not quite. Jesus was speaking about not taking personal revenge against those who harm us. God’s judgments are his right and necessary response to those who oppose his sovereign rule.
There are other reasons why this concept is difficult for us to grasp. We don’t view God’s judgments from His vantage point as the perfectly holy, unswervingly righteous Creator. We have a hard time seeing how wicked evil really is, in all its forms. From rape to greed, murder to envy, sex-trafficking to slander, dealing drugs to disobeying parents, every act is a form of cosmic treason against our Creator.
Most importantly, we fail to grasp how evil we really are. Outside of Christ, we are all “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2-3). We ourselves deserve to be judged by God.
So how and why does God want us to sing about his judgments? Here are a few thoughts.
God’s Judgment at the Cross
The most important judgment we want to remember is the one that we have been delivered from because Jesus was judged in our place on the cross. This is the “word of Christ” that is to dwell in us richly as we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). He has “rescued us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10) and is the One “whom God forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). We have been “saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9) and are no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Jesus has delivered us from judgment and reconciled us to God (2 Cor. 5:18).
God’s Past Judgments
We can also benefit from calling to mind God’s past judgments, when he demonstrated his power to overthrow his enemies and save those who trust in him. That’s what seems to be taking place in Psalm 9.
Vss. 5-6 recall how God has rebuked the nations and made the wicked perish.
Vss. 7-8 lead us to praise God for his righteous rule: “The LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world in righteousness.”
In vss. 9-10 the psalmist responds with a confident assertion and personal application: “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you.”
Finally, we’re encouraged to, “Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds” (Ps. 95:11)! Singing is an appropriate response when we remember how history bears testimony to the fact that God rescues the humble who trust in him.
God’s Future Judgments
A third way we can profitably sing about God’s judgments is calling to mind the day when King Jesus will return and every wrong will be made right. He will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2Thess. 1:8-9). Anticipating that God is coming to “judge the world with righteousness” (Ps. 98:9) should fill us with hope in the midst of despair, faith in the midst of fear, and joy in the midst of suffering. If God doesn’t judge evil he is neither just nor good. But history and the cross reveal that he is a God of absolutely sovereign justice and mind-boggling mercy.
The point of all this isn’t that we should always be focusing on God’s judgments, nor to sing about them in a cold-hearted way that minimizes the tragic consequences of sin. The point is to magnify the greatness of God’s holiness, justice, righteousness, sovereignty, power, mercy, kindness, and grace in his judging evil, and especially in the judging of the Savior in our place at Calvary. His undeserved kindness has enabled us to be forgiven, to be adopted as precious children, and to anticipate unending joy at God’s right hand in the new heavens and the new earth.
Of course, singing isn’t the only way God has given us to rejoice in his righteous character and judgments. We can also read Scriptures, pray prayers, and preach sermons that reference and expound upon it. But since this blog is aimed at people who lead congregational singing, next week I’ll suggest some songs we can sing that reference God’s judgments and help us think about them in a way that honors God, encourages a passion for holiness, and strengthens our confidence in the gospel.
If you want to become more familiar with this topic, here’s a list of downloadable sermons on the wrath/judgment of God that The Gospel Coalition has compiled.
where is that picture from?
James, I found it through Google Images here: http://possessthevision.wordpress.com/category/tabernacle/the-holy-of-holies/the-ark-of-the-covenant/. So the answer is, I’m not sure.
I agree that it is biblically responsible for us to sing songs recalling God’s judgments and glorying in his sovereign power IF the posture of our hearts is broken and full of love as we sing. Our tendency as sinful humans is not to love but to hold grudges and seek revenge against our neighbors. If we’re not careful we can easily cast upon God our own enemy-making, revenge-seeking ways. In such a posture, our “judgment” songs can perpetuate the problem.
I wonder how many ordinary worshipers (when singing or doing otherwise) view God standing atop Mount Zion with a sword in his hand and a scowl on his face, looking down upon sinful man just waiting for them to oppose him so that he can smite them. We, then, who have received his grace join him in his angry, purification crusade. I know I have struggled with that false view of God. No, he hangs atop Golgotha with his arms outstretched, desiring that all would come into his loving embrace. He does not desire to crush his enemies. Rather, he is crushed for his enemies. Otherwise, judgment would triumph over mercy.
When we sing songs of God’s judgment they really are (and must be!) songs of his love. Lord, deliver us from our false views of you. Show us who you really are, in all your perfect love.
Good thoughts, Ryan. I’ll be saying more about our attitude when I post some songs.
Thank you for this important posting on singin the songs of God’s judgments. Singing helps us grasp the tensions of worship, holding on to God’s character of holiness and judgment on one hand, while humbly recieving and celebrating His mercy, love, and grace on the other. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
I hope you don’t mind me posting a link on my facebook page of this post! I appreciate your willingness to speak honestly about this issue (and other issues). Thanks for this…it is sure to cause lively debate in my facebook page!!! :)
I smell a theme for an upcoming sovereign grace music project.
Man, Bob… I’ve tried to do this – I really have, but it’s probably the hardest “songwriting” I’ve ever done. On top of that, I can’t imagine how to do it in a way that anyone would want to sing it, which is one of the reasons we write corporate songs, right? We have one – as of yet unrecorded songs – called “Tear Down” that’s a prayer that God would judge/sift our lives for the muck that shouldn’t be there, and destroy it, but that’s about as close as we’ve come.
This was really helpful, Bob – thanks.
I’m interested in your thoughts on David’s imprecatory prayers* and how those might inform our worship.
*I was thinking about writing a song based off of Psalm 58, but I was having a hard time rhyming “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” with something.
I’m looking forward to the song suggestions in your next posting. Such songs do seem rather rare now-a-days, unfortunately. Thanks for addressing this issue!
I’m reminded of this hymn by Charles Wesley that the church I grew up in used to sing (to the tune, “Martyrdom”, by Hugh Wilson):
And must I be to judgment brought,
And answer in that day
For ev’ry vain and idle thought
And ev’ry word I say?
Yes, ev’ry secret of my heart
Shall shortly be made known,
And I receive my just dessert
For all that I have done.
How careful, then, ought I to live!
With what religious fear!
Who such a strict account must give
For my behavior here!
Thou awful Judge of quick and dead,
Thy watchful pow’r bestow;
So shall I to my ways take heed,
To all I speak or do.
If now Thou standest at the door,
O let me feel Thee near!
And make my peace with God, before
I at Thy bar appear.
I attended a funeral this year where we sang “In Christ Alone.” The church had changed the words of the second verse from:
“til on that cross as Jesus died
the wrath of God was satisfied”
“til on that cross as Jesus died
the love of God was magnified”
I think everyone would agree that the love of God was magnified at the cross, but it really bothered me that they changed the line. If you ignore deliverance from the wrath of God, you’ve got a distorted understanding of the Gospel.
Bob, thanks for continuing to point us towards the Savior
God does desire to crush His enemies. This truth of God’s character is unavoidable in the Psalms…
“But God shoots his arrow at them [the wicked];
they are wounded suddenly.
They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them;
all who see them will wag their heads.
Then all mankind fears;
they tell what God has brought about and ponder what he has done.” Psalm 64:7-9
“God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
and those who hate him shall flee before him!
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
as wax melts before fire,
so the wicked shall perish before God!” Psalm 68:1-2
“For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.” Psalm 75:8
You imply with your statement “Otherwise, judgment would triumph over mercy” that God’s judgment and mercy are in opposition to each other. God’s mercy exists in the person Jesus Christ, and God has shown us mercy and spared us from the eternal consequences of our sins because he poured out that judgment on Jesus Christ (Bob’s 1st section). However, those who don’t believe in Christ will receive the “due penalty for their error” because God hates sin and it pleases him to destroy it.
“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8
We are to rejoice with God in his holy execution of judgment (Bob’s 3rd section), insofar as we are resting in Christ’s righteousness. If we have been reborn in Christ, and are unified with him in his life, which he lives righteously to God, we have a right in him to desire God’s judgment on the wicked. We have to see Christ’s enemies as our enemies.
If we only see wicked people as our personal enemies, we have no right to desire to see their judgment, because we are no better. However, we desire to see the judgment of great sins against our Father.
Of course, this also motivates us to share the Gospel with those who still sit under God’s judgment, because of the mercy God has shown us.
I am reading Dr. David Jeremiah’s book about John Newton and the hymn he wrote, Amazing Grace. It’s called “Captured by Grace” He brings out in the book how we can never appreciate God’s grace unless we see our abominable sin. And in our churches today we tend to sweep sin under the rug because we don’t want people to feel “guilty” or feel bad. So many churches try to just make people feel good. But we don’t see the tremendous price Christ paid on the cross unless we see WHAT He paid for. That’s why I like the tremendous words in the older hymns because they teach so much doctrine about God.
Now that gives me a new look on judgments
Fascinating that when you conclude this very insightful post, you don’t point us to a list of songs, but of sermons. I suppose that is because you do not have a list of such songs, which magnifies your point even more.
Brett, I’m going to take a separate post to give song examples. Just haven’t gotten to it…
“Warrior” by Sojourn comes to mind when I think of songs about God’s wrath.
I appreciate this post, Bob (and the follow-up post “Songs that Reference God’s Judgments). I quoted you and linked to this post yesterday. I believe we shy away from thinking and singing about judgment to our own detriment.
I’m making this my next personal project for worship in my church’s youth ministry. We take pains to make sure our songs are Biblical, but we also need more songs about God’s judgments: at the cross, in the past and in the future (and may I add, at present).
Thanks for posting this article. It really inspired me and helped me to find a more balanced and biblical understanding of His judgments in the midst of our lives and our worship. Really inspiring and eye-opening!