Sunday morning I heard something unsettling. We were invited to join in a vibrant chorus claiming, “Our God is Great!” If you’ve attended any contemporary praise worship you’ve heard this song and its many variants a thousand times. “Our God is an awesome God!” Etc. The songs come out of the bombastic tradition of Israelite victory songs. “God,” sings Israel, “has done great things.”
One problem with this song tradition is that a lot of the songs are pretty barbaric. Look at Miriam’s song in Exodus 15. Yes, Israel was saved from its enemies. But it also anticipates Israel’s decimation of the indigenous populations of what would become Judea and Samaria. What an awesome God who wipes out indigenous peoples to make room for his chosen ones. Or Deborah’s song in Judges 5, chortling over the coming grief and misery of the women of those killed in war. These are songs whose themes are repeated throughout the Old Testament, not least in the Psalms. The raw emotions after a deadly struggle are understandable, but not really laudable and certainly not as a model of praise. They don’t form the Spirit in a way consistent with the love of God in Christ.
A second problem is that we’ve turned victory songs for the nation into songs of personal victory. The “victory” for the singers is their victory over illness, or a bad divorce, or depression, or drug addiction. Certainly something to celebrate. But such a celebration moves from being encouraging to being merely churlish thrown in the face of those who have lost those battles.
The bigger problem is that Israel only boasted in the greatness of God when God actually did something great. It attributed to God what everyone could see was great within the then current framework of understanding greatness. Israel knew that boasting in God’s greatness when you had just lost the battle was silly and made your claims about God look ridiculous. When you have lost you don’t claim that God is great before the nations. Instead you acknowledge that God was just in punishing you for your infidelity. The real greatness of God to be proclaimed is that God is just, even when that means exercising God’s justice against his beloved people.
Right now Christians have no right to sing “God is Great” in the tradition of Israel’s victory songs. Who could possibly believe such a claim? What victories have we as a people to show that justify this boasting in the face of the world? Our viciousness toward one another and anyone with whom we disagree? Our ready embrace for whatever power mongering politician seems to promote our own ideological agenda? Our abject failure to evangelize individual members of our society much less (to use the incredible claim of United Methodism) “transform the world?” Or the fact that in most places where Christianity is strong and growing civil society is a morass of corruption, anarchy, violence, and oppression? God is great, but contemporary Christians making that assertion in a song of victory in our contemporary world seems like a fool’s claim.
We are not living in Zion that we can celebrate a victory. We are in Babylon because we’ve lost. And you can’t change that by cranking up the amplifier and clapping so loud it drowns out the sirens and the screams of pain, or the silent sobbing of the grieving and misery of the starving. We need a different song from the Bible.
And I thought of one during the middle of a Linda Ronstadt appreciation special.
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
But there it is again. In the midst of sorrow the rising human anger. The defiant turning from the God who did not do great things to humans taking revenge on people who only returned in kind our destructive conquests. The anticipation of joy in dashing out the brains of infant children to satisfy the lust for vengeance against those who only did God’s justice. Because in the end our God isn’t great enough to satisfy our human need to destroy our enemies. We won’t leave vengeance to God. We want to do it ourselves. In our way.
On Sunday morning the song “Our God is Great” moved into another song, “How Great Thou Art.” And without changing key, or tempo, or even chords we moved from barbarism to the gospel, from zealotry to sanity, from an unbelievable claim to one that might actually be credible.
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”
Let’s drop the victory songs of Israel for a while, maybe even longer. They are not, in the context of the 21st century, particularly credible. But if we turn from shouting of victory in the face of a justifiably skeptical world to actually praising God for what we have collectively experienced as a community of faith in Jesus Christ we might find that others will sing along.