Let the eye-rolling commence!

It’s inevitable.  At some point in the next few weeks, the piano, organ, and brass will begin to play; the conductor will give the downbeat; and one of my brothers-in-law will glance out of the corner of his eye to see what’s going on in my region of the choir.

You see I cannot bring myself to sing “Joy to the World.”  Even now, I actually can feel the disappointment in my spiritual life you have at this very moment.

Take a moment and read through the lyrics.  When the hymn writer, Isaac Watts, composed the carol in 1719, it was not intended to be a Christmas/Advent/First Coming carol.  Hymnary.org notes that Watts “published it in his Psalms of David Imitated (1719) under the heading ‘The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.'”  Another article giving the background of the carol can be found here.

“Joy to the World” (based off of Psalm 98) is actually about Christ’s Second Coming and the onset of the Messianic (i.e., Millennial) Kingdom.  It has precious little to do with Christmas, as the events the carol speaks of are still yet to occur!  Now, I can understand singing the carol at Christmas if one’s understanding of Scripture leads them to believe that Christ’s Kingdom, as prophesied in the Old Testament, began with the beginning of the Church.  In that way, many of those Old Testament passages are applied to the current age.  But, in the circles I’ve traveled and in which I’ve had fellowship, that is not the case.

It’s not like there is a dirth of good Christmas carols — even carols that balance the birth of Israel’s Messiah with the realization that God had now begun to administrate His kingdom differently on the Day of Pentecost.  I know “Joy to the World” is boisterously happy and jubilant, but — like anything else — shouldn’t the text inform and guide as to proper usage?

At the end of it all (no pun intended), let me be clear.  When He comes — our glorious King — I will gladly, triumphantly, and loudly be singing “Joy to the World.”  I’d go so far as to say that I hope it is the second song in D-major that we end up singing on that day.  The first, of course, will be Handel’s chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” from The Messiah.  (What can I say?  The pedal D on the organ makes me well up every time!  I’m hoping part of the refreshing the New Covenant brings is a clearly-audible 128′ pipe for that D that will resound throughout the universe.)

So go ahead.  Roll your eyes.  Cringe.  Think ill-thoughts.  I’m really not that crazy.  Or at least for this reason.

“Be still and know” is no call to contemplation!

Any student of church history or hymnody knows the lengths to which Martin Luther enjoyed Psalm 46.  After all, one of the stalwarts of any hymnbook is his masterful hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which was based off of Psalm 46.  I have been fortunate to have been a part of some fantastic renditions of the hymn, and utterly blessed to have sung a modern setting of the psalm at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  Of all the words and phrases to be studied, meditated upon, and breathed in, my attention usually is drawn at some point to the phrase the NASB translates “cease striving, and know that I am God.”

It’s commonly quoted in the manner the KJV initiated: “Be still, and know that I am God.”  (See also ESV, NIV, NLT.)  In a similar vein as the NASB, the HCSB translates it as “stop your fighting.”  This is a pretty big difference in translation, which leads to a pretty big distinction in interpretation!  On the one hand (KJV, et al), we have a call to contemplative meditation on the sovereignty of God.

But NASB and HCSB give us a much different picture!  Think of it in context:

  • v. 2 – the earth changing, the mountains slipping into the sea
  • v. 3 – the waters roaring and foaming the mountains quaking
  • v. 6 – the nations uproaring, kingdoms tottering, the earth melting

Yet, the city of God will not be moved (v. 5).  Yahweh of Hosts is with them, and the God of Jacob is their stronghold (v. 7)!  In His time, He brings about utter destruction of all Israel’s enemies when He makes wars to cease, rendering bows and spears and chariots ineffective to their designed end.  (Sidenote: How great would it be to see this applied in our constant state of war?)

With all the commotion going on in Psalm 46, is this the time for a faint whisper in our ear, encouraging us to sit down quietly and ponder?  No!  Anything but!  The call to cease striving and be still is the command of a King standing to reclaim what is His, slamming His scepter on the ground with authority, and issuing one loud decree: That’s enough!  I. am. God.  I am the high and exalted One!  It is time for them to know and understand this!

I wonder if there is any correlation between this concept and what we find in Mark 4 when Jesus calms the storm with just one word.  The Greek word is phimoo, and it means “to muzzle, silence.”  With the sea in tumult, and the disciples fearing, Jesus speaks but one word (two in English):  Be still.  Or, to use the vernacular: Shut up!  (Although we were never allowed to say such a word growing up, and I still don’t care for it.)  And just like that, the storm subsides.

Turns out I’m not alone in this interpretation.  James Montgomery Boice writes:

[I]n this setting, “be still and know that I am God” is not advice to us to lead a contemplative life, however important that may be. It means rather, “Lay down your arms.  Surrender, and acknowledge that I am the one and only victorious God.”  No one can hope to resist Him.  (Psalms, Volume 2, p. 392)

How awesome of a picture does this paint in your mind?!  God will not tarry forever.  When He returns to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), He will not do so as He came the first time — meek and mild, as a babe.  He will come riding on a white horse, ready to lay waste to all who have not believed in Him (Rev 19:11-21).  Now there is something to meditate on!