What Do These Songs Mean?

I remember it like it was yesterday…worship was about to begin and a young man probably 20 years old sat down next to me. He told me it was his first time at church in his entire life. That morning worship was different to my eyes and ears. Instead of just singing through the songs, taking the Lord’s Supper, reflecting, listening, etc I started wondering what all this must seem like to someone who had never been in church before. One of the songs that morning was Night with Ebon Pinion and I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought about that. I don’t believe he ever came back. He may not have anyway and I don’t know that we need to cater everything we do to outsiders. But I think it is important to at least consider how accessible our worship is to those who are seeking.

Do we really think about what we are singing? In 1 Cor 14:15 Paul says that he will sing with both his spirit and his mind. It is so easy to sing right over doctrinal issues in songs, words we don’t understand, or to sing a song in a spirit that is opposite the words in the song. One humorous example is the word “Aye” in songs. Have you ever noticed when that word comes up in congregational singing there is a hiccup in the service? People don’t know if it sounds more like the letter “A” or “I”. Anyway, here are a few examples.

There’s a Royal Banner (vs 1 &3)

There’s a royal banner given for display
To the soldiers of the King;
As an ensign fair we lift it up today,
While as ransomed ones we sing.

When the great commander from the vaulted sky
Sounds the resurrection day,
Then before our King the faint and foe shall die
and the saints shall march away!

This song is chocked full of military imagery that wouldn’t sit well with some. That language is very archaic but that doesn’t really bother me too much (see Night with Ebon Pinion below for more on singing songs we don’t understand). I just don’t care for how joyful this hymn seems to be of the faint and foe dying. It almost seems gleeful that some will go to hell. The same is true of the next song.

Jesus is Coming Soon

Troublesome times are here, filling men’s hearts with fear,
Freedom we all hold dear now is at stake;
Humble your heart to God save from the chastening rod,
Seek the way pilgrims trod, Christians awake.

Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,
Many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound;
All of the dead shall rise, righteous meet in the sky,
Going where no one dies, heavenward bound.

Troubles will soon be o’er, happy for ever more,
When we meet on that shore, free from all care;
Rising up in the sky, telling this world good-bye,
Homeward we then shall fly, glory to share.

Here is that same old heaven is up high in the sky over there theology that just doesn’t fit well with what scripture has to say about heaven and earth. It also has the same gleeful tone of the first song about the judgment of the lost. We sing these lines with big smiles and sing right over some of the most serious words one could speak without a thought.

Night with Ebon Pinion

Night, with ebon pinion, brooded o’er the vale;
All around was silent, save the night wind’s wail,
When Christ, the Man of Sorrows,
In tears, and sweat, and blood,
Prostrate in the garden, raised His voice to God.

I get what this song means but how many people in the pews do? The language is very beautiful and the metaphors powerful when they are understood. But songs should need commentaries. Songs shouldn’t need in depth explanation. Songs need to be sung and understood at the same time! Who would have thought. That doesn’t mean all older songs should be left out. It may mean they need an update just like any good Bible translation that eventually becomes a little archaic and in need of language that reflects changes in language over often a several hundred year span.

Just so you don’t think I have it out for old songs, thinking all the new songs are perfect here are two examples from newer songs.

You Are My King

I’m forgiven because you were forsaken.
I’m accepted. You were condemned.
I’m alive and well, your Spirit lives within me
because you died and rose again.

Above All (Chorus)

Crucified
Laid behind a stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone
Like a rose
Trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all

Both these songs have the idea that God had forsaken Jesus on the cross. I believe that is an unbiblical take although I can certain understand how someone would take Mark 15:34 at face value. In context it does not seem that God ultimately had forsaken Jesus on the cross. Read this post for more on that.

0 Responses to What Do These Songs Mean?

  1. Lantz Howard says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful insight.

    May we all move closer to Him through understanding our worship.

  2. Holly says:

    Interesting thoughts. I could see some merit to re-doing some of the powerful old hymns whose messages might be lost in the language, but I have also heard too many hymns redone with a contemporary twist that just made me cringe.

    I actually love that old hymn (the ebon pinion one). I find that when I have to do a little “translation” in my head while I’m singing, I’m actually more tuned in to the meaning of the song. That particular song always inspires a spirit of reverence in me. But, as a typical mainstream, unchurched person (unless I happened to be an English major) I doubt I would be inspired to the same awe and reverence.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Holly,

      There is certainly beauty in many of the older songs that some of the newer songs lack. Both are beautiful in their own right. The newer songs are much simpler and some are a lot less cognitive than the oldies. Which is better? As long as God is getting praise both are equally good.

  3. K. Rex Butts says:

    As a child “Jesus is Coming Soon” was my favorite because of its thunderous beat but as an adult I began to wonder why we sang with such a joy a line such as “Many will meet their doom” which occurs in the chorus/refrain.

    I never took the “rejected and alone” line in Above All as refering to God the Father’s discarding of the Son but rather how Jesus was sold out by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by his other friends and disciples to die alone.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  4. Guy says:

    i agree that our worship should be informative rather than puzzling. And i agree that a lot of songs need updated in order for newer Christians to “get it.”

    Three things,

    (1) These songs you mention are dear to me. And part of my growth–a growth period that i needed and value–was figuring out what these songs meant (though i very much agree with you about Jesus-is-coming-soon missing the boat about end-times issue). Night with Ebon Pinion is an incredible song. Is it archaic? Abso-freakin-lutely. Nobody talks like that anymore and no one has for a couple hundred years probably. But consider singing it when you *do* know what all the words mean. The song is amazing.

    (2) i don’t completely agree with your disdain for celebrating God’s judgment of the lost. i don’t think it’s a good thing that people are doomed when they could’ve been saved. i don’t think we should feel some sort of revelry when someone–friend or foe–is injured as though it satisfies some jealousy or bitterness we were harboring. However, i don’t see what’s wrong with celebrating the fact that God will make all things right. Should their be no satisfying feeling of any kind when a serial killer is put behind bars? Should their be no satisfying feeling of any kind when it appeared as though somene who was committing evil was never going to get caught, and then they finally do? i have had moments where a period of confusion and questioning was ended because something happened which seemed to confirm that God still works justice in the world and evil is not allowed to continue recklessly and unchecked. i don’t see why i can’t feel that same sensation about the final redemption and judgment of the world.

    (3) These songs you speak haven’t been left completely enigmatic. In the songbooks i grew up with, all archaic language was footnoted with explanations and definitions. It wouldn’t be impossible for a song leader or preacher to explain what a song means. And it wouldn’t be impossible to use songbooks with explanations. Further, it wouldn’t be impossible for a skilled writer/poet to go and actually revise the archaic language in the song so that it communicated the same thing in contemporary-speak. It just doesn’t seem like as rant-worthy a situation as you make it seem.

    –Guy

    • mattdabbs says:

      Guy, thanks for sharing. Those are some really good thoughts. I probably agree with you more than you think. As far as #2 goes I think you may be misreading my point. Or maybe I just didn’t communicate what I was thinking very well. Let me try it again…

      My point was, when we sing about people meeting their doom I think that is a somber and serious fact. I don’t disdain God’s righteous judgment as you said in your comment. I just don’t think it is appropriate to sing that with the attitude that song is conveying. Let me repost what I said above and see if it now makes more sense,

      “It also has the same gleeful tone of the first song about the judgment of the lost. We sing these lines with big smiles and sing right over some of the most serious words one could speak without a thought.”

      My point is about the tone of the song, not about being disdainful about God’s judgment. The song is factual and I am fine with the judgment. But can you imagine someone singing those words in the tone we typically have singing that song about your dead, lost mother?

      Hope that makes more sense.

      • Hank says:

        Matt,

        I just have to commend you bro on the way you take, handle, and respond to what could be perceived as criticism. You demonstrate great patience and humility and both are something many others need to work on (like me).

        Proof of the wisdom and effectiveness of such can be seen in the next response by Guy.

        Thank you both,,,

  5. Guy says:

    Matt,

    Fair enough. Perhaps “ding-dong the witch is dead” songs really aren’t appropriate (although some of the impreccatory psalms come scarily close to sounded like that to me).

    And thanks for being kind enough not to point out my “two thing”/”(1)(2)(3)” blunder. =o)

    Best,

    Guy

  6. Guy says:

    Matt,

    Thanks for the edit. =o)

    Something just came to mind out of curiousity: I wonder how many people leave (members of visitors) the Catholic or Orthodox church over the not-understanding-things issue? Does this issue effect them? If not, why not? Just a thought.

    –Guy

  7. brad s says:

    Hey Matt,

    I’ve experienced situations similar to what you shared….as a college student, I’ve sat down with people who were visisting, and almost cringed at some of the songs we were singing and things we were saying, and I became painfully aware at how completely foreign it sounded.

    Singing triumphantly “Many will meet there doom” has bothered me in recently, but I’ve talked to at least a couple people who think that is the best part of the song…..and worthy of the excitement and tone…..

    I also agree with that just as many of the newer songs have horrendous theology. I don’t, however, think the songs you talk about fit the bill. I have always thought about them as referring to Christ’s rejection by humanity, not God. I’ve always understood them in light of passages like Isaiah 53. Just my two cents tho.

    This is definitely something that we need to give plenty of thought to

  8. c wolford says:

    Let us remember in this discussion what Colossians 3:16 says about teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. That is a part that seems to be forgotten about in modern times. It seems most churches have gotten to wrapped in their “worship” of God and forget some of the basic principles of why we do what we do on Sunday. The words are what we offer to each other to teach one another and the melody that flows from our hearts is what is extended to God.

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  10. Sandra Paulson says:

    I still never got the definition of “night with ebon pinion” from your comments. What does it mean?

    • mattdabbs says:

      It is a description of the night creeping in over Christ in the garden as he prayed for God to let the cup pass. Ebon = black and pinion = wing. It is like the night is rolling in like a dark winged bird. That is the best I can figure out.

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