Singing the Lord’s Song?
History provides the story of a notable king. Though subject himself to Roman dominance about the time of Christ, he was successful at keeping peace in a previously discordant region of the empire, was a builder of great edifices, and in many ways generous and beneficent to his subjects.
During difficult economic times, he reduced taxation and actually, about 25 years before the birth of Christ, during an especially harsh famine, was reported to have “melted down his own gold plate to buy corn for the starving people.”1 But, at the same time, this monarch could be so seemingly benevolent, he had a darker—a much darker—side.
He was, at heart, extremely suspicious and grimly intent on protecting his throne. He systematically eliminated any individual whom he considered to be a threat to his rulership. He murdered his wife and her mother, and had his eldest son and two other sons assassinated. At an advanced age, knowing that he was surely not going to be immortal, he retired to a city and ordered that some of his most prominent subjects be imprisoned on specious charges. Knowing that no sympathy for his loss would come, he ordered that, when he died, these prominent subjects would be executed so that some tears would be shed at the time of his death.
So, the events of the story of this king, as they appear in Scripture, should come with little surprise. By now known as Herod the Great, he was sitting on his throne in Judea one day when three dignitaries from far away were admitted to his audience. They had come, following a star to Jerusalem, with a question for which they thought surely he should know the answer. “‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’” (Matt. 2:2, NIV).
This was not something Herod the Great was looking for. In fact, it was utterly alarming. It would seem to be that, as attuned as he was to threats to his rulership, he would have been more than aware of such a thing. In fact, he did apparently know of prophecies of a coming messiah. But he had to summon the chief priests and scribes to ask of them where this messiah was foretold to be born.
These experts in the law and the prophets must certainly have themselves known of these prophecies, too, but they had apparently disregarded them. In response to Herod, however, came their fully informed answer: “‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel”’” (Matt. 2:5, 6, NIV).
So here, that shifty monarch returned again to his devious, paranoid mode of self-defense. Summoning the emissaries secretly to his court, in an air of confidentiality, he shared with them the information he had received from his counselors. In apparent earnestness, he sent them on to Bethlehem. “‘Go and make a careful search for the child,’” he said. “‘As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’” (Matt. 2:8, NIV). And when they turned toward the small town of Bethlehem, only six miles away, again the star appeared before them as affirming guidance.
When they arrived at the house where the child was resting in the care of his parents, they were overwhelmed. These august nobles were literally brought to their knees in the presence of this young child. “They bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matt. 2:11, NIV).
But afterward, having received a pointed warning in a dream, they did not return to report to Herod as he had requested. Instead, they returned homeward by another route to avoid Jerusalem.
The background of this biblical account of the birth of Jesus and the times in which He was born must surely sound similar in some striking ways to those of today. The promise of the coming of a messiah had become so immersed in the memory of the people that it had been almost forgotten entirely. Or, to those who may have remembered it, the prophecies had become lost in the hope of the more immediate, more everyday, circumstances of a culture in which the Jewish people were subjected to a dominant empire.
So, when the Messiah did come at last, heralded by the heavenly choir out there in the shepherds’ night and led by the star that directed the wise men of the East, to all else it was an event that had lost its meaning. For the vast multitudes of the times, the coming of the messiah was looked forward to with the hope of freedom from oppression, from the domination of another culture. It was a hope for freedom, but of a far more limited vision of the meaning of liberty than the prophecies intended.
Today, in the here and now, the quest for freedom has become so universal a hope that it has led to dreadfully divisive conflict in many places in the world. And this discord has come at a time when some may remember that the promised coming of the Messiah is imminent.
The expectation of a cataclysmic conflict, even in the cultures in which reason has been revered for so long, has seemed to become inevitable. And even among those who have harbored faithful hope in the coming of a Messiah, there has come a turn to human effort in the defense of freedom.
In a recent Washington Times article, Mark Kellner reported that Christians, many of whom supposedly had just recently, during the holidays, celebrated the Advent season in which the second coming of the Messiah is anticipated, comprise fully 88 percent of the newly elected 118th Congress of the United States—and this when, according to a recent Pew research study, only 63 percent of the U.S. population identifies as such.2
There are, certainly, denominational variances in the degree to which those Christians elected to Congressional leadership in the U.S. look forward to an imminent return of the Messiah. Still, however, there is a strong undercurrent of belief among these members of Congress that American society must be governed by Christian principle. In a democratic republic, after all, is not the voice of the majority to be the deciding rule?
Christian author Philip Yancey offers a possible response: “The most influential person who has ever lived, Jesus held no office, had an attitude approaching contempt toward political power, and left no material possessions other than the robe on his back.”3
And, as an initial answer to these questions, Ellen G. White once made some strikingly prophetic and penetrating observations of her own times in her culture of the not-so-long-ago.
“Today in the religious world,” she wrote, “there are multitudes who, as they believe, are working for the establishment of the kingdom of Christ as an earthly and temporal dominion. They desire to make our Lord the ruler of the kingdoms of this world, the ruler in its courts and camps, its legislative halls, its palaces and market places. They expect Him to rule through legal enactments, enforced by human authority. Since Christ is not now here in person, they themselves will undertake to act in His stead, to execute the laws of His kingdom. The establishment of such a kingdom is what the Jews desired in the days of Christ. They would have received Jesus, had He been willing to establish a temporal dominion, to enforce what they regarded as the laws of God, and to make them the expositors of His will and the agents of His authority. But He said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ John 18:36.”4
Yet, for some reasons—deserved and undeserved—Christianity has become linked in the thought of recent times with political extremism and intolerance. “The Christian Right” is almost always used with negative connotation. And this most certainly must make the mission of the church so much more challenging.
This, in a way, may bring to the Christian’s prayerful thought the psalmist’s question: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4, KJV).
This psalm was composed, it is thought, as God’s people were being led in bondage into another culture—to “a strange land.” How, it was wondered, can one go on expressing one’s belief in God’s plan for humankind where God’s existence is questioned—or even denied? Today, it may be asked, in fact, “How can we sing the Lord’s song” in a land that is becoming increasingly alien—seemingly changing under one’s feet?
“The government under which Jesus lived,” continued Ellen G. White, “was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses,—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.”5
A Christian’s personal concern over the state of society must be expressed, then, in one’s personal—not political—life, in the ways in which one goes about everyday living with others. “It may well be that there have been times,” writes William Barclay, “when the Church was too occupied in telling men what not to do; and too little occupied in setting before them the height of the Christian ideal.”6
Can the Christian ideal, “the Lord’s song,” be mindful? Can it stay on key?
NOTES AND REFERENCES