Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Sound of Singing

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
~Martin Luther

In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, is given word that a great army - vastly outnumbering his own - is fast approaching from Edom, from the other side of the sea, with intent to confiscate his land and kill its people.

It is a scene poignant enough to rivet even the most sophisticated reader, rivaling anything found in the greatest works of ancient literature.

In great distress Jehoshaphat declares a fast; and, after the people have assembled from every town in Judah, he issues an earnest prayer. O Lord, God of our fathers are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you.

He appeals to God on the basis of His covenant with Abraham, “your friend,” to whom the land was first given and to whose descendants it was promised to pass on. What is more, he reminds God that these aggressors are the very same people to whom, out of obedience to God, the Israelites showed mercy after they had left Egypt. “O our God,” he concludes, “we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you."

When his voice ceases, men, women, children, and “little ones” stand listening, waiting expectantly, desperately, for some kind of answer… In the silence that follows, a priest by the name of Jahaziel becomes spontaneously filled with the Holy Spirit and offers the people this reassurance: "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army,” he says, “For the battle is not yours, but God's.

The people are enthralled. They are filled with awe and wonder. They fall on their faces in worship – they along with Jehoshaphat. The next day, as they are marching out to battle, Jehoshaphat calls to his men, “Have faith and you will be upheld!”

If this weren’t enough, Jehoshaphat goes further: in defiance of all the laws of reason, and perhaps even custom, he places into the hands of the men at the head of the army, not weapons, but instruments. Musical instruments. He appoints them – not to fight, but to sing as they march into battle, praising the Lord for the splendor of his holiness.

Isn’t it – well, isn’t it extraordinary?

I can almost imagine it: Across the wide desert gorge, above the echo of horse hooves, the clanking of weapons, and the stomping of soldiers marching over blazing desert sands, there is heard the deep, melodious sound of – singing. A small band of God’s people, for all intents and purposes, marching to their deaths, bellowing like cattle, Give thanks to the Lord for his love endures forever!

But what happens next is most extraordinary of all – for the moment they begin "to sing and to praise, the LORD sets ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir…and they [a]re destroyed.” In a hopeless case of mistaken identity, they unknowingly annihilate each other instead of attacking the Israelites (2 Chronicles 20:21-22).

It is difficult not to draw a correlative line between the beginning of worship – “ they began to sing” – and the beginning of victory – “...the Lord set ambushes.”

But this does not mean that by our actions we are capable of manipulating God, but that in His mercy He withholds from us any visible sign of victory until we have proven – to ourselves, to Him, as well as to the watching world – that our hope is in Him; and that we understand that whatever victory we achieve can only come from Him.

In short, the story of Jehoshaphat's army of musicians is a historical narrative which expresses dramatically that which, for the Christian, remains a spiritual truth; and that is that when our focus is on Christ, we will achieve victory, not in our own strength but in His; and if not unequivocally, irrefutably, and tangibly in this life, then in the one to come.

Jehoshaphat's focus was not winning, but worship. He was not concerned exclusively with self-preservation – though of course the men wore armor and retained their battle formations – but pleasing God. In this he exhibited a hope that was not in or of this world, an astounding thing coming from a man steeped in a Judaic culture which did not explicitly outline concepts such as eternal life or eternal reward.

Instead of being in it to “win,” we are, in one sense, in it to wait; to abandon every hope of “being somebody,” and instead living to persevere with and for Christ, rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn – and, above all, believing that where success or failure, justice or injustice, joy or pain, seem to reign on earth, Christ’s kingdom will come. His Word will be the last and everlasting Word, His will accomplished on earth as it is every moment accomplished in Heaven.

In the final hour, all that is not well will be well. Death will be defeated and we will stand, with shattered hearts and broken limbs restored, to let His glorious light shine on us for all eternity.

Until then, let us say with Jehoshaphat, “O Lord… we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” And let us take God’s words as spoken through Jahaziel the priest to heart: “You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you... Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you."

*Painting by Flemish artist Frans Boels; "Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, Plunders the Ammonites and Moabites," 16th c.*


Chelsea said...

“O Lord… we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

How beautifully you've written this. You so ministered to me. My heart has felt defeated today and totally broken. You rock. Thank you a thousand times. What a blessing.

Shilo Taylor said...

This passage has become my anthem in this season of life... and I reluctantly admit that today my faith was low along with my mood. Your post reminded me to hold fast to what I believe over what I 'feel'. Love you.

Chelsea said...

Oh, i'll be coming back for more of your pearls of wisdom! Keep writing! (I also sent this to my friend and she appreciates it too!)