What Exactly Are We Singing To The Lord?


Recently I heard a church choir offer a hymn of praise to Satan. I’m satisfied they did not know what they were doing, and would not have done so had they thought about it.

As the C-Span cameras focused on the flag-draped coffin containing the body of former President Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda, the other C-Span outlet replayed the 1973 funeral of former President Lyndon Johnson. We beheld mourners gathering inside a Washington, D.C., church to pay their respects with tributes, a sermon, and several hymns. Then, as the pallbearers ushered the casket from the sanctuary, the choir sang:

    A mighty fortress is our God

    A bulwark never failing;

    Our helper He amid the flood

    Of mortal ills prevailing.

    But still our ancient foe

    Doth seek to work us woe,

    His craft and power are great,

    And armed with cruel hate,

    On earth is not his equal.


Only one verse, end of hymn, end of service. I sat there stunned, wondering if anyone else noticed what had just occurred. By singing only the first verse of “A Mighty Fortress” the choir had paid tribute to the devil himself–using Martin Luther’s words, admittedly–and had left the matter there, as though nothing more needed to be said.

Over the years as I’ve sat in church listening to choirs and congregations lift up this grand hymn of the Reformation, I have wondered how many notice that the last half of the first verse is a description of Satan himself, that “on earth is not his equal” refers not to our Lord but to his infernal majesty. Anyone studying the life of Martin Luther quickly learns how well-acquainted he and Satan were–they had done battle for decades–and how thoroughly he knew the evil one’s ways. His hymn acknowledges the power of the devil, then pays tribute to the greater authority of the Lord God, our Mighty Fortress.

In the following verse, Luther topped this “tribute to Satan” with a word about our weakness which was then followed by praise to the Lord Jesus Himself.

    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.

    Doth 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.

It is worth noting that none of the verses of this beloved hymn stand on their own, that each is dependent on what comes before. Omit any verse and nothing that follows makes sense.

Joe Stowell, president of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, spoke in the chapel of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sometime after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Like many of us, he had watched on television the inspiring worship service from the National Cathedral where our nation’s political and spiritual leaders gathered to express the grief and the faith of this land. Later, Stowell remarked on how moved he had been by the service. A friend said, “Did you notice they left out a verse of ‘A Mighty Fortress’?”

“They left out a verse?” Stowell said.

“Verse two,” the man said. The verse that describes Jesus Christ as “the man of God’s own choosing, that calls Him “Lord Sabaoth” (Lord of Hosts, no less!), and promises “He must win the battle.”

Stowell was stunned. He was not so much taken aback by the politically correct surgery someone in Washington had performed on that hymn as chagrined that it had occurred without his noticing.

I once heard Rick Warren’s worship leader remark that after we sing a song something like seventeen times, we no longer pay attention to the words. Perhaps that is why Scripture calls on believers to “sing unto the Lord a new song.”

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was featured during the Reagan funeral, and said to have been selected by him. It does have a grand sweep to it, with ringing declarations that “His truth is marching on.” One verse even declares how, “in the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,” which renders it safe for church, I suppose. But you have to wonder if people know that Julia Howe wrote this hymn–if it actually could be called a hymn–early in the Civil War after she and her husband had watched the Union soldiers training for battle. The judgment of God she seems to celebrate is clearly the Confederacy getting what it deserves for its defense of slavery.

As a history major and a son of the South, I do not question for a moment that the Lord sent a severe judgment on my part of the country for its mistreatment of fellow human beings. But I do think it strange where we hear that hymn lifted up sometimes, and suggest that we ought to pay attention to what we are singing to the Lord. Sing it if we like, but know what we are singing.

4 thoughts on “What Exactly Are We Singing To The Lord?

  1. Why do we only sing the first verse of the National Anthem? The second verse is super!

    “O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand

    Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;

    Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land

    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!

    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just;

    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

    And the star spangled banner in triumph shall wave

    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

  2. Brother Joe,

    Good point! I wish we could expand this conversation to “praise music” (a good friend calls them 7/9 music, 7 words sang 9 times) versus hymns.

    I have long grieved over the extinction of hymns in our churhces. We hamstring ourselves from learning scripture and doctrine by employing the “musical praises sang to God rather than about Him”.

    BrainPlace.com attests to music’s teaching abilities…”Preschool and kindergarten teachers have known for a long time that children learn best through songs. They remember the material easier and it is easier to keep them engaged in the activity. So why do we stop singing in the second or third grade? Perhaps we should continue the singing into later grades.”

    Why don’t we use this powerful tool to teach the majestic truths of our Creator and Saviour? A relationship is based upon and improved by knowing truth about the one with whom you are involved. My husband didn’t just sing praises to me when he met me. He became familiar with me, my family, my history, my preferences, my convictions.

    These choruses are just more of the same. “Its all about me.”

  3. “Good point! I wish we could expand this conversation to “praise music” … versus hymns.”

    What a terribly myopic viewpoint. You are missing out on a fantastic opportunity to direct even more praise to our Lord.

    I fully agree that many of these new songs are chintzy, at best. We don’t sing those at our church. Many older songs found in various hymnals are the same way, as well. Read closely the words to some of those obscure hymns scattered on the pages between “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “A Mighty Fortress.” Each generation has been guilty of producing well-intentioned songs that just don’t reflect due glory to God … or worse yet, promote doctrinal inaccuracies.

    Musical style is typically the key to arguments such as yours, unless you have honestly overlooked the multitudes of “good songs” offered by recent songwriters in praise to God.

    I urge you to turn your focus from the “7/9 songs” to songs such as “Indescribable,” which extols the beauty of God’s creation and His infinite power. Or perhaps “The Heart of Worship” which apologizes for making worship in our own image, whether it be the ornately detailed rituals of “high church” or the careless “Its all about me” attitude.

    Please have the integrity to at least examine that which you oppose before offering such a sweeping condemnation of the work God is doing through lyricists and songwriters of this generation.

  4. I think I have a somewhat different perspective on the hymn v. praise debate. I am a pianist who plays by ear. I am also a born-again Christian. It has been my experience that modern worship is corrupted, and I do mean to say corrupted. Most of the new “praise” songs, or “7/9” songs are written not to extol God, but to make money on contemporary Christian sales. Therefore, they reflect, rather than confront, worldly rythm, beat, timbre, ect. Therefore, when an unsaved sinner enters into the congregation and hears this music, he does identify with it, and identifying with it is just what the contemporary music crowd often wants, believeing that the sinner who identifies with the music is more open to the message thereof. However, experience has shown me that this is not the case. He would also identify with the music playing at any bar room as well. Ever seen a crowd of about 50 young people jumping in sync to the music “praising God” all the while wearing tounge-rings, skin-tight clothes, or worse? I have, and the Holy Spirit is not present there at all. These people live in sin, and there is no conviction for it in the music. Therefore, as far as ministry, the music is nearly worthless.

    I have two gripes with contemporary Christian music: sound and message. I’ve already touched on sound. If the church is different from the world, shouldn’t our music be as well? “Be ye seperate.” But message is what really gets me. To praise is fine for a saved person, and it has it’s place. Just don’t over-do it in church. My favorite hymn is “Bretheren We Have Met To Worship”, and the second verse always catches the unsaveds’ attentions. “Bretheren, see poor sinners ’round you, slumbering on the brink of woe; death is coming, Hell is moving, can you bear to let them go…”. Where is that in today’s music? If some of the contemporary stuff would warn of hell, tell of the dangers of sin and worldly living, then it would be a marked improvement. To praise does not save, to convict the sinner does. Although praise, which is what nearly all of the Contemporary music is about, does matter greatly, in today’s world, we need alot more conviction. Woe to Christians if we refuse this in our musical ministries.

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