Jesus has told us that He intends all nations to be discipled. Nations. Not just individuals. All nations as theocracies.
That being the case, the Church exists for the life of the world. Being baptized is not only a matter of becoming part of a new family, it is also enlistment into a holy army.
We speak of worship as covenant renewal, because that is what sacramental worship is. We are called in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — the Name in which we were originally baptized. We, the baptized, leave Egypt and enter the Kingdom anew in the Confession and Absolution. We ascend to heaven to hear the Word proclaimed, and then sit with our Lord in the heavenlies at His table. Finally, we are commissioned and sent forth, with a benediction pronounced in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This covenant renewal structure is found everywhere in the Bible, and it has been important for us to recover it. There is more to our heaven-positioned worship, however. Worship is also holy war.
Our warfare, however, is not essentially “against blood and flesh, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). There are no steel swords, no machine guns, no drone-dropped bombs that can destroy the demon-inspired ideologies that enslave human beings everywhere. How does one fight the monotheism of Islam, which worships the one god named Abaddon, Apollyon, Dragon, and Serpent? How does one fight the ideologies of atheism, liberalism, and homosexuality?
We emphasize the priesthood of all believers, and rightly so. But what is a priest? As Peter Leithart showed in The Priesthood of the Plebs, a priest is a royal household servant, or in shorthand, a palace servant. Now, before Jesus, only a very few men were allowed into God’s palace as priests, and they were assisted by another slightly larger group of men (the Levites) who might not enter the palace/temple, but who stood near to it.
The priests and Levites had a number of duties, but the one we want to focus on here is that they conducted holy war. The dress of the High Priest is taken up in Ephesians 6 and called the “armor of God.” The daily killing of animals, which carried the liability for human sin, was an act of continual warfare. The Nazirite vow (Numbers 6) made any man or woman a temporary priest for the purpose of conducting holy war, whether physical (Samson, and Judges 5:2, “When the long-hairs lengthened their hair”) or prophetic (Samuel, John the Baptist, Elijah and Elisha [2 Kings 1:8 “a lord of hair”, 2:23 + Num. 6:9], Paul [Acts 18:18, 21:23-26]).
In an important sense the primary tool of holy war was and is the psalms. The Levites were stationed around the palace to sing the psalms. They were accompanied by cymbals and massed stringed instruments, which produced a huge sound. The priests participated by blowing trumpets, probably playing the melody. These musicians were assigned their places by the commanders of the army (1 Chronicles 25:1).
Since only the priests might approach the altar and enter the temple/palace, they were representatives of the people, and not of the people of Israel only but of the whole world. The gentiles were to participate in the fast of the Day of Coverings (Lev. 16:29) and at the Feast of Booths, seventy bulls were brought near for the seventy nations of the world. (Gen. 10; Num. 29; Zech. 14:16-21).
To sum up: Priests are an army that sings psalms in the presence of God on behalf of the world. If you’re not doing that, you’re not a priest.
The book of Hebrews makes it clear that we are all priests now. Hence, all of us are to “draw near” into the presence of God. Ephesians 5:18-20 makes it clear that one important thing we do there is “sing and play music from the heart” that consists of psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs. There is debate about what hymns and Spiritual songs are, but for our purposes it does not matter. We can discuss that once we have begun to sing all 150 psalms.
It is our duty to sing psalms before the face of God.
It is our job.
It is part of why we were baptized and enlisted in the Holy Army of the Lord of Armies.
It is not an option.
Now, when we look at the psalms, we find one after another that is about conflict, warfare, and vengeance. There are certain “imprecatory” psalms, but there are also prayers for justice and vengeance scattered all over the whole book of psalms. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” says Psalm 23, which is clearly not the sweet, cuddly poem it was made out to be in the 19th century, but is a battle hymn.
It is important to notice that psalms are utterly different from hymns in this regard. I know of only one hymn ever written that calls on God to destroy anyone, and even that is pretty mild: “Lord keep us steadfast in Thy word, and curb the Turks’ and papists’ sword” (Erhalt uns, Herr, by Luther, 1541). I don’t think that this is because the Church has been too wimpy to write imprecatory hymns. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact that vengeance belongs to God alone. We call on Him, using the words He has given us, to be the God of vengeance on behalf of His people. We do not add any of our own vengeance to it.
According to Luke 18, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray and not to lose heart, He told them a parable about an importunate widow who continually came before the judge demanding vengeance. Modern translations often try to soften up the phrase “avenge me on mine adversary,” but the Greek is strong. It’s the same word for vengeance as in Romans 12:19.
The saints under the altar in Revelation 6:9-10 pray to God, asking Him to avenge their blood. Jesus Himself, as the “Other Angel,” in Revelation 8:3 adds His own prayers to those of these saints, and then “all hell breaks loose on earth” as we might say.
It is very clear: God promises to change the world, to turn the world upside down, when His people come into His presence during worship and pray for vengeance.
It is clear in the book of Revelation that the Church has the keys of the Kingdom. The Church alone has the power to come before the Throne and cause the world to be changed. Nobody else can do this. The world is not changed by direct human action. The world is changed when God is persuaded to change it.
That’s what liturgical warfare is. And, as an aside, if the Church had not completely forgotten that liturgy is warfare, she would never had entertained the horrible notion that women should be ministers. What man sends his wife, daughter, mother, or sister into the front lines of battle? No real man would ever do that. But since the Church has abandoned her calling to wrestle with God on behalf of the world, since she has abandoned liturgical warfare, she has become exclusively a nurturing institution, and hence a logical place for female leadership, whether those females are women or wimpy men.
What happens when the Church sings the psalms? Consider Psalm 94:
Mighty Avenger! Yahweh!
Mighty Avenger, shine forth!
Rise up, Judge of the earth!
Repay what they deserve to the proud!
How long will the wicked, Yahweh?
How long will the wicked rejoice?
They belch forth, they speak arrogance.
They boast of all their troublemaking.
Your people, Yahweh, they crush,
And Your inheritance they oppress.
Widow and sojourner they slay,
And the fatherless they murder….
But Yahweh became my fortress,
And my God a rock of refuge.
He will pay them back for their sin,
And for their troublemaking He will destroy them.
He will destroy them – Yahweh, our God!
Would Jesus change the situation in the world if His people sang this? The Bible says that He would, one way or another. Do we believe this?
Protestants claim to believe in the priesthood of all believers, but you would never know it. Roman Catholic monks sing through all 150 psalms every week. The older vision in Protestantism was for the clergy, at least, to move through all 150 psalms in a month, in morning and evening prayers.
But do Protestants do the psalms at all? Consider: Some churches sing metrical psalms, but metrical psalms actually are not psalms. They are sermons, prayers, meditations based on psalms. They often change words, leave words out, and interpret the psalm for us, not infrequently changing the meaning. Metrical psalms are not what God wrote and they are not what He wants to hear first and foremost. I’m all in favor of metrical psalms, but only if genuine psalms have pride of place in our worship.
In “chanted” psalms, the words are first and foremost. The music is simple, enabling us to call out the words with elevated voices, speaking on pitch. In “hymnified” psalms, the words are changed to fit the musical form. The rhythm and rhyme structures take precedence over the words. Moreover, in hymnified psalms the theological parallelism of the psalm, which is an essential part of Word-revelation, is often destroyed.
Even worse, however, psalms are read in some kind of “responsive reading.” It is remarkable how odd this custom is. The psalms are songs. Can you imagine going to a concert and hearing a singer or choir just stand up and read the words? Well, that’s what God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have to endure as the Audience for our worship. David never read or spoke the psalms: They were written as songs. Nobody ever read or spoke them in the Temple.
Responsive reading of the psalms should be replaced as soon as possible. It is very easy to chant the lines on tone. Just go all the way through the psalm on one note, to start with. But don’t just read them. Chanting puts more of yourself into it than mere reading does.
God does not want to hear the psalms read, though of course if that’s all we offer Him, He is gracious to accept it.
He wants to hear them sung, chanted.
Why doesn’t the world change? Is it because the Church is too lazy to take up the arms that God has given her? Those arms are the psalms, chanted with vigor and loud instruments, before the throne of God in worship.
Serious churches need to make a decision. They must make the decision to make the learning of the psalms a top priority. They must make as a top priority chanting the psalms in sacramental worship ascended before the Throne with strength and vigor.
This is the duty of the Church. God does not ask us to do anything heroic. It is actually an easy thing to learn to do. So why don’t we do it?
One thing is for certain: Until we start doing what God wants us to do in this area, things will not change the world. If we are concerned that Christians are being forced to participate in homosexual “weddings,” and threatened with fines or imprisonment if they don’t cooperate, then maybe we should start chanting God’s words to Him.
To be continued.
James B. Jordan is Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis. This essay was for the most part published in 2007 in Rite Reasons 92 & 93, under the title “How to Stop the Killing in Darfur.”