Christian worship is inherently political. As Bernd Wannenwetsch points out, this isn’t because worship is a tool for ginning up enthusiasm for a candidate or for stirring the fires of patriotism. On the contrary, “It is just because Christian worship is not a means to an end that it is political.” Worship is political because it “opens out into” the kingdom of God, and because in her worship the Church “anticipates the city of God” with its eternal liturgical assembly.
Though the notion of “political worship” has become axiomatic in recent theology, it is rarely applied to church music. Tastes in liturgical music are often based on nostalgia on the one hand, and a desire for relevance on the other. When musical choices are made more deliberately, the standards are typically aesthetic. We want to offer our best, and our praise should be suitable to the God we worship: What music is fitting to the Church’s entry into his presence?
Worship music should of course be beautiful and appropriate to the occasion, but if worship is political, worship music should be political too.
No scene in the Bible makes this more obvious than John’s vision in Revelation 4-5. When the Spirit catches John to heaven, he enters a worship service already underway. At the center is an enthroned Someone, surrounded by four cherubim and twenty-four white-clad ancient ones on thrones of their own. Creatures and elders are engaged in continuous rounds of praise—the Sanctus, prostrations, acclamations to the King on the throne, again and again.
But something is missing. Beside the Enthroned One is a sealed scroll, and initially no one anywhere is found worthy to open its seals. Then the Lamb appears and takes the scroll, and the eternal worship of heaven rises to a pitch of ecstatic intensity. Initially, John sees no lyres. The cherubim and ancient ones are shouting praise, but not singing. But when the Lamb ascends the throne, the creatures and elders have harps to accompany their new song.
This escalation of heavenly worship mimics a sequence in the Old Testament, and that gives us a clue to the significance of John’s vision. When Moses sets up the tabernacle in the wilderness, he is given no instructions about instruments or choirs. Tabernacle worship may have included song, but we are not told so. As David prepares for Solomon’s temple, however, he creates new orders of Levites to sing and to play harps, lyres, and cymbals, to raise songs of joy before the throne of God.
In both the Old Testament and Revelation, the shift from spoken worship to sung worship occurs because of the enthronement of a king. At the beginning of the Davidic dynasty, music and song are added to the smoke of the sacrifices. When the Lamb who is the Lion of Judah takes his throne, the heavenly hosts take up lyres and begin to sing.
Scholars have discovered analogies between the heavenly worship of Revelation and the ceremonial of the Roman imperial court. Some condemn John for making an obsequious accommodation to worldly power, but the point is the opposite: The acclamations and praise of the Lamb show that the Lion-Lamb, not Caesar, wears the crown. Worship music is coronation music, praise to a King now enthroned.
Judged by Revelation’s political liturgy, hymn writers have served the Church poorly in recent centuries. Too often, hymns reflect the privatized role to which our world confines religion. They give little place to themes of battle, judgment, oppression, and rule. For every “For All the Saints,” “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” and “A Mighty Fortress,” there are a dozen hymns about intimate encounters with Jesus in the warmth of his Spirit. To judge by hymnody, the Church Militant has largely been replaced by the Church Quiescent.
The Psalms, on the other hand, provide a standard for the proper political song of the Church Militant. Psalms are sometimes embarrassingly intimate, but you don’t go very far in the Psalter before encountering nations in turmoil and the enthronement of God’s son (2). Psalm after psalm calls on the Lord to bring justice to the nations (7, 9, 50, 96, 98, 135), and psalm after psalm identifies him as the world’s true king (10, 22, 24, 29, 47, 84, 95, 98, 145). Psalm 72 portrays an ideal king, and Psalm 82 and 94 issue bone-chilling warnings to oppressors. But the Psalms, with their exultant praise of God’s kingship, their hard-edged realism, their acknowledgment of conflict, and their passion for justice, have disappeared from some churches and are expurgated in others.
The songs of Revelation, like the Psalms, exalt the power, might, and glory of the enthroned Lamb and his Father. They are acclamations to “him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” sung prayers that “blessing and honor and glory and dominion” would be his forever. A church that sings such praise is inoculated against hope in princes. A church singing such praise is prepared to be a kingdom because a church that sings such praise is genuinely and properly the Church Militant.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspectives (Wipf & Stock).
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