Faith

Should we sing about drowning our enemies?

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“Spiritual Enemies to be Encountered,” one of the lesser-known texts written by Charles Wesley, urges the believer to persevere in battle against “legions of terrible malicious demons” and “secret, sworn, and eternal enemies.”

There is talk of spiritual enemies along with militarism that places Christ as captain and the angels as infantry in a cosmic war against “all the hosts of hell.” The figure of Christ is in the center, as victor and commander, but also as lamb and lion:

The tremendous name of Jesus puts all our enemies to flight:
Jesus, the meek, the angry Lamb, a Lion is fighting.
For all the hosts of hell resisted, all the hosts of hell will be overthrown;
And by defeating them, through the blood of Jesus, we still have to conquer.

There is a long history of militarism in Christian sacred song. From “A Mighty Fortress” by Martin Luther to Elevation’s recent hit “Praise” It is easy to find examples of lyricists using violent language and imagery to convey the weight of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

But when it comes to songs that describe death and destruction, what framework should worshipers and worship leaders use to determine the difference between rejoicing in Jesus’ triumph and careless triumphalism?

“Praise” by Elevation is an energetic anthem with an infectious chorus that has made it popular as a congregational song and as a sound clip on apps like Tik Tok and instagram.


The song begins with the well-known phrase from Psalm 150: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” The first verse of the song confidently expresses the commitment to praise God in all things, in all circumstances:

I will praise in the valley
Praise on the mountain
I will praise you when I am sure
Praise when I’m doubting

The second verse similarly focuses on the individual, but places the worshiper in the middle of a battle:

I will praise when I am outnumbered
Praise when surrounded
Because praise is the waters
My enemies are drowning

The phrase “praise is the waters / My enemies drown in it” describes a mass death scene. It most likely refers to the collapse of the Red Sea on the Egyptian army in Exodus 14, metaphorically placing the worshiper in the position of the Israelites on the other side, watching as God allows the waters to consume his enemies.

Mike O’Brien, a worship leader consultant and trainer in the Atlanta area, sees a danger, particularly for American Christians, in foregrounding depictions of violence and death without careful consideration of tone and context.

“A lot of times, the language of battle is just unbridled triumphalism,” O’Brien said. “It feels like celebrating our own personal narratives or our power.”

In recent songs like “Praise” or Phil Wickham’s “Battle Belongs,” the language of war seems to apply to personal battles and internal struggles rather than to external enemies.

“It’s not always clear who we consider ‘the enemy,’” said Jeremy Perigo, a professor of theology and worship at Dordt University. “That makes a song weaker, theologically. Who are we fighting against? Who is drowning?

Elevation’s line “praise is the waters / My enemies drown in it” might land differently if it were “praise is the waters / Your enemies drown.”

The church should not shy away from speaking of enemies, argues Andrew Wilson: “The Scriptures speak of enemies with great clarity and remarkable frequency, even in ways we are explicitly urged to imitate.”

“Confusion about who exactly God’s enemies are and how the church should respond to them makes Christians more likely, not less, to attack each other.”

Perigo suggests that more precise language to define “enemies” and a clearer focus on the power of God will help guard against triumphalism. Otherwise, Perigo said, “my praise is what will bring the breakthrough, which ignores the victory of Christ.”

A hymn like “A Mighty Fortress” foregrounds the strength and omnipotence of God against “the prince of gloomy darkness,” “our ancient enemy.” It also points out human weakness and dependence on God, the protector:

Do we trust our own strength?
our effort would be wasting,
He wasn’t the right man on our side,
the Man chosen by God.
You ask who it could be?

Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth your name,
from age to age the same;
and must win the battle.

The text does not put any weapon in the hands of the worshiper but in the person of Christ. The believer is still in a battle, but Christ will win it.

Framing praise as a weapon against enemies can encourage worshipers to focus on the power of their own words and voices. It can also allow individuals to craft their own internal vision of a battle against whoever or whatever they perceive as an adversary. “Are we talking about our own efforts to take down our personal enemies?” Perigo wondered. “That’s a question I would ask when using one of these songs.”

However, Perigo said, it would be counterproductive to avoid all language of battle and struggle in our congregational worship. In the face of great injustice, singing about the fight against oppression and evil is a valuable practice.

For the American church, how do songs like “Praise” and “Battle Belongs” fit into a model of congregational worship that sings about victory and war in solidarity with the oppressed?

O’Brien encourages pastors and worship leaders to think about how each song’s use of militant language shapes the congregation’s understanding of God and his work in the world.

“Ask some questions,” O’Brien said. “Who do we sing to? How are the lyrics shaping your congregation and their beliefs and actions? Could we skip a verse? Would it be better to just choose a different song?

“This is where pastoral discernment must come in,” Perigo said. “Praying and singing imprecatory songs can put authentic words to a practice of nonviolence.”

However, Perigo warns, those words must be phrased carefully. Songs that celebrate acts of violence and destruction seem to go against Jesus’ warning to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How does praying or singing for the death of an enemy align with those words?

“Tone can help sort out our emotions,” Perigo said, suggesting that the overall effect of a song should be considered when implementing a song or prayer that uses imprecatory language. “Is it really about triumph and excitement? Or is this a just response to injustice?”

“We do not want to silence the grieving and their calls for justice,” Perigo said. “But we also don’t want the language of struggle to become a weapon.”

Singing congregational songs that reflect and affirm the pain of the oppressed and abused is a necessary practice for a church that seeks to be a refuge and sanctuary for the broken. Singing songs that recognize injustice and violence is also a way to show solidarity with those who suffer.

“Singing in solidarity with those who suffer is a way to keep the needs of the world before us so that our prayers reach beyond those who are near and dear and extend to all of humanity,” he wrote. C. Michael Hawn in his essay “The Truth Will Set You Free.”

Hawn’s essay describes the spread of “freedom songs” throughout the global church during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the late 20th century. “The dynamic between the local and the global challenges the norm of worship as a place where individual comfort is the first and foremost criterion,” Hawn wrote.

“Individual comfort” is found in singing songs about a God who fights our battles. It is also comforting to believe that praise is a powerful weapon against enemies.

Some might find singing about drowning enemies in a time of geopolitical strife encouraging: “Praise” peaked in popularity on religious music resource sites Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and PraiseCharts two weeks ago, as the world witnessed horrible violence in Israel. and Palestine (still the most popular multitrack purchase on the CCLI platform).

A vision of the global church and a cosmic battle against evil can provide a perspective that helps resist the celebration of death and uplifts the oppressed and suffering.

Hawn suggests: “Rather than being paralyzed by silence in the face of injustice, let us sing in solidarity with those whose burdens are heavy, and in doing so find our own worship finding a more authentic voice to praise the Creator of all songs. .”



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