Singing about death

In today’s service from Tenth Presbyterian, Philadelphia we sang the hymn “I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art” (no I didn’t commute between services in our own church in Belfast—we participated via the Internet). As we sang, I thought how unusual a hymn of praise it was, compared to many modern praise songs. And yet, it is not unusual as a hymn, compared to the great old (and some newer) hymns of the faith. What stood out was:

O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy power.

How many modern songs let us sing about death? Just as modern western society is sanitised, and has eliminated references to death wherever possible, so too has our praise. It may be acceptable to sing about Jesus’ death (though even that is under threat). That is at the heart of the Gospel, so we dare not neglect to sing about that (unless we no longer believe the Gospel).

Bus as we have been delivered from the fear of death to which everyone is enslaved (Heb 2:14-15), it is appropriate to sing about our own death. Singing about it helps us face its reality. It is an inevitability, no matter how much our culture proclaims our immortality. But such contemplation is not morbid, for the stanza that brings us face to face with our own mortality starts by reminding us of the source of our life:

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;

Death is inevitable, but this is not fatalism. The strength we receive in life from God is the same strength with which we may face death, A hymn such as this forces us to confront our death long before we stare death in the face.

Such songs in and of themselves will never provide the strong-heartedness with which the Christian believer may face death, but they must surely help us prepare to face our own death well. And in so doing we may face life well, so that we may sing the final stanza of Philip Ryken’s hymn “Now I make my good confession” truthfully:

Here’s my life–Lord, take and use it,
use my gifts to spread your fame;
I will go where Jesus calls me,
live and die for His great name.

If we have not taken time to contemplate life and death when we are in health and strength, it is doubtful we will face death strong-heartedly. For us Philippians 1:21 will be merely a Bible verse, unlike Paul for whom it was reality:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

I’m sure Paul sang those Psalms that led him to contemplate death in the light of God. May we follow in his footsteps, and not shy away from contemplating and singing about death, that we may be strong-hearted then to face it by God’s power.

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