The Revelation: The Apocalypse and Contemporary Christian Music

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[From February 2009, with some editing]

We have members of my congregation who are firmly persuaded that contemporary Christian music is a sign of the Apocalypse — rather like sword, famine, plague, and wild beasts. It’s just one more way for people to suffer.

And so, I thought I’d take a look at the actual Apocalypse and see what it actually says about contemporary Christian music. I mean, people think the Revelation predicts World War II, Obama’s election, and global warming. Surely it speaks to contemporary Christian music!

Actually, the Revelation says quite a lot about worship. After all, it treats us to several scenes of worship as it takes place in heaven — which surely is worship done right! (I considered the instrumental music argument from Revelation a while back). And so I figure we can learn quite a lot about worship from the Apocalypse.

All right. Let’s flip through a few pages here at the back of the Bible.

In chapter 4, we are shown the throne room of heaven.

(Rev 4:4-8)  Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

Type the lyrics from the four living creatures into YouTube, and you get this Revelation Song written by Kari Jobe —

and this in Hebrew —

It’s really not contemporary Christian, but I like it. It’s the text of Rev 4:8.

At the end of the chapter we read,

(Rev 4:9-11)  Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

Type that into YouTube and you get —

The notes say the words are “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being,” in Swahili, I assume.

(You start watching wondering why the girls are dancing; but soon enough, you wonder why everyone doesn’t dance to the songs of Revelation?)

and

which is not exactly CCM, but neither was the Swahili version. Amazing the scope and breadth of human creativity with the same text.

And here’s yet another, more traditional version —

Of course, the classic hymn built on this passage is “Worthy Art Thou.”

And if you grew up Church of Christ, you know those names.

Revelation 6 gives us this hymn,

(Rev 5:11-14)  Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” 13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” 14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Which brings up this very nice instrumental piece —

and “Cannons” by Phil Wickham,

(Rev 7:9-12)  After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

and a cappella 

(Rev 11:16-18)  And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. 18 The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great — and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

I’m not sure this song has much to do with this passage, but I still like it.

(Rev 15:2-4)  And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

You’re going to love this!

(Rev 19:5-8)  Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” 6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Thanks to Michael W. Smith for this one —

(You a cappella fans need to watch this one to the end.)

and here’s a song built from the same passage —

The Revelation ends with —

(Rev 22:17)  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

Awaken us to see
The reality of eternity and feel it near
Awaken us to pray
As we watch and wait and anticipate with Holy fear
For the day You’ll return again
Is closer now than it’s ever been…

Chorus:
Suddenly, every eye will see
As You return in glory
Suddenly, every knee will fall
Before heaven’s coming King

Jesus, here we stand, lifting up our hands
Asking You to purify our lives
So on that glorious day
When we stand face to face
Unashamed, we’ll dance in heaven’s light

For the moment is drawing near
When our radiant King will appear…

(chorus)

The Spirit and the Bride say, “come soon, Lord”
The Spirit and the Bride say, “come soon”
The Spirit and the Bride say, “come soon, Lord”

Suddenly

(chorus)

Notice the lyrics that are sung in heaven. Verse 8 of chapter 4 says,

Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

16 words. Forever. It looks to me like the very first 7-11 song (seven words sung eleven times, as Garrison Keilor says) comes from God’s own hand.

God doesn’t insist on lyrically rich songs! It’s quite permissible in heaven to say the same thing over and over. And so, we need to get over the idea that repetition is somehow bad. In fact, many of our old hymns are highly repetitious. Consider this classic hymn —

1. Standing on the promises of Christ my King,
through eternal ages let his praises ring;
glory in the highest, I will shout and sing,
standing on the promises of God.

Refrain:
Standing, standing,
standing on the promises of Christ my Savior;
standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

2. Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
by the living Word of God I shall prevail,
standing on the promises of God.

Refrain:
Standing, standing,
standing on the promises of Christ my Savior;
standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

3. Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord,
bound to him eternally by love’s strong cord,
overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword,
standing on the promises of God.

Refrain:
Standing, standing,
standing on the promises of Christ my Savior;
standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

4. Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
listening every moment to the Spirit’s call,
resting in my Savior as my all in all,
standing on the promises of God.

Refrain:
Standing, standing,
standing on the promises of Christ my Savior;
standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

Pretty repetitious, isn’t it? But repetition is okay. Repetition helps us learn and remember — which is why many of us can only remember the first verse and the chorus. We tune out new lyrics after a point.

We may actually be better off with simple lyrics. If you doubt me, sing from memory the second and third verses of “Jesus Loves Me.” We struggle to retain the lyrics of even the most familiar tunes.

I should add that there are some classic Christian hymn based on the Revelation, too. I just can’t find very many of them on the internet. And so I’m not arguing that only contemporary Christian music uses these hymns that God wrote for us. But I do think the contemporary songs are generally truer to the originals, because the freer form of contemporary music allows the artist to more closely follow the original.

Here’s the point. Contrary to the opinions of many, contemporary tunes are not light on theology. (Well, some of them are, but so are some of the older hymns.) And it’s obvious from this eclectic walk through the contemporary music scene that many of our newer songs are very true to the Bible and very rich in meaning. If you wanted to teach Revelation strictly in music, you’d be far better able to do it in songs written in the last 20 years than in songs written earlier.

Now, the lyrics tend to be fairly simple and straightforward, but that’s because they are often based nearly verbatim on scripture. And this is a very good thing, I think. It helps our congregations tie their singing to the scriptures.

So I have little patience with those who sneer at the newer music. Of course, many of the old hymns are marvelous and unlikely to be surpassed by anything written today. After all, hundreds of years of composing by the church will surely have left us with some powerful music. It’s just that God’s Spirit didn’t leave us in 1900. God continues to give his creative gifts today, and God-given talents are still producing godly music.

We really need to stop fighting over one another’s taste in music and instead celebrate the marvelous music God has given and continues to give us.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to The Revelation: The Apocalypse and Contemporary Christian Music

  1. Mark says:

    http://www.hymnary.org/texts?qu=scripture:revelation

    This link will give you 1,674 matches to hymns based on the Apocalypse. Many of those on the first page are familiar and sung often in liturgical churches.

  2. Dwight says:

    At one point in time the old music we sing now was new music that was being opposed by those of the status quo. If place one of our songs next to a psalms we would be hard pressed to see any resemblance except there are words to God and yet they were sung and the original form. If a psalm was sung in assembly with accompanied flute, harp, etc. many would reject it as unscriptural. Will we cover our ears when we get to heaven because there are instruments being used in singing form to which we aren’t accustomed? Or even worse will we condemn it?

  3. Monty says:

    Somehow many believe the old songs sung to the style of the 1800’s or even 1930’s makes for more “churchy” and therefore more traditional, or rightful worship. Sort of like hearing someone who prays in the King James type language(another tongue?). I personally enjoy most all styles of worship music(southern gospel maybe the exception). I even enjoy Gregorian chant but the most moving to me is a lot of the contemporary stuff, especially the Passion and HIlsong type songs. It is very moving to me to see thousands of young people giving their all in worship through this genre. It remind me of God telling Elijah he had reserved for himself 6000 other prophets. I believe the contemporary music of today has the ability to bring Christians(especially the youth) together under one banner-Jesus.

  4. Ray Downen says:

    The church of which I’m a member now uses songs said to be musical, but they all sound alike and they sound like chants rather than songs. And the repetition is boring rather than in any way inspiring. How I long for real SONGS rather than “praise choruses.”

  5. Dwight says:

    Ray, It’s not what you get and it’s what you give and perhaps you are not contributing your attention enough in order enough to get what is there.
    Just kidding, but this is an old line. The argument is your worship should be even toned and barely above boring and not too exuberant or it is out of control and I know people that argue this that go to a church 30 minutes out of the way, when they could be going to one 15 minutes away.
    To some extent worship is what you make of it on a personal level, but then again the reason we sing songs is not only praise, but edification in lifting our spirits. The one thing you can say about the psalms in the bibles is they are anything but repetitious in words, even if they are in meaning.

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