“Spiritual Enemies to be Encountered,” one of the lesser-known texts written by Charles Wesley, urges the believer to persevere in the battle against “legions of dire malicious fiends” and “secret, sworn, eternal foes.”
There’s talk of spiritual enemies coupled with militarism that places Christ as captain and angels as the infantry in a cosmic war against “all hell’s host.” The figure of Christ is center, as conqueror and commander, but also as lamb and lion:
Jesus’ tremendous name, puts all our foes to flight:
Jesus, the meek, the angry Lamb, a Lion is in fight.
By all hell’s host withstood, we all hell’s host o’erthrow;
And conquering them, through Jesus’ blood, we still to conquer go.
There is a long history of militarism in Christian sacred song. From Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” to Elevation’s recent hit, “Praise,” it’s 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?
The song begins with the well-known line from Psalm 150, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” The song’s first verse confidently expresses a commitment to praise God in all things, in all circumstances:
I’ll praise in the valley
Praise on the mountain
I’ll praise when I’m sure
Praise when I’m doubting
The second verse is similarly focused on the individual, but places the worshiper in the middle of a battle:
I’ll praise when outnumbered
Praise when surrounded
’Cause praise is the waters
My enemies drown in
The line “praise is the waters / My enemies drown in” describes a scene of mass death. 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 their enemies.
Mike O’Brien, a worship leadership 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 the time, the battle language is just triumphalism run amok,” O’Brien said. “It feels like celebrating our own personal narratives, or the power of us.”
In recent songs like “Praise” or Phil Wickham’s “Battle Belongs,” language of warfare seems to apply to personal battles and inner struggles rather than external enemies.
“It’s not always quite clear who we are thinking of as ‘enemy,’” said Jeremy Perigo, 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” could land differently if it were “praise is the waters / Your enemies drown in.”
The church shouldn’t shy away from talk of enemies, argues Andrew Wilson: “The Scriptures talk about enemies with robust clarity and remarkable frequency, including 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 to attack one another, not less.”
Perigo suggests that more precise language to define “enemies” and a clearer focus on the power of God will help guard against triumphalism. Otherwise, said Perigo, “my praise is what’s going to bring the breakthrough, which ignores Christ’s victory.”
A hymn like “A Mighty Fortress” foregrounds the strength and omnipotence of God against “the prince of darkness grim,” “our ancient foe.” It also points to human weakness and dependence on God, the protector:
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
The text places no 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 one’s enemies can encourage worshipers to focus on the power of their own words and voices. It can also allow individuals to craft their own inner vision of a battle against whoever or whatever they perceive as an adversary. “Are we talking about our own efforts to bring down our personal enemies?” Perigo wondered. “That’s one question I would ask when using one of these songs.”
However, said Perigo, it would be counterproductive to avoid all language of battle and struggle in our congregational worship. In the face of gross 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 warfare in solidarity with the oppressed?
O’Brien encourages pastors and worship leaders to think about how each song’s use of militant language forms the congregation’s understanding of God and his work in the world.
“Ask some questions,” said O’Brien. “Who are we singing to? In what way is the lyric forming your congregation and their beliefs and actions? Could we leave out a verse? Would it be best to just pick a different song?”
“This is where pastoral discernment needs to come in,” said Perigo. “Praying and singing imprecatory songs can put authentic words to a practice of nonviolence.”
However, Perigo cautions, those words need to be framed thoughtfully. Songs that celebrate acts of violence and destruction seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How does praying for or singing about the death of an enemy align with those words?
“Tone can help order our emotions,” said Perigo, suggesting that the overall effect of a song should be considered when implementing a song or prayer that uses imprecatory language. “Is this really about triumph and excitement? Or is this a righteous response to injustice?”
“We don’t want to silence the grieving and their calls for justice,” said Perigo. “But we also don’t want the language of struggle to be weaponized.”
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 acknowledge injustice and violence is also a way to stand in solidarity with the suffering.
“Singing in solidarity with those who suffer is one 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,” wrote C. Michael Hawn in his essay, “The Truth Shall 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 local and global challenges the norm of worship as a place where individual comfort is the first and foremost criterion,” wrote Hawn.
There is “individual comfort” found in singing songs about a God who fights our battles. There is also comfort in believing that praise is a powerful weapon against one’s enemies.
Some might find it encouraging to sing about drowning foes in a time of geopolitical strife—“Praise” peaked in popularity on the church music resource sites Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and PraiseCharts two weeks ago, as the world witnessed horrifying violence in Israel and Palestine (it is still the most popular multitrack purchase on CCLI’s platform).
A vision of the global church and a cosmic battle against evil can lend a perspective that helps resist the celebration of death and lifts up 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, discover that our own worship finds a more authentic voice to praise the Creator of all song.”