When did you last sing a song about God’s judgment in church?
Recently I introduced a new song at my church. It was a new arrangement of John Newton’s ‘Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!’. I was a little worried about how it might be received. Why? Because it’s about the horror of God’s wrath being poured out on sinners on the final day. The third verse (in the new arrangement) begins:
Horrors past imagination will surprise the sinners heart
When he hears the condemnation: “Stranger, from My face depart!”
It’s not quite as popular as his Amazing Grace!
Upon reflection, my concern about how it would be received was due to a disjunction between my theology and my understanding of the practice of congregational singing. The idea of singing about sinners facing God’s just judgment doesn’t fit with our expectations of what congregational singing should be. When we first sung it, it was hard for the ‘eyes-closed-hands-raised’ folks to do their thing. One of the musicians wasn’t too happy about playing such a ‘downbeat’ arrangement. There were some confused looks on some of the faces in the congregation.
Yet I’m glad we persisted, for I’m convinced that the shock of the subject helps correct the misperception that congregational singing is only about praising God in joy. It certainly is that. But it can be, and often should be, about more than that. In the Scriptures, congregational singing can clearly be as much about teaching and warning one another as about praising God – a truth that, ostensibly at least, seems to have slipped a little from the minds of us evangelicals as of late. We say: “Let’s stand and praise God in song” but very rarely say: “Let’s stand to teach and warn one another in song”. Yet each statement would be just as fitting in light of passages like Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (See also Psalm 2, Psalm 90, Judges 5 and Deuteronomy 32 for Old Testament examples of songs about judgment.)
Some time after the hymn had been introduced, something amazing happened. A non-Christian man who had begun to come regularly to our evening congregation wrote on a communication card requesting we sing the song more often! On the same card he ticked the box to indicate that he’d like one of the ministers to meet with him to talk about Jesus. As the Christians taught and warned one another about the terrifying and awesome judgment of God, an outsider began to hear things clearly. As we prayed in song for the Day to come, the word of Christ certainly dwelt richly among us. Perhaps we’d do well to remember that our congregational singing needs to be moulded more by the word than by our expectations, and that being unashamed of the gospel involves being unashamed of the reality of God’s coming wrath.
Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders
Day of judgment, day of wonders,
Hear the trumpet’s awful sound;
Louder than ten thousand thunders,
Shakes the vast creation round!
At His call the dead shall waken,
Rise up from earth and sea;
All creation will be shaken,
Sinners from His wrath shall flee.
Let your kingdom come
Father we long to see that Day
When we’ll stand in victory
To praise the Lamb who took our sins away!
See the Judge our nature wearing,
Clothed in majesty divine!
Those how long for His appearing
Then shall say, ‘This God is mine!’
But the ones who have neglected
Christ, the Son of God and man,
Shall cry out, yet be rejected,
‘Hide us from the mighty Lamb!’
Horrors past imagination
Will surprise the sinner’s heart
When he hears the condemnation,
‘Stranger, from My face depart!’
But to those who have received Him,
Loved and served the Lord below,
He will say, ‘Come near, my children,
See the kingdom I bestow.’