May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him. May you blow them away like smoke—as wax melts before the fire, may the wicked perish before God. But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful. (Psalm 68:1-3)
Worship as Warfare
We recently commemorated Veterans Day in the U.S., a day set aside for honoring the men and women who have served and sacrificed as members of our armed forces. It is a national holiday which is conveniently situated in the same month as Thanksgiving, offering us yet another reason to be grateful to God—not only for veterans’ service to our country, but also for the hard-fought freedoms and blessings we all enjoy as a result.
I myself am not a military veteran, but I am a veteran of the “worship wars” of the 1990s. If you’re unaware of this (mostly) bloodless conflict, I hesitate to mention it at all! The “war” in question was about the relative merits of “traditional” vs. “contemporary” worship music in the church. As a worship leader in my mid-30s, who had just recently experienced a radical “second conversion” in my life of faith, I quickly got swept up in the conflict. I was young enough to be naively hopeful about the power of the contemporary worship movement to change hearts and minds in the church, and probably old enough to know better. So now I am a veteran and casualty of that war—a wounded survivor, if you will—but one who has not given up on my hope for the church!
Psalm 68 describes a very different kind of worship war. Not a civil war within the congregation of God’s people, but an ongoing cosmic battle for the hearts and souls of mankind everywhere. The great 19th-century Methodist theologian Adam Clarke wrote of this song, “I know not how to undertake a comment on this psalm: it is the most difficult in the whole Psalter.” So, no pressure there!
The backdrop for the psalm is the joyful procession of the Ark of the Covenant—the symbol of God’s power, presence and promise—as it was being brought into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). It’s fundamentally a song of praise, celebrating who God is and what God does.
But David’ song is full of contrasts. While celebrating the victory that has been won, he points to the conflict that continues. He contrasts the unhappy fate of the “wicked” with the joy and celebration of the “righteous.” There are gruesome images of warfare—scattering and destroying God’s enemies (vs. 1-2), “crushing their heads” and “wading in the blood of foes” (vs. 21-22)—contrasted with beautiful acts of worship (vs. 24-27). David paints a picture of God as a powerful warrior King who rides across the heavens and thunders with a mighty voice (vs. 33), but who is also a Father to the fatherless and defender of widows…a loving King who frees the captives and puts the lonely in families (vs. 5-6), who daily bears our burdens and saves us from death (vs. 19-20).
As David and the people of Israel brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, they were celebrating because they had prepared a place for God. They were welcoming His presence into their world. Battles had been won, and more battles would be fought, but victory was certain because God was here with them! There was joy and celebration in that truth…there was comfort…there was hope.
That’s what our worship is about as well. It’s a celebration that Jesus Christ has won the victory, and even though battles remain, the outcome of the war is certain. It’s not about how we worship, where we worship or when we worship; it is about why we do it, and Who we do it for. Our worship is warfare, but it is not directed toward one another. We’re in a battle, but we’re not called to destroy people around us. No, as Paul reminds us,
“Our fight is not against people on earth. We are fighting against the rulers and authorities and the powers of this world’s darkness. We are fighting against the spiritual powers of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12, ERV)
And the proper response to all of it—the joy of what God has done, the comfort of what God is doing, and the hope of what God will do—is simply our worship. God has won the victory. He is here with us, and so we celebrate His power and His presence and His promise.
As you continue to prepare your place for God, remember that Jesus has already gone to prepare a pretty awesome place for you! (John 14:1-3) Remember that he is coming back to take you home to be with him forever. And remember that his forever-life can begin for you now, if you welcome him into your life. So welcome Jesus, worship him, celebrate his presence. And always stay thirsty for him!