Sometimes, kids come up with comical things. I know a sister in Christ, who, when she was in elementary school, used to think #155 Jesus Arose began, “Low in the gravy lay Jesus my Savior.” What a picture! She is now in her forties, and says that every time she sings that song she still has to struggle to push that image out of her head.
Another little girl used to wonder who the Reprodigal family was and where they were going. The chorus of #596 God Is Calling The Prodigal, sounded to her like, “O we Reprodigals come.”
These are pretty funny, but they remind us that, in fact, sometimes even we adults don’t understand what we sing.
In 1.Cor.14:6-19, Paul teaches the importance of understanding what’s going on in the worship service. He says he would rather “speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” He says, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.”
Though the sermon is the time when people know they are to pay attention to the words, God says that the words spoken while the congregation sings are equally important. Paul said in Col.3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
Many of our favorite songs in our songbook were written decades, even centuries ago. Sometimes the vocabulary is outdated. Let’s note some of these and provide definitions.
Song #225, Soldiers Of Christ Arise, has in the 3rd verse, “But take to arm you for the fight, the panoply of God.” For years, I used to think that a panoply was a pamphlet. Later I discovered that it means “a complete display of everything pertaining to a subject.” The word is often used to describe a soldier’s full suit of armor, with every buckle and every button in its proper place. Thus, song #225 is referring to Eph.6:10-19, in taking up God’s armor, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit.
Dross is a word that appears several times in the songbook, probably because it rhymes so well with “cross.” Song #316 for example, Nailed To The Cross, says, “He is tender and loving and patient with me, while He cleanses my heart of its dross, but there’s no condemnation, I know I am free, for my sins are all nailed to the cross.” I used to think this meant depression. But no; “dross” is a term used by miners and smelters to refer to the scum of impurities that forms on the top of molten metal as it is being refined. Therefore, song writers have used it as an image of the wickedness in our hearts that must be skimmed off and discarded. It means that we are purified by the sacrifice of Christ.
Strand is another word that appears more than once, usually in the context of going to heaven. Near The Cross, # 46, says in verse 4, “Near the cross I’ll watch and wait, hoping trusting ever, till I reach the golden strand, just beyond the river.” Likewise, I Have Heard Of A Land, #385, says “I have heard of a land on a faraway strand…” I was never able to figure out the connection between heaven and a thin line of thread, as the word “strand” is used today. But the dictionary says it used to mean “a shoreline or beach.” You can still see the meaning in the etymology of the phrase, “stranded on a desert island.” So these songs refer to crossing the Jordan River (a symbol of passing through death to reach paradise on the other side) and taking the first step in the land of heaven.
Maybe one of the most confusing phrases is found in #293, “Night with ebon pinion, brooded o’er the vale” This song depicts the sorrowful mood on the night Jesus was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ebon is a shade of deepest black, like the ebony keys on a piano. A pinion is a bird’s wing. A vale is a valley. Put all three together and you see the poetic image; a dark, evil night enveloped the valley near Jerusalem, like a black crow spreading its wings.
Sometimes a song will contain a reference that requires a level of Bible knowledge. Song #363, Send The Light, says in the 2nd verse, “We have heard the Macedonian call today, send the light, send the light.” The song refers to Acts 16. Paul had set out on his second missionary journey to preach the gospel, and the Holy Spirit did not allow him to veer south or north, but to head directly for Troas on the coast. There, Paul saw a vision of a man of the province of Macedonia calling for help, and concluded that God wanted him to board a ship and cross over to there. Charles Gabriel, the song’s composer, wants us to realize that our world is crying out for the gospel too.
Song # 545, O Thou Fount Of Every Blessing, contains these words in verse two. “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come.” What is an Ebenezer and what does it have to do with me? In 2.Sam.7, the nation of Israel was rejoicing after having won back the ark of God from the Philistines in a decisive battle, which resulted in peace all the days of Samuel. In response to God’s great deliverance, Samuel “took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us’.” Ebenezer translates literally, “stone of help,” and served as a memorial of God winning decisive victories for His people. So, this song reminds us that only by God’s help have we been saved, and that God struck Satan a decisive blow.
What are the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? Song 131 is entitled Jesus, Rose Of Sharon and the flower shows up again in #436 Paradise Valley. And # 207 The Lily Of The Valley is one of our favorite songs. Sharon is a place mentioned in the Old Testament, a beautiful valley of pasture land running along the coast of northern Palestine.
King David’s flocks grazed there (1.Chron.27:29). The rose of Sharon was a pretty flower that bloomed there. And the lily of the valley could be any beautiful flower. Both flowers show up in Song of Solomon 2:1, where the bride calls herself “the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys.” Now, decades ago, the prevailing interpretation of the Song of Solomon was not a simple love story between a Shulamnite girl and her beloved shepherd boy, but as an allegory of the Christ and His bride, the church. Thus, the song’s composers took these as proper names for Christ. I don’t subscribe to the allegorical interpretation, but it is certainly very appropriate to describe Christ with terms of sublime beauty and longing. He is the rose of Sharon. He is the lily of the valley.
Some of us don’t know the meaning behind two of the most common words in the songbook, “Hallelujah,” and “Hosanna.” The first is a transliterated Hebrew phrase Hallelu Yah (that is, Yahweh), meaning “praise God.” So, add Hallelujah to your list of words not to use flippantly. And, the second means “save us” in Hebrew; see Matt.21:9 where the crowds are shouting it at Jesus.
There are other words we could look at, like “Balm of Gilead” #54 Did You Think To Pray. (This balm was an aromatic resin or gum, celebrated for its healing qualities found in Gilead – see Jer.8:22; 46:11, t.t.); or “succor” (relief - t.t.) in #115, We’ll Work Till Jesus Comes. What of the phrase “Lord Sabaoth” found in #216 A Mighty Fortress. (Sabaoth is the plural Hebrew word for “armies” or “hosts,” so the phrase depicts Jehovah or Lord as the majestic, mighty God with the whole hosts of heaven and forces of nature standing at His disposal ready to do His bidding - Rom.9:29, Jas.3:4 – t.t.).
I’ll conclude this bulletin by challenging you to look up, in the Bible or in a dictionary, words that you don’t understand when you see them.
By John Guzzetta - “Tower of Strength” Vol.25, No.1. Jan.3, 2010, Lake Wales, FL
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