Singing the Songs of Zion


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 9. 2018

Texts: Psalms 46, 47, and 48

       Many theories exist regarding the exact origin of “Ein Feste Burg” but the hymn may have appeared as early as 1521 when Martin Luther and his companions arrived for the Diet or Assembly of Worms in 1521. Little did Martin Luther know that this hymn he wrote based on the 46th Psalm would be incorporated by such com-posers as Bach, Mendelssohn, and Ralph Vaughn Williams in their music.

        One theory of its origin point to the year 1527 when Luther’s friend Leonard Kaiser was burned at the stake. Other theories regarding its origin are that it was sung by the German princes at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 as they protested the attempt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to enforce his edicts; it was sup-posedly sung by the German princes as they entered the city of Augsburg to write their declaration of faith. Wildly popular, it spread to Sweden where King Gustavus Adolphus used it as a battle hymn during the Thirty Years War.

         Psalm 46 which provided Luther with his inspiration, is one of three psalms known as the Songs of Zion. The original Psalm, much like Luther’s para-phrase, counsels us to put our trust in God rather than in military action. As the text says, God makes wars cease, breaks the bow and shatters the spear. Because of this, as we move into Psalm 47, we are to clap our hands for God is our king and refuge.

         The last Psalm in this trilogy of praise is an acknowledgment that God is our refuge and strength, indeed, a very present help in trouble. Zion, an old Hebrew word for the citadel that was on a mountain, has become a poetic description for Jerusalem. These Psalms may at first seem to belong only to an historical period but they have a great deal of meaning for us in today’s world.

          Sometimes we say the words that God is our refuge and our strength but deep down within us we may not believe it to be so. The world around us rages; we are caught up in the chaos of the present. Often we feel as if our struggles are for naught. This Psalm writ-ten to offer assurance to the people of a chaotic age tells us that our ultimate trust is in God in spite of what goes around us.

          We in our day and age live with all sorts of sophisticated devices advising us of events in the world all around. This knowledge is not just limited to those of us in what are called the technologically advanced countries. With the invention of smartphones, even in much of the undeveloped and poor regions of the world, people are able to access information regarding the rest of the world.

          That information is both frightening and reassur-ing, frightening in that we learn of horrific events such as the attempted destruction of the Rohingya people, reassuring in that we are able to learn of violent weather before it even arrives so we can prepare for its ravages. The devices we have also have helped us as well as others organize for change such as we saw in the Arab Spring several years ago.

         Try to imagine a world where the only way to obtain information about the world around was through word of mouth. Try to imagine a world where one did not understand why the earth would move or mountains shake in the sea. Trust in God would be paramount in the ability to spiritually survive disasters, both natural and those of war and destruction.

          Jerusalem, called Zion in these Psalms, the place that held the Temple, was built on a mountain, not as imposing as the Mount of Olives, which is far higher but not as easily protected, overlooks the Kidron Valley. Its walls in ancient times and as reconstructed by Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, seem to grow out of the rock that forms the base of the mount.

           The 48th Psalm extols the physical attributes of the city, its citadels and walls, its towers and ramparts, and we may wonder in our day and age, how to look at this Psalm as the two preceding ones, in our lives. Like Luther, those old dissenters, early Baptists and Non-conformists such as John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, and William Blake, found comfort in these Psalms as they let goods and kindred go. These Psalms are not just about having trust in God when the world shakes but trusting in God when our own personal world is assaulted.

          These Psalms tell us to sing the songs of Zion even when fearful; indeed, they tell us to sing the songs of Zion even more when we are fearful. For many of us, this is such a time. In his acceptance of the Paul H. Douglas award for ethics in government at the Univer-sity of Illinois this past week, Barack Obama sang a song of Zion. Acknowledging the fearfulness expressed in the fracturing of our national life, he extolled the im-portance of not being bystanders to history and urged the millennial generation to examine and act on the root causes of the dissension we are witnessing in American society today.

          There are many ways to sing the songs of Zion, such as through direct action or simply caring for others. This past week one of my oldest and dearest friends died. Although he probably would not have expressed his work this way, Gene Packer sang the songs of Zion up to his very last breath. As a teacher and trauma specialist, he worked for years nurturing students and giving his time and expertise in helping asylum seekers gain protection.

         He did not call himself a religious man; in fact, he bore an antipathy to what he called organized religion based on certain rabbinical interpretations of the Torah. One night at a local diner after we were through inter-viewing asylum seekers – we always went to the diner and ate omelets on those nights – I told him that he could not really hate religion that much because he acted in the best tradition of the prophet Micah in that he did justice and loved mercy. He reminded me that the prophets didn’t like organized religion either.

        On those evenings we would discuss psalms and physics – he worked as a high school physics teacher – as well as the meaning of a righteous life. As he strug-gled with the cancer that eventually killed him, he continued to worry about the many people who needed his assistance. Although he probably would not have used these words, God was his refuge and strength because like Archbishop Romero, he experienced God through the suffering of human beings.

         Like Luther when he lost his friend Leonard Kaiser burned at the stake in 1527, I find comfort in this Psalm as I mourn the loss of a dear friend. The times then were different, of course. We don’t literally burn people at the stake in America, just figuratively. Kaiser had been a middle-aged vicar in a comfortable parish in Bavaria when he was caught up in the new evangelical zeal of Luther’s attempts to reform the church. It’s important to remember that’s what Luther first wanted to do – reform the church, not separate from it.

         Kaiser relocated to Wittenberg but then returned to Bavaria to care for his ailing father. The new admin-istrator of the province still at that time under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was Ernst von Bayern, who had decided he needed to stamp out the new heresy that was infecting his district.                   Arrested for heresy and prosecuted by Johann Eck, Luther’s nemesis, stripped naked, he cried out to the crowd: “Christ, you must suffer with me, Christ you must get under me, you must carry me” as he was taken to the stake.

        Just as the ancient Hebrews continued to sing the songs of Zion as they were beset by empires and kings seeking their territory, the terrors of a natural world they did not understand, so we, too, in this day and time must remember to sing the songs of Zion. The three Psalms should not be separated one from the other.

         When the people sang “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy,” they did so in the context of a world shaking around them but in the hope that God indeed would break the bow and shatter the spear. When we sing, whether in songs of comfort or praise, we do so in our hope and trust that the weapons of war and violence will be broken.

         Just as the last Psalm of this trilogy urged the ancient Hebrews to walk about Zion and consider its citadels and walls, we, too, should walk around the Zion of our imagination, a Zion without walls and citadels but with the power of our faith that trusting in God we can bring God’s kingdom to fruition.

         We do not in our own strength confide but in our trust that God will be with us as we strive to create a society of justice and equity. Neither these Psalms nor Luther’s rendition tell us to sit back passively but to walk around Zion and sing to and serve the God who is above all nations and peoples embracing us and all humankind as we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our Creator.

        Let us pray: Even when we are sad and fearful, we sing your song, O Holy One, a song that leads us to a deeper trust in the promise of your righteousness. In the name of him who came to point the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.