Mark 14:26 “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
There was once a family and they were reading the Bible together in family devotions at Christmas time, hearing about the baby in the manger, and the angels praising God and so on. When the father had finished reading, his six-year old daughter asked him, “Daddy, did Jesus sing?” Both the gospel writers Matthew and Mark answer that question in the affirmative. They tell us that indeed he did. At the end of the Passover meal, before the disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, they joined with Jesus in singing to one another some psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. While the apostle John tells us of the mighty prayer which Jesus prayed at the end of the Passover, Mark is struck by the fact that at the end of the Passover Jesus led the singing of God’s praise with his disciples. The Lord Christ is a singing Saviour. You don’t hear men and women in Islam’s mosques singing together with joy; there are no Muslim hymnbooks. There’s not one mention of Mohammed singing. The Koran doesn’t forbid singing, though 200 years after it was written important Islamic writings actually forbade singing, making a grim religion even more austere. Did the Buddha sing? No. Did our civilization’s contemporary prophets, Marx and Darwin and Freud and Bertrand Russell sing? No, but the Lord Jesus went to God singing; as he entered the temple of suffering he sang.
The church emphasises the seven words screwed out of the Saviour’s deep anguish on the cross, some of them very brief words, and some of them quotations from the psalms, but the church has largely ignored the fact that Christ sang on his way to Golgotha. We remember those plaintive words that came out of his deepest agony hanging on Calvary, at the heart of his passion, but these considered hymns of praise that he sang in the Upper Room are largely forgotten. Do you think the words on the cross were more profound than the words he sang at the end of the Passover? What can we say about them?
1. IT WAS NOT UNUSUAL FOR JESUS TO SING.
I can examine that from a number of perspectives. For example, the Passover feast always ended with singing. Tens of thousands of Passover meals were being celebrated that night in Jerusalem and the city was full of praise from one street to another – like Baxter’s Kidderminster or Charles’ Bala – as the prescribed hymns were sung at the close of the meal. These hymns were numbers 115, 116, 117 and 118 in the Old Testament hymnal, the book of psalms. That group of psalms are called the ‘Hallel’ and the Passover ritual had come to require not only the provision of lamb, bitter herbs and outdoor dress but that these four psalms be sung – actually in two tempos. All the Jews subscribed to that. In fact for about thirty Passovers Jesus the son of Mary had sung these psalms with his family at their annual celebrations. He had first sung it as a boy with the voice of a child, initially remembering some of the phrases at the beginning of the psalms and aping his Dad. Then as his mother and father had more children he heard them join in singing these psalms; his own voice deepened and he learned more of those psalms by heart. His father was the precentor at the family Passover feast, and his mother’s voice joined with Joseph and the children in bringing the happy meal to a close. When Jesus was twelve and sitting in the temple in Jerusalem perhaps he asked the teachers the meaning of those words. He grew up by the psalms, and then he grew towards the psalms, and grew with the psalms, and all the time he was growing in favour with God. He increasingly realised what the psalms were saying about him, and he took on board their job description of the servant of the Lord. He vindicated the psalms by doing what they said. He came to do their will. “The time is at hand . . . the time is coming . . . the time has come!” Jesus consciously made these psalms come true.
Reading the psalms is like stumbling across diaries written by your great-great-great-grandfather 200 years ago. You blow the dust off and take out your magnifying glass and then, as you read some of the trials he describes, you discover to your amazement that they are describing the exact pains and bloodshed and opposition which you are meeting today. The vicious ways men were attacking him, the corrupt courts, the bribes, his best friend turning against him, the ganging up of enemies upon him, the pains he had to endure – this is exactly what you yourself are experiencing 200 years later. As you read these diaries it takes your breath away; the similarity is uncanny. It is more like a contemporary record which describes what you are going through today rather than one written centuries earlier.
So it was when Jesus read some of the messianic psalms they were bang up to date, recording what Jesus was going through there and then. “These are about me,” Christ could say. “In the volume of the book it is written of me!” The psalms are about him. They describe, for example, the Servant of the Lord crying out, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. That is Psalm 22 verse 1. So I say, Jesus fulfils these psalms; he makes them come true. He sings them, and then he doesn’t run away from the judgments they predict. He doesn’t set off for a canyon near the Dead Sea or a distant cave in Galilee, or to flee again to Egypt. He walks out onto the Mount of Olives to anguished prayer and betrayal. He accepts that awful humiliation before the glorious exaltation. It has to be that order; the book of psalms has taught that to him. He is writing his signature at the end of each psalm. He is saying, “Yes and Amen to what they say. They are all true!” He is saying. “I am going out to prove them,” and he swears by the truth of his own psalms
2. EVERYBODY IN JERUSALEM WAS SINGING FROM THE SAME HYMN SHEET.
The fact that everybody in Jerusalem was singing these psalms was no hindrance to Jesus singing them. He didn’t get sniffy because other people were singing his psalms. I once spoke to a professor from the former theological college in this town on a train from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury. We discovered we were traveling on a section of our journey together. He told me he’d noticed that everyone was reading the second volume of Iain Murray’s life of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and so he had decided that he wasn’t going to read it! I thought that was daft! What prejudice! He might have learned much to his profit. Let’s all grow up. Because others are enthusing about something is no reason for us either to shun it or chase after it. Test everything, and hold on to the good. Everyone was singing these four psalms at the close of the Passover, and so did our Lord Jesus Christ. However, you have to realise this, that nobody in the whole world does anything in the same way as the Messiah does it. When Jesus began to sing Psalm 115 something entirely new was heard in the creation that day. It was a new song when Jesus sang it there on the night that he was betrayed, in the shadow of Calvary.
Don’t you know something rather like that? Wasn’t there an occasion when an old hymn was sung at a funeral, or on the night you were converted, or on a missionary valedictory service and the words resonated with life so that henceforth that hymn became entirely new to you? Do you think Elizabeth Elliot could ever sing ‘We rest on Thee our Shield and our Defender’ without thinking of the time her first husband Jim sang it with the other four boys in their final planning meeting together before they all went to their martyrs’ death in Ecuador fifty years ago? This week I was at a private meeting in which a young minister closed in prayer and began to quote, “Hark my soul it is the Lord,” going through the entire hymn in a most moving way. I shall think of that occasion the next few times I sing that hymn.
Or there is a famous occasion in the religious life of the Hebrides, the last Sunday in August in 1939. Britain was at war and during that week all nval reservists had been sent letters to report for duty. It was the communion season in Stornoway and at the end of the service that Sunday night hundreds o men carrying their personal possession walked to the pier accompanied by their families. Several thousand gathered there and the young men began to walk up the gangplank onto the ship ‘Lochness’. The enormous crowd was silent, and then someone struck up Psalm 46 in the Gaelic. There was wonderful singing, “God is our refuge and our strength, In straits a present aid, And therefore though the earth be moved We will not be dismayed.” Many of those lads were never to return. 2,000 men from Lewis served in the war, and during the next seven years the singing of that psalm in other places would always draw many back to that awesome scene.
I can never read these four psalms without suffusing them with the mind of Jesus on that night before he bravely and lovingly died for me. There was something unique in his singing of those psalms at the end of this last Passover – something the world had never heard before and which can never be repeated again.
3. ONE SPECIAL FEATURE WAS THAT THE AUTHOR WAS SINGING HIS OWN COMPOSITION.
What was special about Jesus’ singing was not that his voice was simply that of the greatest tenor or baritone that the world had ever seen. It was not. I am sure that Jesus had a fine distinctive voice, but there was nothing in the physique or the personal beauty of the Lord Jesus that made him stand out from other men. He was not the strongest human being in the world, nor the most handsome. It was not that Jesus could cook bread or plough or smelt metal or sculpt or ride a horse or make a dress better than anyone else. We have no grounds to believe those things. We know that he looked simply like any man. If you passed him in the street there’d be no halo above his head. What was special about Jesus’ singing was not his voice but that he, the very author of numbers 115, 116, 117 and 118 in the Psalter, was singing his own composition. Peter, who was there that night, is the one who later wrote that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets when they testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow. That is why the Lord Jesus is the rich content of the book of psalms – he is the Creator, he is the one who walks on the waves of the sea to deliver his own, he is the Lord of all the psalms, he is the suffering servant, he is the second Adam, the head of a new humanity, he is the one seated at God’s right hand, he is the good Shepherd, he’s in all the psalms as prophet, priest and king, the one to whom the everlasting gates are opened – and he is all of this because he is the one who inspired David and the other psalmists to write those things about him. I am saying that the Spirit of Christ had been poured out on these psalmists by our Lord himself up to a thousand years earlier, and now that same Spirit was in the Lord Jesus in the Upper Room at the end of the Passover and throughout his life, as he lived and moved and spoke and prayed and sang these psalms. In other words the Spirit was preaching and witnessing and praying and singing in the soul of Jesus. As our Saviour worked and preached and witnessed and prayed and sang the Spirit of God was also working and singing and so on – just as he does in all of us. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling because the Spirit of Christ is working in us. The infinite Spirit of God and the infinite person of the Son are the great two-in-one. These two coexist in the human created soul of Jesus of Nazareth.
In other words when we read Psalm 23 we are aware that Jehovah Jesus wrote this by his Spirit. We say to ourselves, “These are my Saviour’s own inspired words speaking through David, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want . . .'” It is like being in a meeting in Heath Evangelical Church and hearing Vernon Higham announce his own composition, “Great is the gospel of our glorious God” and then he reads out the opening verse. Then you hear the author sing it along with everyone else, and I am saying that that is like seeing Jesus sing his own inspired psalms with the rest of his apostles at the close of the Passover. So on this night of the Passover in Jerusalem when these four psalms were being sung in every street and in every home by tens of thousands of people there wasn’t one other person who could sing them as Jesus did because here was the prophet singing his own composition.
4. HOW DID JESUS SING THESE PSALMS?
Generally the poet himself is the best reader of his own poems. Hearing the Rev. R.S.Thomas intoning those bleak poems of his only underlines his own wretched agnosticism. Hearing Dylan Thomas reading “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” in the flesh must have been an extraordinary event. The words are weird as it starts:
“And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”
Whatever all that could have possibly meant to that poet who had no love for my Saviour there is no gainsaying that Dylan Thomas had one of the greatest voices of the 20th century – a finer voice even than Richard Burton’s. Dylan Thomas, I say, is unsurpassable in reading his own poems. Poets can understand the context in which they wrote their words. To understand a poem you must enter a poet’s heart, and read it accompanied by the feeling with which he wrote it. You must have his heart. Listen to a hundred people reading the same poem in a hundred different way, but then note the contrast when the author steps up and reads it for us, and especially if he has a voice something like Dylan Thomas’s he emphasises cadences and inflections proper to his own emotions and the poem comes alive.
The Lord Jesus spoke every truth perfectly. Whether he was scorning the Pharisees, or comforting Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, or beseeching all the weary and heavy laden to come to him and find rest how he addressed people was perfectly expressive of what he was saying to them. He was the message and he was the medium too, and both medium and message were absolute perfection. Never man spake like this man. The form was perfectly adequate for the requirement of each moment. There was no ugly ego spoiling what he said, no insincerity, no imposing some alien interpretation on the words, no theatricality – he didn’t screw up his eyes and shake his head back and fore for effect as he sang.
In other words, all the words that came from Jesus’ mouth reflected his affections, and they were remarkably rich and pure emotions. He wasn’t impassive like the Sphinx. He never lost his calmness – that’s true – but he wasn’t always calm. He repelled temptation with deep indignation – “Get thee behind me Satan!” He hated the hypocrisy that ruins men and women. He wept in the presence of death or the rejection of the gospel, but he never lost his self-control. When he was angry or troubled those emotions never disturbed his deep peace as his heart was stayed on God. He was always master of himself.
So when he sang these four psalms he perfectly reflected their joys and lamentations. So heaven and all its angels were listening to the singing that came from all Jerusalem that night. In every home these four psalms were being sung to God, but amongst all the singers one was unique. He is God the Son in song; he is the author; he sings his own psalms, and he sings them as one free from sin and yet sings them surrounded by twelve sinners, but they couldn’t hear what he was singing, the purity of the voice and the sublime nature of the words. They heard everything, but they heard nothing. They saw everything but their eyes were darkened, but our young Saviour sang on and on to God. The angels heard his singing with delight, and God himself heard it and inclined his ear. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased and he is singing to me,” but the Twelve didn’t yet understand.
You consider Jesus the servant of the Lord that last night of his humiliation; he has his selection from the Psalter on which are written the words of these psalms, words which he himself has probably copied. He is using his bit of paper just like the poorest reader amongst the twelve. Hear me now! I am telling you this, that Jesus goes to the Bible, and he sings words from the Bible on the night on which he was betrayed. He is pitching and leading the singing; he is encouraging his apostles to sing with him, just like he helps the most illiterate member of our congregation or teaches the newest Christian to sing his praise. How humble Jesus is! Mohammed won’t sing alongside his fellow Muslims. 16 year-old ‘Mr. Cool’ will never sing a hymn in the morning assembly in school and neither will ‘Miss Cool.’ It’s not cool to sing a hymn. They stand there stonily and vainly, but Jesus sings alongside these mean and frail sinners. He blends his voice with the voice of weaklings. I mean you look at one of these men with whom he is sharing a hymnbook. His name is Simon Peter son of Jonas, and in less than fifty verses in this chapter (v.71) – in just an hour or two Peter, who had been singing to the praise of God with him, is calling down curses on himself and swearing to them that he never knew Christ. Peter is startling the angels with his foul language. Singing from the same hymn-sheet as Christ here, yet soon swearing against Christ. Jesus knows all this and warns Peter that it is going to happen yet he is not ashamed to sing with Peter here, nor is he ashamed to sing with us when two or three of us meet together in Jesus’ name. O what matchless condescension our eternal Lord displays.
Think of a world famous musician who plays in the leading concert halls of the world but who does not disparage his own roots. He comes from a village, and they have an amateur orchestra and when he is invited to play with them he humbly takes his place in their midst for a Saturday night concert in the village hall. I think of an occasion locally when Llanbadarn village was celebrating some centenary and they decided to bring out a book of poems written by housewives, schoolchildren, pensioners and people from the community. Professor Dr. Bobi Jones lives there, the most prodigious writer in Welsh there has ever been, the author of many highly esteemed books of poetry. His works are studied in schools and colleges. Ph.D. theses are written about his work. The compilers of this book of poems asked Bobi if he would submit a poem to be published. “Of course,” he said, and soon they had his piece to add to their collection. Multiply by infinity. God the Son was unashamed to sing with sinners.
I have mentioned to you Psalm 22 which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a psalm of Christ, but later on in that psalm he says these words, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (v.22). Jesus in the Upper Room has declared God’s name to his brethren and then he sings God’s praise with them all, and that verse so strikes the author of the epistle to the Hebrews that he quotes it like this, “So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again he says, ‘Here am I, and the children God has given me.’ (Hebs. 2:11-13). The eternal Son of God made flesh is not ashamed to sing alongside these men – because they are his brothers, sons of God with him, joint heirs of God with him. And this is what the Lord Jesus does here in Abersytwyth in our congregation every Lord’s Day. He joins in singing the hymns with us. We glorify God for his mercy and Jesus joins in our praises and the angels listen in on us. Paul comments on Jesus singing amongst the Gentiles in Romans 15:9-11, “the Gentiles . . . glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.’ Again, it says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples'” Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. He who sang with his friends yesterday sings with us today. If he is not ashamed to sing with us we must make sure we are not ashamed to sing with him or with one another.
This Lord Christ, you remember, could ask for twelve legions of angels to come down and they would instantly obey. They are members of the greatest choir in the universe and he could have requested them to come down and sing the Hallelujah chorus in the Upper Room, but he is not ashamed of the sinful voices of those he calls his friends and he sings along with them. “Stay behind the clouds you angels, I will temper my voice so that just now it is not like the sound of many waters. I won’t make the earth quake. I will accommodate my voice to Peter’s voice and the voice of Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector and the others.” I am saying that the whole of incarnational theology, and the whole teaching of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is contained in our text, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
The Spirit of Christ was singing in the Old Testament. The Spirit of Christ was singing once again in the Upper Room in the soul of Jesus of Nazareth. Here we have Jesus, and the Spirit of God and the Scriptures and no one may separate them. No one may choose any two of those three and discard any one. All of us need to know the truth that Jesus sings the Scriptures, and that the Word who was made flesh is Jesus, while the Word made Scripture is the Bible. They are all friends, the Bible, the Spirit and Jesus. They all give the right hand of fellowship to one another and they all work together for our atonement. God inspiring the Scriptures is a saving act of God. Jesus singing the Scriptures confirms their truth.
5. WHAT WERE THESE HYMNS WHICH JESUS SANG WITH HIS DISCIPLES?
Our eyes must rest on these words, and we can read them with more thoughtfulness later.
i] Psalm 115. Note its opening words, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory.” Christ was consumed by that. He is the only man in the history of the world who literally fulfilled his chief end, that is, the Lord Jesus glorified God and enjoyed him all his life. So whatever happened on the next day in his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial his overwhelming concern was that the name of Jehovah would be glorified. And when the Gentile nations said to him, “Where is your God? This God let his own Son die such a death, then what was he doing? Not much of a Father was he? He’s a weak and ineffectual God, unable to protect his Son.” Then Jesus’ words rang out in confidence in the lines of this psalm, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” (v.3). Our Saviour was full of trust the night he was betrayed.
ii] Psalm 116. I think a mark of a great hymn is the memorable nature of its opening line, and Psalm 116 has such a line, “I love the LORD.” The Lord is about to give him such a terrible cup to drink. It is full of damnation, but Jesus will drink it lovingly. He speaks in this spiritual song to the others, to Peter and John and Andrew and James and the others and he wants them never to forget that he loves his Father. Think of the Lord Jesus singing these words and expressing his trust in his Father. We used to sing this metrical version of this psalm in our prayer meetings to the tune ‘Ostend.’
“I love the LORD because he heard my supplicating plea;
I while I live will call on Him who bowed his ear to me.
The cords of death on every side encompassed me around;
The sorrows of the grave took hold; I grief and trouble found.
Then called I on Jehovah’s name, and unto him did say,
‘Deliver Thou my soul O LORD, I do Thee humbly pray.’
The LORD is gracious and is just; Our God will mercy show;
The LORD preserves the meek in heart; He saved me when brought low.”
iii] Psalm 117, this brief song of praise, one of the shortest of all the psalms, summoning all the nations of the world to praise and extol the Lord. By the great work on the cross the very next day Jesus knew that this prayer will be fulfilled. The people of the nations of Europe and Asia and the Americas were going to be praising God even in 2000 years’ time. These are the words Jesus sang at the end of the Passover,
“O all ye nations of the earth give praises to the LORD;
And all ye people magnify his name with one accord.
Because his loving kindnesses are mighty toward us;
Jehovah’s truth endures for aye, the LORD O do ye bless.”
iv] Psalm 118, the very last psalm they sang in the Upper Room before walking together to Gethsemane. They had had this never-to-be-forgotten meal together and he had given them such truths, comforting and encouraging them, and then praying for them so powerfully. Then they closed by singing this psalm together as it opens with doxology; “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” “Boys, whatever happens in the next dark days, in everything give thanks, because God is good – however barbaric men are, do not doubt the goodness and love of God – it endures for ever.” Have you ever thought of Christ taking these words the night he was betrayed, on the eve of Golgotha? Listen, “In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free. The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes. All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off. I was pushed back and about to fall, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: ‘The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!’ ‘I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD” (Psa. 118:5-19).
That confidence of Christ in the love of God is all our support and our salvation. When we come to God we say, “Father look on your Son Jesus Christ and pardon me. Look on him hanging on Calvary. Look on him reigning on the throne. Look on him singing and have mercy on me. Lord I sing badly; my mind wanders; I can refuse to sing. Do not look on my singing. Look on Jesus’ righteous singing and save me for his sake.” Jesus sings vicariously; Jesus sings alone, but we were in him when he sang. That is our salvation.
6. LET US ALWAYS SING IN HARMONY WITH THE LORD JESUS.
Do you think if Shakespeare were present in the room of the Passover, or Pavarotti, or Bach would they have sung better, or composed better words, and given expression to better music? More artistic perhaps, more dramatic, a more soaring voice perhaps but not more saving, and not more full of God and his grace. We won’t try to sing as beautifully as Jesus – what vanity! But we will seek to sing by his strength, and sing of our desire to glorify and enjoy God, and sing of our trust in God and that all the nations come to know God. We are not jealous of the disciples present who heard the voice of Jesus singing. Judas heard Jesus’ voice often, and the Pharisees even heard him say, “Lazarus come forth,” and he came out of the grave and lived, but still the Pharisees did not believe. To hear Jesus is a matter of faith, and every true believers hears him. We sing, “I heard the voice of Jesus say come unto me and rest.” How could we have believed in the one whom we had not heard? We must cry continually, “Speak to us Lord. Reveal thyself to us, Lord. Meet with us on Sunday Lord and sing in our midst.”
So let us sing lustily with him in our midst. Let us sing by virtue of his blood, and sing of his crown, and sing of the hope we have of seeing him soon and hearing him welcome us. Singing with Jesus means singing those words and affections by which he speaks to us in encouragement and rebuke. In other words, the truth of the words will draw us into Christ’s inner circle. Singing with Christ means singing words that will lead to a greater vision of Christ’s glory, like Isaiah’s sight of the Lord high and lifted up and his train filling the temple. Singing with Christ mean employing words that will give me a humbler view of my own life and achievements. Singing with Christ means singing the kind of music that will encourage me to deny myself and take up my cross and follow the Lord. Singing with Christ means singing the kind of music which will give me increasing victory over the love of the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Singing with Christ means singing the kind of music that we can imagine being part of a spiritual revival. Singing with Jesus means singing the kind of music under whose influence Christians will be drawn into full-time service of the gospel. Singing with Jesus mean singing the kind of music that they are singing with him now in heaven and that we will be singing with him soon.
24th April 2005 GEOFF THOMAS