Guest Post: Songwriting and Old Testament Illiteracy, Part 2

Please join me in welcoming frequent commenter David Mac for his first guest post!

In Song Writing and Old Testament Literacy, Daniel recently wrote:

One point worth noting, clearly evident from the citations and from similar but rare instances in Southern Gospel songwriting, is that most of the obscure references and allusions are to the Old Testament. Many New Testament allusions, no matter how obscure, are familiar to church audiences today, but Old Testament references can be another story.

On the blog and in email we debated the relative nature of “obscurity” and other commentors avowed that “Adam” and “Eden” were not numbered among the obscure! Personally I do feel however that in Sunday School, Youth Work, mainstream Church Service, and Gospel Outreach, we are;

  1. Preaching in a moral vacuum.
  2. Presuming biblical knowledge that is no longer the prerogative of the masses and,
  3. Underestimating the flood of evolutionary effluent which is drowning even an acceptance of literal biblical history among the rising generation.

Poisoning the water source is an old and vicious tactic of retreating armies in our part of the world. If the “water of the Word” is apparently poisoned at the creational source – where or why should man look for God in any other sphere of existence? With this as background I have, at Daniel’s suggestion, picked out ten scriptural analogies recently used here, in point of fact more than ten were used just within in the thread referred to, so the material is there for the choosing. It would be interesting then to gauge the level of awareness among readers of:

  1. The hymn from whence the couplet or verse comes.
  2. The location [book at least] from whence it is taken in scripture.
  3. The main character referred to in the scriptural context, and /or
  4. The literal place referred to in context.
  5. The generally accepted application / meaning of the analogy – to us today!

In the essay quoted, Bernard Manning also says of Charles Wesley, “His verses are a commentary on the passage as well as a restatement of it”, which chimes very nicely with further comment in the blog thread. So, here are five scriptural analogies by Wesley, and five by other song writers. Are we all in any way familiar with the Biblical background, or do we need a commentary to expound the hymnology?

Words by Charles Wesley:

None is like Jeshurun’s God
So great, so strong, so high,
Lo! He spreads his wings abroad,
He rides upon the sky!

My Zerubbabel is near,
I have not believed in vain;…
Christ the head, the corner-stone,
Shall be brought forth in me;

In soft Laodicean ease we sleep
Our useless lives away,
We live in pleasure and are dead

Less grievous will the judgment-day.
To Sodom and Gomorrah prove,
Than us, who cast our faith away,
And trample on thy richer love.

FATHER, into thy hands alone
I have my all restored;…
Take when thou wilt into thy hands,
And as thou wilt require;
Resume by the Chaldean bands,
Or the devouring fire

Ricky Atkinson:

Feasting on the Table of the King.
A poor and lonely man
dwelling in the distant land of Lodebar.

Robert Robinson:

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Michel Payne:

We won’t bow to your idols,
the Hebrew children proclaimed
And so the king commanded
they were thrown into the flame!

Elizabeth Clephane
[This hymn is reputed to have beenwritten as a poem, and produced from the pocket of Ira Sankey, when Moody requested a new hymn – and the music composed as he played!]

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold

Jonathan Oatman:

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s table land,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

The analogy in this tenth and last is not so specific, but may link us back to another recently discussed scriptural mountain vista!

So; Stating the obvious? Totally obscure? Or highlighting the need for re-education in biblical historical truth, today, through the power and influence of gospel music? You say…

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36 Letters to the Editor

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  1. This thread is absolutely fascinating. I have been a Bible teacher for nearly 40 years and it seem as the years go by, fewer and fewer Christians are aware of the content of their Bibles, especially the Old Testament.

    I am encouraged though, that our SG songwriters are in the Word and bring the message of the Word in their songs.

    I love Ricky Atkinson’s song. Wonder if he tried to find a rhyme for Mephibosheth.

    • Actually “shibboleth” rhymes – which is another lesser known incident in David’s life!

      Since that word has come down into the English langauge with a specific meaning, maybe some of the song-writers out there could work both in to a song!

      It is interesting Ricky DIDN’T refer to Mephibosheth by name – rather the location, not the person. Wonder why?

      • Isn’t “shibboleth” Gideon? Or does it have something to do with David too? (Just being nit-picky here.)

      • I can’t recall who it was under, but it was the test of the members of one tribe guarding a river to see if members of another were disguising themselves as members of that tribe.

      • I’m pretty sure that was Gideon … but I’m afraid of forgetting another incident in David’s life.

        OK, gonna look it up and settle this. ……. (Long pause) I can’t find it in Judges; I’m evidently mistaken about Gideon.

        From – Judges 12:5. It was Jephthah. I had my Bible open to that page when I gave up and couldn’t even see it!

      • Oh, I meant to add – I think that is in an old hymn; anyway I’ve read somewhere about not “making such-and-such your ‘shibboleth.'”

      • You right Amy,

        I was writing from memory and had mixed up two incidents in my head – David this one was not!


  2. So David, are you wanting us to test our knowledge by answering those questions by memory and posting the answers, or just give our opinions on those closing questions?

    • Go ahead and post the answers if you like. 🙂

      • Ah, that’s work! 😀 I will go to thinking about it. There are definitely some I don’t know there.

      • Amy, Daniel and I discussed some way of ‘hiding’ the answers 🙂 but we came to the conclusion we could be honest with each other –

        We haven’t heard from Dianne Wilkinson thus far [Daniel avows Dianne will score 100% without looking anything up!] but the interesting thing is how much of the DETAIL we don’t know – and most commenters here have a working Bible knowledge! Which knid of makes the point about lack of knowledge else where –

        The big question is: Do the SG, or other, scriptural song-writers respond and attempt a gradual process of “biblical re-educaton” of an up and coming generation, through the medium of the very groups they are attracted too – even if it necessitates a little explanation on the side by the emcee/group leader?

        a)Is this a worthwhile trend to promote, and b)is it feasible?

      • I say yes. It is worthwhile.



    Jeshurun – I honestly don’t remember this one.

    1. Don’t know the hymn
    2. Is this in Ezra? I think it’s in the minor prophets as well; maybe Zechariah?
    3. He was a leader, and maybe a priest as well, who laid the cornerstone of the temple which was built after the captivity.
    4. Jerusalem
    5. When we believe in Christ, He, like Zerubbabel, lays the cornerstone of the new spiritual temple in our hearts.

    1. Don’t know the hymn
    2. Revelations, probably ch. 3
    3. Laodicea was the “lukewarm church”
    4. It was a city, I think in Greece; there was a church located there. I have heard that there were medicinal waters there, but they were lukewarm and nobody visited them – not sure about that.
    5. God despises lukewarm service.

    Sodom & Gomorrah
    1. Don’t know the hymn
    2. Genesis
    3. Lot would be the principal character, but he’s not important in this hymn.
    4. Plains of the Dead Sea
    5. Christ’s comment in the Gospels that it would be more tolerable for S & G than for those who have the advantages of seeing Christ’s power and still reject Him.

    Chaldean bands
    1. Don’t know the hymn
    2. Man, this is not just pre-captivity… Obviously historical books, but I can’t place it.
    3. They were robbing the people of Israel…
    4. Israel…
    5. I guess submission to God’s will

    [I only know this because I remember the discussion here. I mean, I was familiar with Mephi – that guy, but not Lodebar.]
    1. Don’t know this song
    2. II Samuel, I believe
    3. Mephibosheth
    4. Lodebar, of course! Living far away from the King.
    5. The King sends to us, although we’re unworthy, and brings us to His table.

    1. I don’t remember the title, but I certainly know the hymn.
    2. Yikes, somewhere in the historical books. Judges or Kings or Chronicles.
    3. People of Israel
    4. Well, somewhere in the land of Israel.
    5. “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The people of Israel placed a monument and named it this to buoy up their faith in the time to come.

    1. God Delivers Again
    2. Daniel – This one was too easy!
    3. According to my brother at 4-5 years old, the main characters were Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go.
    4. Babylon
    5. In the most impossible circumstances, if we are faithful to God, He will deliver us.

    1. Ninety and Nine?
    2. Gospels – I won’t guess which ones. Oh, say Matthew.
    3. The lost sheep
    4. Location? A parable, or we could suppose the land of Israel.
    5. We may be the one lost sheep, but Christ is looking for us.

    1. Higher Ground
    2, 3. This one’s a little difficult; I never thought about it being an OT analogy. Is it referring to Caleb? If so, it would be in Joshua, I think.
    4. Canaan
    5. Caleb wasn’t satisfied with the low lands … It’s obviously this analogy, whether it was Caleb or not.

    • Amy, I like the format and I like your honesty, but I also like your general Bible knowledge, a lot! ‘Off the cuff” is the way to go, as we can all take a peep into a concordance if we need too.

      HONEST CONFESSION – both Daniel and I had to look at least one up each, or should that be one each up?

      • “Each had to look up at least one.” How about that? 😀

    • It was Caleb’s daughter actually – asking on behalf of her husband to be, which is sobering to think she had the greater spiritual zeal, rather than her husband – which takes us back to Barak again [the BIBLE one!]

      Amy, old Sunday School rendering of the Daniel one in my distant past is:

      “Shake the Bed, Make the Bed… In the Bed you Go” LOL.

      • OK, it had to have something to do with higher ground, but I couldn’t specifically remember.

        I guess my brother wasn’t as original as he thought!

  4. I’m afraid I will do very badly here. I couldn’t answer anything until “Laodicean ease.” (Except the “cornerstone” is a familiar analogy, and I think it may come from one of the prophets… Isaiah perhaps?) Anyway, I think “Laodicean ease” is a reference to Revelation—isn’t Laodicea one of the lukewarm churches? In which case it’s describing a lukewarm Church, a Church that just doesn’t care.

    Sodom and Gomorrah, of course, is a reference to Genesis where Lot and his family are fleeing from the cities of fornication which God is destroying. Frequent symbol of God’s wrath. (Trivia bit: There’s another song that makes reference to God’s wrath in this way. “Judgment and wrath he poured out on Sodom, mercy and grace he gave us at the cross.” Any guesses?)

    I was unable to recognize any of the hymns from which these came.

    The Atkinson reference, I’m almost sure, is to Mephibosheth, whom King David went and found to fulfil his promise that he would take care of him. He feasted at the king’s table that night. The exact book is escaping me, but I guessed 2 Samuel, and upon looking it up, I was right. It’s an analogy of unworthiness that could apply to us, who are equally unworthy but have nonetheless been invited to feast at the table of the King of kings.

    I used to know the Ebenezer one, but I’ve forgotten. 🙁 From “Come thou Fount” of course. I think the concept refers to setting up a marker, a way of commemorating the distance you have come—by God’s grace of course.

    “We’ll never bow to your idols” is from “God Delivers Again” and is easy of course, Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego. Popular symbol for standing up for the right and God’s delivering power.

    “There were ninety-and-nine,” of course a reference to Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. Found in John I believe? Obviously the lost sheep is the lost sinner, and the song is called (I think) “Ninety and Nine.” I’ve heard the song before but don’t remember the exact title, seems like a reasonable guess.

    “Heaven’s table land” I don’t know the reference, but the hymn is “Higher Ground.”

    So there you go, and I for one did terribly and skipped stuff everywhere. 😀

    • Oh silly me, forgot about the book of the Bible for “God Delivers Again.” Amy reminded me—it’s Daniel of course.

      • NSF, A brilliant bluffer!! Actually if you hadn’t prefaced your post by saying “I will do very badly”, I would have said you did very well!!

        [You better make sure your Bible knowledge out-scores your Bard knowledge or the wrath of Daniel will descend on your head :-)!]

      • I should hope so. I haven’t even read all of Shakespeare’s plays. Even some of his most famous, like Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet. 😮

        That said, some of my Old Testament knowledge might be a little rusty compared to the Bard. 😉

      • Do you by chance mean compared to the Bard’s OT knowledge? I could believe that.

        And you could skip Hamlet and R&J; not sure they’re really worth your time. 😉

    • But when you format it that way we don’t realize that you’re skipping stuff, and it looks pretty good. 😀

  5. This may be one of the most relevant posts I’ve ever seen on this blog. I would probably lean on the re-educating side since I teach Bible for a living, although I wouldn’t say all of it is exclusive to that.

    • Give the biblical answers a go GS, be nice to see how an RE teacher scores!!

  6. I refuse to join the fun and games this time. Last time I couldn’t sleep for nights thinking about these blog posts on this great topic. 🙂

    • No fun!! Treat it as the SGF Christmas Quiz. Maybe we can arrange a prize for the best set of responses – currently Amy :-)!

      The one that tickles my biblical funny bone is the “Chaldean bands” one.

      It is very specific, not a generalised statement at all – in fact the second line of the couplet is also a specific trial in the life of that particular worshipper of Jehovah.

      Very Old Testament too.

      There are two more clues in this post:-)

      • Man, I can’t place it. Did I get close?

        You know I don’t know the answer when it doesn’t even occur to me while I’m lying in bed before going to sleep! 😆

      • Nope! 🙂

        Very early – pre Israelite, “trials of…”

  7. Welcome Aboard, David! Happy Holidays to you and yours and Best Wishes for 2011!

    • Thanks Jane, I enjoyed pulling this together – I have got a lot of pleasure out of the SG Blog since i signed up. It is a good clean pastime for a believer in Christ to spend an hour in.

      It is nice to put a little something back!

      PS. Give the Q’s a run through!!

  8. “”..Or highlighting the need for re-education in biblical historical truth, today, through the power and influence of gospel music? You say…”

    of course, of course!Great point.Extra studying of the scriptures, especially thru music,or play, or other means of entertainment is a great way to get people to learn it.

    Honestly, that is the best way for many elderly SG fans. Only some of them are still eager to learn new things by traditional means, most just want to give their brians, just as bodies, a well earned rest. Seeing what most of them like to talk about on forums…Most don’t wish to be bothered with biblical learning, and I respect that. When i am their age probably all I’d care for would also be “what’s for breakfast”, restaurants and entertainment.

    So it’s a great idea! Just made me realise my own shortcomings:( -I badly need to read an english OT version, in anglisized form most of the mentioned names are not recognizable 🙂

    • oop=s To all Brians in the audience – sorry, brains ;), not “brians” 🙂

      • Odeliya,

        It is a constant struggle to rightly divide between accuracy and readability – especially in the O.T. scriptures. The sad truth is, some of the most “readable” are at worst paraphrases, with no reference to the Hebrew manuscripts, or at best dynamic translations where accuracy is not so highly prized.

        I would recommend, especially in the O.T., the New American Standard Bible – it is more readable than the KJV for non-first language English readers, yet very poetic in its expression.

        For a modern English translation I would recommend the English Standard Version above the NIV, it is reputd to be the best of new versions and very readable.

  9. well, thank you gentlemen, that was nice of you to advise. KJV i definitely can’t do,some parts are not understandable.Or the words changed meanings in modern language, or whatever happened…

    I will check out the other ones,i want to own a paper version in english.

    Otherwise i have to translate everything in my mind. Allegories is an issue,sure, with me :)What was the other day,a hymnal or a poem? that I heard and there was something like “the stench of Sodom..” And I think to self, like, ok,Sodom its Sdom,and stench, sure,the chemical factory, i got it. Then it dawns “no, you dummy, you are not watching the news, it’s talking about sinful cities,Sodom and Gomorrah story”:)

  10. I sell Bibles, and while I use KJV personally, my typical recommendation for people who can’t handle it is ESV…despite being a solid word-for-word translation, unlike others of its sort, it’s not a tough read. Whatever Bible you pick, also pick up a good Bible dictionary. There are a lot of good ones, but I use Holman’s.

    Regarding Biblical (il)literacy, we’re living in similar times as Paul. We have a minority who knows what we’re talking about–like the Jews of Paul’s day–but most people have little, no, or a distorted understanding of what Christians believe.

    We need to start treating people like Paul treated the Greeks, starting them on the ground level (i.e., the front half of the book of Romans). To do that, we must clarify what it is we believe in our own minds and then learn how to present it in a way that hearers can digest. And IMHO most Christians have never attempted to do this.

    We’re supposed to be salt to the world; not salt to the salt.