Formations 11.13.2016: Sing in Time by William Scruggs
Formations 11.13.2016: Sing in Time
November 6, 2016 by William Scruggs
A Methodist Hymnal Without Tunes
When I walk into a new sanctuary, I find a pew, pull out the hymnal, and look through it. I see if anyone’s names have been embossed on the lower right corner. I check to see how the church decided to phrase the words on the bookplate dedicating its use to the Lord’s worship. And after checking to see if any hymnal begins with a hymn other than “Holy, Holy, Holy,” I read the names of the editorial board and guess at their collective theology of worship. Those short introductions say a lot, particularly about how they see the Spirit’s role in corporate worship.
I began doing this while waiting for a community orchestra to start playing at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham. While flipping through its front matter, a page titled something like “John Wesley’s Seven Rules for Singing” caught my attention. Reading through them, I noticed most were practical. Rule six tells congregants to “sing in time.” Other rules strike me as uncomfortably authoritarian: “learn these tunes first before you learn any others” and “sing them exactly as they are printed here.”
In rules four and five, Wesley, at once, instructs singers to “sing lustily—and with good courage” and to “sing modestly—do not bawl so as to be heard above or as distinct from the rest of the congregation.” This tension resolves by the end of rule six, in which Wesley tells us to “unite your voices together to make one melodious sound.”
That’s what I hear when I read Revelation 7. In the CEB, John doesn’t mention any singing here, although other translations do. The giveaway, as far as I’m concerned, is the robes. If the multitude’s robed, they must be a choir. And truth be told, it’s this imagined choir “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” that gives me hope.
The way I, and I suspect most of us, have been taught to read Revelation makes John’s vision an account of future events. And it is, but it is more, too. John writes to his audience’s present concerns and shows them a time when they have “come out of great hardship” (v. 14). John sees God’s authority, which lies beneath all time, and sees the planted seed grown. They will be victorious over evil in the last days while God, who controls time, carries them through suffering now.
Seeing such a future charges the present with possibility. John’s sense of worship, at moments too monarchical for my sensibilities, fills me with the same recognition of human unity that singing in community makes me aware of. In sharing hymnals and pews with people who vote differently than I do and singing the same hope that “early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee” I’m aware that political divisions are not what is most important. Watching worshippers with varying experiences of race hold hands and sing that “we shall all be free, someday,” you see we’ve made it far but there’s much to hope for still.
Wesley’s rules, like all instructions for corporate worship, are as theological as they are practical. Attention to time and all it holds can bring us much hope. Singing, or whatever you choose to do, in time may even allow us to live out now all that we hope will be accomplished someday.
• What images or statements from this passage resonate with you most?
• What promises of God do you take the most comfort in?
• What do you hope for you own life and for the lives of people around you?
• How have you experienced the reality of that hope already present in the world? How does that recognition affect you?
• What practices can you take up to bring that hope more fully into the present?
The Future and the Present
In chapter 7, as throughout the Apocalypse, John is not interested in presenting a blueprint for the future that contains details of events that will be literally fulfilled. Rather, John is using pictorial language to offer comfort and hope to Christian communities that are struggling to maintain their commitment to God during difficult circumstances. John expects the situation to worsen before it got better. The interlude of chapter 7 is John’s way of reassuring his readers that God will protect and sustain them throughout any and all ordeals that they must face. That is the message that surfaces most clearly from this text. Even though John casts his message in eschatological imagery and believes that the end times will be a time of special difficulties for the church, his message of hope and assurance is a message directed to the church living out its faith in its current time and place. God will sustain them not only in the future, but in the present as well.
Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 154.
Who Is the Multitude?
John sees a “great multitude” (7:9). John will hear the voice of a “great multitude” again in 19:1, 6. As in 5:9, “every nation . . . all tribes and peoples and tongues” (7:9) indicates the universal nature of the Great Multitude; no group is omitted. The reader remembers that these same groups were brought together in 5:9 as those out of which the Lamb had purchased people with his blood. John sees the Great Multitude “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). The juxtaposition of the throne (and, presumably, the one seated on it) and the Lamb recalls both the praise directed to God and to the Lamb in 5:13 and those who sought to hide themselves from the one seated on the throne and from the Lamb in 6:17. Indeed, in 5:6 John saw the Lamb standing between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders: God and the Lamb now share the throne.
The Great Multitude has nothing to hide. John observes further that those in the Great Multitude are “clothed in white robes” (7:9). Again the reader recalls the promises to the conqueror (3:4-5, 18) and, most recently, the fact that “those who had been slain” were given white robes to wear (6:9-11). Since this is the first mention after 6:9-11 of someone wearing white robes, it is reasonable to identify the Great Multitude in 7:9 with the slain in 6:9-11, especially since both passages use the same word: stole. 6:9-11 speaks of them before receiving the white robes; 7:9 after. Finally, John notes that the members of the Great Multitude have “palm branches in their hands” (7:9). While palm branches were used in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (e.g., Lev 23:39-43; Neh 8:14-15; 2 Macc 10:7; Jubilees 16:31), they more commonly represented victory (e.g., 1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 14:4), the most likely connection here, given that the 144,000 have just been characterized in military terms. This is a victory celebration for the one who sits upon the throne and for the Lamb (5:5) and his army (7:4-8). Although palm branches will not be mentioned in the rest of the book, John will make numerous allusions throughout the book to Zech 14, a chapter that concludes with a section on the importance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19: RSV “booths”).
Joseph L. Trafton, Reading Revelation: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 83–84.
William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.
Minister of Young Adults
Trinity Baptist Church
San Antonio, Texas