It is strange to read the words of previous generations and find their deep lamentations over the mounting darkness of sin and rebellion in society of their day. The world, of course, is always opposed to God and His ways in every hour of history. Scripture assures us of this. Yet surely when we consider centuries past, they seem like much simpler times, filled with hard work and staunch limitations in the absence of technology. In the late 1800’s the greatest distraction was a book and the greatest trapping of entertainment was a play at the theatre. Depravity is not bound to an era and men have always been sinful but compared to the 21st century these were much more wholesome days. The advent of digital technology and the internet have opened a conduit for iniquity to be expressed in unprecedented ways. Globalization has broken down ancient barriers and boundaries. Before our eyes a new Babel emerges from the ashes of two world wars that showed us all what lurks in the soul of man, particularly when power is at his fingertips. Indeed, the shadows deepen. Light ever pierces the darkness, but we are naïve to imagine these trends somehow slowing. Jesus actually promises that prior to His coming, lawlessness will abound, and the earth will return to a condition resembling the violent corruption of the days of Noah (Matthew 24:12, 37-39).
Thus, it is more than fitting that we look with an urgent gaze at the hope set forth in this hymn. Biblical worship is vertically oriented, adoring the unchanging glory of who God is. Yet it is also forward-looking. It is prophetic. The Psalms are replete with promises on the distant horizon that we are commanded to cherish through song. The main fixture of this hope that is focused on in the chorus is drawn from the fifth chapter of Revelation:
“And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it. So I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it. But one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” - Rev. 5:1-5
We never need to improve upon biblical language, but in order to draw out the meaning of these words, let’s pose the question differently: Who is able to purge wickedness from the earth with perfect justice and reign over the nations in righteousness forever? This is what is being asked through the breaking of the seals and the possession of the scroll. John weeps at the apparent hopelessness of ever finding someone who could be capable of this.
On the most general level, who could possibly abolish wickedness from the earth if they themselves were infected by it? Thus, one must be holy and blameless – free from all sin. Yet they must also be able to search the hearts and the thoughts of all men, for how could they truly discern justice apart from such knowledge? And then they must possess power great enough to reign to the very ends of the earth, but must be endowed with wisdom sufficient to govern all of its peoples with equity, benevolence, and care?
Whether we reach back into the annals of history and its emperors or merely consider the despots that arose in the 20th century, every case demonstrates that it is a terrifying prospect when authority is consolidated and unchecked in one man. John did not need to live to see Hitler or Stalin. Nero in Rome and Herod’s depraved family line in Judea were enough for the beloved disciple to know this truth all too well.
Yet the problem was that John knew his ‘Bible’ – the Old Testament – and he understood that what was promised was not a democracy. There would a descendant of Eve, a specific seed of Abraham, who would arise from the tribe of Judah and emerge from the house of David who would have all of the nations as his inheritance. The Messiah of Israel would be the king of the entire earth, and the vehicle of blessing to all of its peoples. His throne and kingdom would never end and have no borders. His authority would be absolute and all-encompassing. And it would be the best thing that ever happened to the world. For this king would use his unbridled power for the good of others and rule in perfect righteousness, judging with equity for the poor and the needy and delivering humanity from oppression and fear. (see Genesis 3:15, 22:18, 49:8-10; Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-10; Psalm 2, 72; Daniel 2:44, 7:13-14, Galatians 3:16)
David’s lineage did include men like Hezekiah and Josiah, but their integrity was far outweighed by the idolatry and immorality of the kings that came before them and took their place after them. At last the throne in Jerusalem was left abandoned, the people were exiled, and David’s noble house fell into ruin. Generation after generation passed with the prophetic hope burning like a solitary lamp surrounded by vast darkness. And then, perhaps when no one could have ever expected it, an angel stood in the home of a young woman in Nazareth bearing glad tidings:
"The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” - Luke 1:33-35
Out of what looked like a dead stump of Jesse’s family, a branch of David suddenly sprang forth (Isaiah 11:1, 53:2). The Son of David, the Seed of Abraham, had come at last. He was declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4-5). The grave had no hold on Him because there was no sin found in Him (Acts 2:24-28). There was finally One who overcame, and we need weep no longer.
No matter the depths of darkness that the earth descends into, we take courage and have strong consolation, for we know that the nations belong to Jesus and He will come again for His inheritance. There will dawn that great Day of God when the trumpet sounds and everything in the heavens and the earth declares that He alone is worthy, and that the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ! (Revelation 11:15) In this we hope, and of this we will sing, until we see His face and the darkness flees away.