Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Why We Sing Carols, Psalms and Spiritual Songs

Rodin's John the Baptist
"Rodin's John the Baptist." Image by Eric Chan via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

December 13, 2015

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Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

Why We Sing Carols, Psalms and Spiritual Songs

Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
     let this be known in all the earth. 

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
     for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Not all of the psalms in the Bible are located in the Book of Psalms. And not all of the good news in the Bible is located in the New Testament. Today’s “psalm” is a song of good news located in the Scroll of Isaiah.

A psalm for those who mourn in lonely exile

Based on the style, genre, vocabulary, and theology of the passage, it is most likely a composition of the anonymous prophet we call “Second Isaiah” — who served God in Babylon during the time of Israel’s lonely exile there (around 540 BCE). That prophet’s work of hope is largely contained in Isaiah 40-55, but it can also be found in Isaiah 12, 25-27, and 34-35.

Apparently, the anonymous prophet reworked the scroll of Isaiah, adding passages of good news for the exile in Babylon in order to fan the embers of faith into flame. That metaphor is too weak. For most of the exiles, the fire of faith had gone completely cold. The prophet’s task was to preach a word so clear — to sound a certain note on trumpet of new life — so that faith could be reborn in the hearts of a people whose faith had died. To preach a word that could raise the dead.

Sound like a familiar task?

In order to create this faith, the prophet drew on a small library of literary genres. If the reading starts at Isaiah 12:1, the psalm is a song of thanksgiving (compare to Psalms 30, 40, 116, or 118). All of the traditional elements of Israel’s songs of thanksgiving are present in 12:1-6. One option would be to restore v. 1 to the lection and preach on the entire psalm. If one sticks with the lectionary’s curtailing of the psalm, it sounds more like a psalm of trust (such as Psalms 16, 23, 46, or 121). Here the emphasis is on trust. Either way — as a psalm of thanksgiving or a psalm of trust — the psalm works. It meets the rhetorical aim of the prophet by calling people to faith. But how does it do so?

Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously!

In this psalm, Second Isaiah’s rhetorical strategy for creating faith in the faith-empty exiles was to call them to praise God.

It was that simple. Well, not simple. But it was that clear.

Ask yourself this: Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, “You just have to believe.” Or is it easier to say, “Let’s pray.”

Is it more effective to admonish someone, “Trust in God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength!” Or is it more effective to say, “Let’s sing this hymn together: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

What Second Isaiah did in the psalm in Isaiah 12 was essentially this latter option. In the midst of exile — with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma (I mean Trauma!) — the prophet invited the exiles to sing the familiar songs that celebrate Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance. Compare:

Isaiah 12:1a

Psalm 138:1a

I will give thanks to you O Lord

I will give thanks to you O Lord



Isaiah 12:2

Psalm 27:1

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,

The Lord is my light and my salvation…
     Of whom shall I be afraid?



And most importantly, compare the Song of Miriam in the Exodus story with Isaiah 12:5:


Isaiah 12:5

Exodus 15:21

Sing praises to the Lord,
     for he has done gloriously!

Sing to the Lord, 
     for he has triumphed gloriously!



More comparisons could be made, but one can see in these three examples that what Second Isaiah does is, in the words of one of my favorite hymns, sing the old, old story. The prophet goes back to the hymnic well, draws up the old language and vocabulary of Israel’s experience with the God of the Exodus, and promises, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

And that’s why we sing. We sing of the coming of the Immanuel, of joy to the world, of the baby tucked away in the manger, of shepherds keeping watch by night, and angels from the realms of glory.

And in the singing, we come to believe what the songs say.