*** This hymn is a prayer for weapons disarmament and the promotion of divine love as the means to establish world peace.You-break-the-bar
A celebrated prophecy envisages divine intervention on behalf of God’s people who have long suffered from violent and bloody oppression. The prophecy is set in the past tense, but it is usual to think of it as referring to the future. The yoke of the people’s burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken…
The prophet announces God’s promise that the people of Israel will be liberated. But is it only Israel’s people who are to be set free? To put it another way: the yoke is to be removed from Israel, but is God indifferent to the yoke of burdens that violently oppress other peoples? The answer given in this hymn is an unambiguous No. In common with Second Isaiah who said in God’s Name that It is too light a thing that you should…restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49.6), this hymn looks for a future in which violence is everywhere overwhelmed by love.
The hymn may be contrasted with the aria in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ The people that walked in darkness. Whereas that piece, and the following chorus For unto us a child is born work with Isaiah’s past tense, and display a profound and excited gratitude for what God has done, the hymn changes the tense from past to present. God’s intervention is contemporised, and God’s future is foreshadowed in the faith that cries out ‘Lord, show yourself today!’
The first verse acknowledges God in terms taken from Isaiah 9.4, and calls on the sovereign Lord to extend the divine ministry of political liberation from the past into the present.
I Corinthians 1.18 is worked into the second verse, with reflection on the Christian doctrine of kenotic Incarnation. The God who in Isaiah 9 breaks the rod of oppressors is most at home and apparent in the message of the cross; for the sovereign who rules from heaven is embodied in a crucified fool, so that, person by person, the world may be saved. Just as a member of the British parliament who changes party is said to ‘cross the floor of the House’, so Christ Jesus…did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…(Philippians 2.5b, 7).
The third verse pursues the same theme as the first, but spins it away from imaging God as Mars, the bringer of war and destruction: the ‘Source of love’ fights for love. And we are calling, praying, for the universal enthronement of love.
The fourth verse gives a voice to people everywhere who long for peace in the world, while the last verse puts the working out of that prayer firmly in the court of Christian believers first of all . We ask that, through us, Christ may overcome the most deeply embedded fears of the corporations, governments, and peoples who arm themselves to take away human ‘rights and cheer’. The prayer pledges our commitment to fight for non-violent and equitable relations between all peoples. But our prayer always acknowledges, first and last, the sovereign grace that makes the decisive difference: ‘Lord, show yourself today!’
The music aims both to affirm the strength of God’s intervening love and to express a powerful appeal to God to get involved in the struggle for justice on earth. The melody of the first three lines of text climbs, line by line, to a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. The concluding prayer, by contrast, begins a bit diffidently, but then it repeats as uncompromising demand.
This hymn would sound well in unison. But where there are confident other voices it would probably sound better still in harmony.
MERCY was a friend, a Zambian widow and mother, herself now dead. This music was written on the day we received a letter from her.