“It is still true that Christians of Europe and America dwell in the tents of Shem. Our religious heritage has come to us from the children of Israel, the children of Shem. Our very Christ was a Jew. Our Bible was written almost entirely by Israelites. Our religious thought-forms, vocabulary, sacraments, worship, church-government, all have come to us, humanly speaking, from Israel.
Zion occurs thirty-eight times in the Psalter; Israel sixty-two times: Ephraim five times; Melchizedek once. There are numerous others: Oreb and Zeeb, Zeba and Zalmunna, Jacob, Lebanon,Kadesh,Jordan,Hermon, Mizar, Tyre, Shechem, Succoth, Gilead, Moab, Edom, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tarshish, Sheba, Seba and so forth.
The objection is raised that these ancient persons and places have no connection with us today. They are just a lot of dusty history from two or three thousand years ago. Why should we sing about Zeba and Zalmunna? It sounds as if we were to sing about Hokus and Pokus, or Dasher and Prancer, Donder and Blitzen. So runs the objection. But wait. After all, do Zeba and Zalmunna have nothing to do with us today? If we are attached to the Biblical religion we will realize that they have a lot to do with us today. Our religion did not drop to us out of the sky directly from God. He gave it to us through history, and that is the history of Israel. The history of Israel was a history of redemption by the almighty power of God; it was a history of overcoming powerful enemies by the almighty power of God. The enemies were real, they were contemporary manifestations of Satan’s kingdom. They were terribly real. But they were crushed by the wonder-working power of almighty God, the covenant God, Jehovah, the God of Israel. This was the importance of Zeba and Zalmunna.
Our religion today, if it is Biblical Christianity, is a religion of overcoming powerful enemies by the supernatural, almighty power of God. We should always think, when we read or sing about Zeba and Zalmunna, of how salvation is not by our might, nor by our power, but by the almighty power, the supernatural grace, of God.
Evil is not abstract, but concrete; it is identified with particular persons. To destroy the evil, the persons must be dealt with by God’s mighty power and righteous judgment. Isaac Watts said he would make David talk like a Christian. He denatured the Psalms, and he sophisticated them. Watts quite failed to appreciate the real beauty and glory of the Psalter. Since Watts’ time, some Psalm-singing denominations have shied away from the proper names in the Psalter, and have tried to screen many of them out of it. Zion is changed to “the church,” and Jerusalem likewise; many of the others are omitted or smoothed over in some way. This yields us a denatured Psalter. No wonder the next step is to give up the Psalms in worship. They have already given up the real vigour and beauty and power of the Psalms by omitting the proper names.
Zion and Jerusalem are the tents of Shem, and it is God’s plan for us to dwell in them. Shall we object to that? Those who try to eliminate the proper names of the Psalter show a lack of vital consciousness of the organic connection of the Gospel with the Old Testament. They fail to realize that the real meaning of these proper names, as Zion, is intimately connected with the Biblical doctrine of salvation by free grace. These proper names, and the Psalms with them in, are to be used in the worship of God to the end of the world. They are God’s record, God’s monument, to the great work of redemption wrought out in history of old. These proper names are not the shame and weakness of the Psalms; they are the honour and the glory of the Psalms.
The trend of modern hymnbooks is largely toward the over-emphasis of the subjective experience at the expense of the objective foundation. Even those churches which do not use the hymns, often show the same tendency by people’s manner of picking and choosing among the Psalms. A Psalm will be announced for singing, and two or three stanzas dealing with the objective foundation will be omitted, while the remaining stanzas, dealing with subjective experience, will be sung. Thus in our folly we are like a man who enjoys eating apples but despises apple trees and regards them of little or no value. Admittedly we cannot eat the roots, bark and branches of the apple tree; but are they therefore to be neglected and treated as of no importance? Shall we put asunder what God has joined together? Do we not thereby reveal a deadly weakness, a serious failure to grasp the real character and structure of Biblical religion?”
“The Psalter will never become antiquated or obsolete. The message from the past concerning modern hymn-books is very different from this. The antiquated hymn-books once authorized by the different hymn-singing Churches were used less than twenty years each, while evangelistic songs and Sabbath-school books furnished in such variety and abundance have invariably worn out in a few seasons. The hundred or more hymn-books in the world today will soon share the fate of their predecessors.”
1. Vos, Johannes G. “Ashamed of the Tents of Shem?: The Semitic Roots of Christian Worship.” The Blue Banner. Faith Presbyterian Reformed Church. PDF article.
2. Martin, S.E. “The Status and Outlook of the Cause of Psalmody” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992, page 536.