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Why We Sing a New Song

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“Waves of mercy, waves of grace. Every where I look I see Your face. Your love has captured me...”
Could you imagine singing those songs as an exile in a place where you were held captive by people who didn’t know God. People who not only didn’t know God but openly mocked him. Openly considered themselves and their gods more powerful than our God. Can you imagine if they said, “sing us one of your Christian songs. Sing us one of your songs of victory. Sing us a song about how awesome your God is”.
Something similar happened to the people of Judah when they found themselves in Babylonian exile. Psalm 137 says this:
Psalm 137 ESV
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
We can’t sing....We won’t sing until justice is served. We won’t sing until things are set right. We won’t sing until the things that you’ve done to us come back on your own head. That’s what Psalm 137 is saying.
Yes, we need songs like this in our church. We need to have the language of lament. We need to learn as a church how to cry out. We need to be able to have faith in the midst of anguish. All of those things are very true. But that’s not the only story…that’s not all there is.
Listen to Isaiah 42:10-17.
Sing a new song! Do you know what that means to say something like that to the people of Psalm 137? The people who have hung up their instruments? It means that rescue is coming. It means that restoration is going to happen. It means that God is going to set all things right. But how. How do you sing a new song?
There is a song by a band called All Sons and Daughters, the song is called A Reason to Sing. Here are some of the words:
When the pieces seem too shattered To gather off the floor And all that seems to matter Is that I don't feel you anymore No I don't feel you anymore I need a reason to sing I need a reason to sing I need to know that You're still holding The whole world in Your hands I need a reason to sing When I'm overcome by fear And I hate everything I know If this waiting lasts forever I'm afraid I might let go I'm afraid I might let go
So what is our reason to sing? How CAN we sing a song like waves of mercy…and it be right and good. We’ll answer that question this morning, but before we answer that I think we need to dig in for a second and ask the question, “what kept them from singing”?
I see two big things. First, they weren’t home. I think we’ve all perhaps felt home-sick at one time or another. That feeling of displacement, not fitting in, just wishing you could go back to a time or place where your roots are—where things feels safe, secure, and known. That’s probably a part of what is going on—but for the people of Judah not being home carries far more weight. It’s a different weight.
For them, the land was where God’s presence was to be found. It was the symbol of blessing. In fact this is why so many thought that the prophets were full of it when they told them they were going to get exiled. “God won’t do that…because that would go against His promises…so long as the temple is here we’re safe. God wouldn’t allow His name and His glory to be given to another…so they concluded we won’t be taken away.” But they were taken away from the land and this caused a massive crisis of belief for them.
For them to sing a song of mirth in Babylon would be like a slap in the face of God. It would also be a slap in the face to those who were driven away into captivity. It’d be as Proverbs 25:20 says...
Proverbs 25:20 ESV
Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.
I don’t want to camp out here for too long but I have to say that our brand of evangelicalism can be very dangerous on this front. We can really hurt victims of abuse and those who have immense pain. If our Christianity only has a smile and doesn’t have the ability to mourn, and grieve, and ache, and lament…then it’s not a full expression of Christ. Christ wept when Lazarus died…because at that moment weeping was the holiest of emotions.
It was NOT appropriate for them to pretend like everything was okay while they were in Babylon. Guys, sometimes things aren’t okay. And....that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that your faith is lacking. It doesn’t mean that you need to change your way of thinking. It doesn’t mean that somehow your faith is deficient or that you aren’t trusting God because you hurt in an awful moment.
We can often be in danger of over-spiritualizing in such a way that we absolutely deny reality. They are in Babylon. They aren’t home. They shouldn’t pretend like they are. Now as we’re going to see in a moment…that isn’t the whole story. We do get to sing a new song. But can I just submit to you that you don’t really get to sing that new song with fervency unless you’ve had to hang up your musical instruments, and weep by the waters of Babylon? That’s what gives rise to true and legit new song worship and not just a mockery and a pretending like everything is okay. To sing a song of mirth in Babylon…when the Lord hasn’t yet given you a new song...would be idolatrous. They aren’t home so they can’t sing…and they shouldn’t. But also...
They didn’t have justice. This is another one of those kind of muddy things. They were cast into exile because of their idolatry and because of their sin. There is one sense in which they absolutely were getting what they deserved. The wages of sin is death.
But in another sense the way the Babylonians were executing this justice was wicked and cruel and awful. It was unjust. And so…and this is why in our world where we don’t have nuance just polarity…we can’t speak this way. But justice is often not so cut and dry. You can be both victim and perpetrator in the same moment. God thankfully speaks to both. But here as they are by the waters of Babylon they are emphasizing the lack of justice that they are experiencing. What the Babylonians did to them…what they did to their families…wasn’t right. And so they are longing for God to make all things right. Put things in order Lord. Yes, that’ll include transformation and rebuke and such of the very ones here crying out for justice. But it also will mean putting things in order and coming to their defense against the wicked Babylonians.
So we see that by the waters of Babylon the people are crying out for home and for God’s justice. And I would submit to you this morning that you have that same ache…that same longing. You want home. You want roots. That’s why things like heaven appeal to us so much. You were created for rest, rule, and relationship. And our sin made shipwreck of every one of those desires. And so in some sense the human story is one of us trying to get “back home”. And along the way we hurt people and we are hurt by people. We long for justice as well.
So how is that going to come? That’s the question hanging over these chapters here in Isaiah. Turn back to Isaiah 41:21-29
Here we will see that our answer…how will the world be made right, how will we enter into rest, how will we get back home…the answer to those questions isn’t going to be found in idols. That’s what you see in these verses.
God again is saying set forth your case. How can your idols rescue people when you don’t even know the future? Can they even reasonably explain the past? Can they tell your story? How can you get people “back home” if you don’t even know where they came from?
But in v25 God is not only claiming to know the past and the future he is also claiming to have “stirred up” this one from North. He not only knows history—not only knows the future—he actually moves history along. Can idols do that? Can the stuff you are trusting in do that?
Isaiah sums up the ineffectiveness of idols in verse 29. “They are a delusion, their works are nothing, their metal images are empty wind.” Idols cannot bring justice. Idols cannot get you back home.
Now if I’m being honest, if I were hearing this sermon I don’t think I’d be incredibly engaged at this point. Because this sounds like a problem for somebody else. This sounds like a problem for those really…you know…not faithful to Jesus people who are trusting in super-wordly things. Not me, I’m trusting in the good guys, the right politicians, a good church, a good family, good people, etc. But consider these words by Tim Keller in helping us find idols in our own hearts.
“The true God of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention....what do you day dream about....what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart.”
Or what about this one...
“How do you spend your money?…Our patterns of spending often reveal our idols.
Keller continues in helping us discover what he calls the functional idols in our lives. The stuff that we’re really trusting in even while we’re going to be quick to give the right church answers. He says, “How do you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes....If you ask for something that you don’t get, you may become sad or disappointed. Then you go on. Hey, life’s not over. Those are not your functional masters. But when you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god.”
Lastly, Keller encourages us to “look at your most uncontrollable emotions.” When you pull your emotions up by the roots…you will often find your idols clinging to them.
We are prone to lean on these idols and place our hope in them to help us get back home and to help us gather justice. And this is where we end up with things like anger, addictions, depression, and host of things. It’s a cycle. We get mad when our idols let us down, we labor to prop them up, they fail us again, we try harder, we gather friends around us to help us prop the idols up, we drop the ones who don’t, we further spiral away from truth and actual justice…our idols drive us further from home.
“Behold they are a delusion...” But then God, through the prophet Isaiah grabs us by the head and turns our eyes and says....Behold my servant…Idols can’t get you back home…but this servant. He can.
Jesus, the servant does get us back home and serve in justice
Now there has been some speculation as to who this servant is. It’d be natural to go back to Isaiah 41:8 and read Israel as the Lord’s servant. But as you progress through Isaiah you see that this servant is actually distinct from Israel. And by the time you get to the New Testament you find that this servant is identified as Jesus. In Matthew 12:20 it was identified as Jesus being the one who fulfilled this. But Jesus is the greater Israel. He is who Israel was supposed to be. So the truth is that we don’t really know and it doesn’t necessarily matter at this point the identity of the servant…but Isaiah wants us to know that whoever this servant is He will be God’s instrument for leading us home and bringing justice.
And justice here is the leading idea of what the servant will accomplish. It doesn’t just mean that he is going to make a legal declaration…justice here is a much bigger word. It means setting things right. It means putting things back into order.
Those desires that we have. Relationships. Meaningful work. Purpose. Peace. Love. Happiness. All of that stuff. And to have a world that isn’t 2020. One that is rightly ordered. Surely we know that we cannot bring this about—nor is it going to come from our idols or us propping them up. But Jesus does.
Ray Ortlund says it well:

Therefore, the hope of the world lies in the servant of the Lord, the delight of God, the quiet healer, the man for others who wields the only true power that exists—the power to reorder human civilization not by bullying but by suffering, not by imposing demands on us but by absorbing our sins and miseries into himself. And the furthest coastlands will not dread his approach; they will wait eagerly for his law. This is Jesus.

One of my favorite books—one of the most life-changing books I’ve read is called The Bruised Reed and the whole thing is based from this verse…Isaiah 42:1-3. The whole premise is that there is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us. And so because of this even though we experience bruising…even though we might be a bruised reed…Christ will never break us. Even though there might be but a spark of grace within us—a spark which God implanted—this will not be quenched.
And that’s the point that Isaiah is making here. That the servant is going to accomplish what we, and what our propped up idols, never can accomplish—salvation.
But let’s not gloss over what this is saying here. When we hear that the servant is going to bring justice is that good news or bad news for us? I think we can be a little quick to answer that question, especially in our culture where we are prone to see ourselves as victims—harmed by others and we need God to come to our defense.
Friends, that is most likely true. We live in a broken world filled with sinners. You and I ARE going to get hurt…we will be victims of other people’s sins. But this is most absolutely not the whole story. In regards to our relationship with God we are most fundamentally not victims. We are the guilty party. And so how will God justly deal with us?
You’ll see this more pronounced in some of the other sections in Isaiah about the role of the servant…but here it’s enough to see in verse 6. “I will give you as a covenant for the people…a light for the nations..”
Here is the picture that we see. Look at verses 1 and 2. Does God delight in the servant? Does he please the Father? Absolutely.
So what does it mean that he gives this servant for...
It means that Christ is in our place. He pays our debt. He satisfies God’s justice. And so what Sibbes says is true:
What a support to our faith is this, that God the Father, the party offended by our sins, is so well pleased with the work of redemption! And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is well pleased with us, if we be in Christ…Let us therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Savior that is furnished with so high a commission.
But that’s not all there is to justice, is there. That’s not all that is meant by this word. It’s not just that we are now legally declared innocent before a holy God. No, this word is much bigger than that. It means to set things right....completely.
If somebody came in and stole everything out of your house and then went and burned it in a field somewhere…you lose everything…and then two months later a police officer comes by and says, “We got him.” Do you feel justice in that moment? No. You’re happy that they caught him but your thinking…this still isn’t right…I need my stuff back. I need my home back.
And so again that’s what is happening here. The servant doesn’t just give justice he also brings His people home. He takes glory-robbers. like you and I, and he rescues and restores and changes.
Do you know what this means? It means that you can sing a new song. Your story doesn’t stop with exile. Your story doesn’t stop with the brokenness or the sin. It doesn’t stop with being a victim. It doesn’t stop with being the guilty party. Your story is that God is for you.
He will not break…you know what that means, he will bring you safely home.
He will not quench…do you know what that means…even a little spark of grace, even a little flicker, is enough to connect you to the all-powerful Jesus. And then His record becomes our record. That’s a reason to sing, right there.
We can sing a new song because we have a new covenant. God is saying in that whole section about the new song that the reason why we can shout for joy and sing this new song is because God is going to act on our behalf. Guess what, friends. That has already happened…and it will happen in even greater measure when God restores everything.
He is restoring all things. He has given us a new song. So yes…we can sing. We can sing because the greatest problems in the world have already been solved for us in Jesus Christ. That changes everything.
When I go through a period where my brokenness seems to shine brighter than my redemption, I try to remember these truths*:
He knows what I need (Matthew 6:8)…even when I haven’t a clue.
It is His character to generously give (James 1:5)…even when I’m most undeserving.
He didn’t spare His Son for me (Romans 8:32)…even though I didn’t ask Him to, or desire for Him to do this.
He has provided the Spirit to intercede on my behalf when I don’t have the words to pray (Romans 8:26)…and even when my emotions don’t know how to feel.
He promises we will lack no good thing (Psalm 34:9-10)…even though I cry out that I’m empty.
He knows my frame, he remembers that I’m dust (Psalm 103:14)…in the times when I feel lower than dirt or more confident than I ought.
He doesn’t break bruised reeds, or quench smoldering wicks (Matthew 12:20)…even if that is exactly what I would do.
No one can snatch me out of His hand (John 10:28-29)…even if I try to leap out of His grasp.
He is not ashamed to call me brother, or son (Hebrews 2:11, Romans 8:15) …even when I feel unworthy and shameful.
He has brought me near by His blood and placed me into His family, His body, His church (Ephesians 2:11-22)…even when I’m the crazy uncle.
And so this is why we sing....that is our hope this morning. That even though things might be tough in a particular season, that’s not all there is. There is a better story being told over top of this one. And so sometimes we have the audacity to hope against hope and to say we believe that God is big and that God is good and that God is rescuing.
He has executed justice. He is leading us back home. And so we trust Him in this.
But are you connected to Christ? Isaiah 42:17 says, “They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, ‘you are our gods’.” So what are you trusting in this morning to lead you home? Yourself. Idols. Stuff. Any of that? If so…then the Scripture is clear that plan isn’t going to work. You won’t get justice. You won’t get back home. Things won’t be set right that way. The only way that is going to happen is through Christ. And so trust Him today.
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