by James D. Oord
But for whatever reason, Christmas is also a melancholy time. Maybe it’s just seasonally affected (I hate winter). Maybe it’s an aversion to materialism. Or most likely, it’s this: when we try hardest to be externally joyful and merry, we most realize that something’s “off” about the world (Ecclesiastes 4:1-4). Internally, we see our sin still gnawing away, even if we’ve been Christians for many years. Externally, we see oppression and hate still tearing the world apart. We live in a fallen world, and even sentimental Christmas cheer and nostalgia can’t cover that up, no matter how many times you watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow felt this much more acutely than most. Christmas Day of 1863 found him in the depths of despair. His wife, Frances, had quite recently died in a tragic fire. His oldest son had just run away from home to join the Union Army, without his father’s blessing or knowledge. The Civil War with all its tragedies and loss raged strongly.
On that Christmas morning, Longfellow heard the local church bells chiming and wrote the powerful and famous Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” expressing not only his depression and despair, but more importantly his faith in God’s controlling hand.
And in despair, I bowed my head;
there is no ‘peace on earth,’ I said;
for hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men!’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead nor doth He sleep;
the Wrong shall fail,
the Right prevail,
with Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.’
This idea is a central theme to Christmas. We look around and see injustice, hate, and oppression. We look inside and see idolatry, pride, and greed. And in despair, we bow our heads. There’s no hope for salvation anywhere in the human race. There’s no hope for ultimate peace or goodwill anywhere on this earth.
That’s where the good news of the Gospel fits. That’s why the Incarnation (and all that follows) is explosive. That’s what got those angels singing.
Just as the Winter Solstice marks the return of hope and sunlight in the midst of the death and despair of Winter, so Christmas celebrates the Incarnation–the gift of hope and the promise of peace to all mankind that changed the course of history.
This is why I chose the first of our “Christmas Psalms” to be Psalm 9. Psalm 9 finds David in the same state as our friend Longfellow: he’s in a situation where he should, by all rights, be hanging his head in despair. He writes of “enemies,” the “wicked.” He writes of “oppression,” “trouble,” and sitting at “the gates of death.”
But for all that, Psalm 9 bursts with confidence! Psalm 9 is a psalm of profound worship, expressing confidence in the LORD, who “sits enthroned forever.” He lifts the oppressed from the “gates of death” unto “the gates of Zion” (vv. 13-14). These are all themes directly echoed in the Magnificat (the Song of Mary – Luke 1:46-55). Both Mary, in the Magnificat, and David, in Psalm 9, looked forward to the ultimate redemption of God’s oppressed people, the ultimate giving of peace, the ultimate expression of God’s goodwill to His people.
Where do we find this peace and goodwill? They key is Psalm 9:9-10:
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know Your Name put their trust in You,
and You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek You.
The answer is in knowing the Name of the LORD, in knowing His covenant Name, in knowing His Name as revealed in that Name above all Names – Jesus (Matthew 1:21). The answer is found in the “wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1) that God has done through His Son.
Psalm 9 speaks directly to anyone who feels melancholy at Christmas. It speaks with confidence of the true hope and peace we have through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh (John 1).
14, “Whole-hearted Thanksgiving to Thee I Will Bring”
Unfortunately, the only selection of Psalm 9 in the blue Psalter Hymnal is #14. It’s unfortunate for two reasons: first, this tune and song have such strong associations with Thanksgiving that some pastors and congregations may balk at singing it for Christmas. Second, #14 is not that good of an adaptation of the text of Psalm 9.
However, with a little explanation (or a well-placed sermon), most congregations could see the connections and importance of singing this psalm during the Advent season.
#14 does get at all the major ideas of Psalm 9 that we highlighted above:
- It praises God for His “marvelous deeds” (stanza 1, 3)
- It speaks of God as a “refuge for the oppressed” (stanza 2)
- It sings with hope and confidence of God as One who “visits the lowly and overthrows wrong” (stanza 3)
Although it might not be the gentle and nostalgic Christmas carol that we’re accustomed to, Psalm 9 speaks to one of the central themes of Christmas–realizing our plight and looking to God for hope and a Savior. We can sing with the same confidence as Mary and David, for the same reason. In the midst of the sin and hate we see in ourselves and in the world around us, we can joyfully know that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”