At Grace Community Church, one of the songs we sing is “Lead On, O King Eternal,” which is a retuned older hymn (music by Enfield).
Lead on, O King Eternal, the day of march has come
Henceforth in fields of conquest, Thy tents shall be our home
Through days of preparation, Thy grace has made us strong
And now, O King Eternal, we lift our battle song
So lead on, lead on, King of Heaven,
My light and My salvation,
Your faithfulness endures
O lead on, lead us to Your Kingdom
Through joy or tribulation:
We follow you, we follow you alone
Lead on, O King Eternal, we follow not with fears
For gladness breaks like morning wheree’er Thy face appears
For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums
With deeds of love and mercy the Heavenly Kingdom comes
Lead on, O King Eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease
And holiness shall whisper the sweet “amen” of peace
The cross is lifted o’er us, we journey in its light
The crown awaits the conquest: Lead on, O God of might!
I was reading Dale Ralph Davis’ excellent Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness: Psalms 13-24 (highly recommended; post[s] forthcoming), and he mentions this song in the context of Psalm 18 (and battle psalms in general).
Sometimes the ‘mighty battle’ is the only way. If those who oppose Yahweh’s king will not accept His kingship then that kingship must be imposed. If Christ’s enemies will not submit to Him then they must be suppressed. We cannot mute this ‘conquest’ note. Sometimes I think some of our hymns tend to do this. One seems to meet it in the nineteenth-century hymn, ‘Lead On, O King Eternal,’ in the second stanza:
For not with swords’ loud clashing
nor roll of stirring drums–
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
There is a bit of truth there–and a bunch of error as well. Maybe it’s no wonder the church has such an anemic view of the last things. But Psalm 18 seems to testify that the kingdom does not come by peaceful evolution but by successful subjugation. The peace comes after the mighty battle. There is a certain virility about the Bible’s teaching on this, and for her own confidence the church needs to recover it.
I agree with Dr. Davis that we must not mute the conquest notes of the Psalms in particular or the Bible in general. I agree that “the kingdom does not come by peaceful evolution but by successful subjugation” and that “the peace comes after the mighty battle.” I even agree that the church and her songs can contribute to an “anemic view of the last things.”
And I admit I had to think about whether to continue leading the saints in singing this song. My approach and philosophy of song selection is a simple pastoral one: what songs can I give to the people that are healthy and nourishing for their souls? What songs do their hearts need in order to sing in every season and situation in life? In light of Dr. Davis’ comments about “Lead On, O King Eternal,” should I continue to lead and recommend the song?
With all my agreements with Dr. Davis, I don’t believe the charges leveled against this particular song stick. It is probably not difficult to name songs that are guilty of such, but I’d like to defend this song, because thinking through the violence and peace of the Kingdom and the King is an important discussion for how to think through the cultural shifts we’re undergoing.
There are two parallel statements by Jesus that must be kept in tension:
(1) “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force” (Matthew 11:12 HCSB).
(2) “My Kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My Kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here” (John 18:36 HCSB).
(1) This statement from Jesus is the “conquest note” that Dr. Davis sees in the Psalms and rightly argues must not be muted by the church. Insofar as we do mute this note, we are “anemic” and ill-prepared for the very real battle around us. This is the basis for the violent statements in the New Testament, such as “gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin,” “by the Spirit put to death the sins of the flesh,” “I beat my body into submission,” etc.
Jesus Himself also says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” When Jesus returns in Revelation 19, His robe is white, but you can’t tell because it’s soaked in the blood of the enemies He has slain. All the language in the Psalms and prophets that speak of God’s strength are not empty language; God’s “muscles” do not atrophy from lack of use. He is strong, and He wields His power to crush sin and evil and agony. Yahweh is indeed a Warrior, and He is no impotent, incompetent novice.
(2) This statement from Jesus is a clarification of what kind of kingdom and what kind of conquest we should expect. Jesus told Pilate, “If I were a king like you know and expect, My servants would be fighting tooth-and-nail with swords and sticks and rocks and whatever they could find to free Me from your hand. My Kingdom is not like your kingdoms; My weapons are not like your weapons; My fight is not like your fight.” This is also the same flow of thought as Paul’s famous armor of God passage: we do not war against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of darkness in this present age.
“Lead On, O King Eternal” (hereafter, LOOKE) does not mute the “conquest note”; in fact, the first verse indicates that we are in battle (“henceforth in fields of conquest“). In fact, we are in battle that belongs to Yahweh (“henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home”). The last verse notes the violence of the battle (“sin’s fierce war”). It seems to take both the conquest note and the true nature of Jesus’ Kingdom into account.
The verses center on the reality of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom, but they are flanked by the very real battle we must all engage in:
Verse 1 – Conquering King and Kingdom
Verse 2 – What Kind of King and Kingdom is this?
Verse 3 – Conquering King and Kingdom
This distinction between conquest and the nature of the Kingdom makes a huge difference when we try to make sense of the changing world and culture around us. We cannot deny the reality of the battle around us; we must fight the sin in our own hearts with a vicious, ruthless strength that only the Sword-wielding Spirit gives. We must fight for the weak and wounded, for the oppressed, for the fatherless and widow. We must fight. And we fight because the battle belongs to the blood-drenched Mighty King Jesus.
But we must not fight with worldly weapons in worldly ways. Our Spiritual weapons are the Word of God Himself, the love of God and neighbor He Himself works in us (“with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes”). Christianity does not advance at the point of any man’s sword, but at the point of the sharp Sword coming from the mouth of Righteous and True, mounted on His white horse, drenched in the blood of His enemies.
Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians 10,
For although we are walking in the flesh, we do not wage war in a fleshly way, since the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5 HCSB, emphasis added).
In context, Paul is speaking about confronting divisive, rebellious people in the church who are making accusations against Paul and slandering him. Paul makes clear that war is going on, but those who are in Christ fight differently. Our weapons are not “fleshly,” but derive their power through God so that “strongholds” can be demolished. These strongholds are “arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God.” Kingdom warfare does not destroy buildings, but besieges every argument and school of thought and lie of the evil one that sets itself up to replace Jesus as King. That’s who we fight as King’s soldiers. Our bullets and bombs in this war are “deeds of love and mercy,” all bathed in the light of the “Cross…lifted o’er us.”