“If every promise in the book is mine, then I want this one,” I thought as I read in the Apocalypse the description of 144,000 male virgins who have not defiled themselves with women and followed him everywhere and didn’t lie, etc. These were the only ones who could learn to sing the new song. (Revelation 14:1-5)
“Wow!” I thought, “I want to learn that new song.” I wondered exactly where in the Bible I could find that new song or if it was something that would be revealed supernaturally through a vision. I didn’t take out commentaries on Revelation which offer explanations ranging as divergent as the churches which read the Bible. I began to pray and seek the Lord for wisdom or grace or power or whatever it would take to sing the new song. I knew it would be good, and I wanted the ability to sing this new song which seemed hidden from me.
Problem: I am far from musical. In high school, I learned how to play the French horn but didn’t practice much. The only thing I really took from that training is that I am always on the wrong beat when I clap.
While this passage in Revelation gave no indication that musical talent was a prerequisite, it seemed pretty important. At first, only the words to poetry came. I kept them in good rhyme and good rhythm, but I was had no music. You have no song if you have no music but just lyrics. I scored an F flat on the chart of getting a new song on the radio, so I tried to forget about it.
But it wouldn’t go away, because every so often, I learned a new song that somebody else had written in contemporary music. I would sing along with the new song until I learned it and then added it to my memory banks. The college worship events I participated in were often attended by zealous souls who want to encounter God to the fullest. Music is part of that, and new songs seemed to be a regular occurrence. I even met a man who learned to play the guitar and write music even though he was middle-aged.
I gained no more skill in music, though I had been in a college choir that toured Sinaloa, Mexico to encourage the church and evangelize using English, translated, and Latino Christian lyrics and bells to share the message. My particular gift was to present the Christus Hymn in Spanish (from Filepensus 2:1-11, NVI) in a dramatic interpretation before the crowds.
Around that time, I went to the hospital with the first onset of a chronic illness. I had to do some rethinking: What can I do and what can I not do? What is real and what is not? What does Revelation really mean?
Once I returned to college, I learned more new songs. Once again, I wanted to sing a new song. In my senior year, I did an independent study on worship in the Old Testament, New Testament, and early church. But that produced no new music, though I did write a few new poems. After all, how does one write hymns based on an index of references to worship practices in the extant early church fathers? Not too inspiring, to say the least.
I was preparing for graduation in my senior year and dreading leaving my friends. Then in March of 1997, a tornado struck the town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas where I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies. I volunteered to help sort and distribute food and clothes sent to the church I participated in near the epicenter of the disaster which also served as the hub for the relief effort.
I started to wear down. School, health, and tornado-related matters all converged to form a storm front in my mind. One day, as I was walking home from church, I began to hum-sing a few lines based on Matthew 11:28-30, “Come unto Me, all who are weary / Come unto Me, all who need rest / Come unto Me, all who are tired / all who long for righteousness.”
I sang that a few times, each time with more confidence. Then I started a new stanza, as I thought about the fact I still had work to do, “Take up the cross, if you will follow / Take up the cross, if you know Christ / Take up the cross, if you love Jesus / for he paid the final price.”
After learning the new stanza, and repeating it with the first a few times, I was really excited and knew that the final line about the “final price” could not be the final line any longer. Reinvigorated, I headed towards my dorm room, “Tell the Good News to all your family / Tell the Good News to all your friends / Tell the Good News to all your neighbors / Ev’ry place the Spirit sends.”
Recently, friend wrote out this Gospel Song. Click Here to view a PDF score of the lyrics & melody.
God had done some amazing things in saving some people from the tornado and moving people to send and distribute supplies. He had done amazing work in strengthening me and would do amazing work in helping me complete my studies. And he had taught me a new song.
Later, while studying at Notre Dame, I led a Bible study on singing a “new song” and learned that all related passages have to do with salvation and, in context, at least half of them relate to God’s redeeming work among the nations*. (Psalm 33:3, 10; 40:3; *96:1; *98:1-2; 144:9-11; 149:1, 7; *Isaiah 42:10; *Revelation 5:9; *14:3-6) As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology records, “One could say that there is one new song but this song has many stanzas. All of God’s redeemed will add stanzas to that song throughout eternity as they praise him progressively and continually for his mercy, love, and grace …”+
As I became involved more in missions mobilization, I realized that this just made sense: Each culture requires worship music in that culture’s language if it is to sing the praises of God most effectively. These musics change over time. When revival comes, new songs are written to speak to the new generation. Some songs are better than others, some are meant to persist. When those revivals take root and transform, missionaries go out to other cultures, carrying the Good News to new places. … And so the pattern continues to the present day.
This pattern has become such an art and a science that there are ethnodoxologists who specialize in advancing this work. The International Council of Ethnodoxologists has a site designed to help interested people find resources and training:
One new song illustrates how this can work. As I was driving down the road one autumn day, I saw some African-American youth who were gathered around a car talking. I was happy and began rapping, “Break it down to the lowest level. Bring ’em up to the highest level. Jesus came to the lowest level. Jesus rose to the highest level. Hip, hop. Don’t stop. Get the Word to the world!” After learning the new rap, I went back and presented it to the kids. We talked. They affirmed the Gospel.
A couple years later, I was invited for a series of youth meetings at a church in a poverty-ridden African American neighborhood. I pulled out that song and rapped for the gathering. They loved it. They had their own rap. Afterwards, the youth figured out their own rhythm for the rap. God was at work.
Every now and then, I still sing new songs, either written by me or by others. Why? God continues to work. Are all of them of equal value or quality or of the same genre? No. Will any of my songs be sung 100 years from now? I would be surprised. Though I don’t get these songs from an audible voice, I do know of someone who heard the choirs of angels sing more than 10 years ago. My songs typically just come from Scripture or experience.
I have learned through many dangers, toils and snares how to sing the new song: Listen for the voice of the Lord and pour out your heart before Him. Though I may not hear them, I sing with the angels.
(You have full permission to sing the New Song, so long as you don’t seek to profit from others efforts without sharing with them. Contact me if you have any questions.)
PO Box 981215, Ypsilanti, MI 48198-1215
+ Elwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘New Song'”. “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology”. 1897.