Psalm 47: My Country Tis of Thee?

Memorial Day is a little over a week away. With it comes debate about separation of church and state. What place do patriotic songs have in our church services? How do we honor the country we love and the people who serve it without crossing over into idolatry, equating country with God? This is not a new problem.

Psalm 47 by some accounts may be considered a national anthem. It speaks of great victory in battle. In fact the victory is so great that even the conquered are to join in the praises of the conqueror (5-7), according to one interpretation. It is an emotional appeal designed to arouse the support and acclaim of all nations, much like a college fight song. There is no room for rational discourse. All people are to clap their hands (1). God has given Israel victory, “He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves.” (3-4) God is on their side, so how can they lose? Dangerous territory to enter!

Terrible deeds have been done over the centuries under the claim of “God’s will.” Right now, over 260 girls are being held hostage in Nigeria, under the guise of God’s command. Members of the Boko Haram claim to be doing God’s will as they kill innocent victims.

This union of church and state is a tricky one to maneuver, one not to be treated lightly. Our ancestors, after leaving England because of religious prosecution, were clear in the constitution about separation of church and state. There are to be no state sponsored religions. Yet each year on Memorial Day and Fourth of July, patriotic hymns are sung in churches throughout the country. How do we justify that?

Scripture scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, has designated Psalm 47 as one of the “Psalms of Enthronement,” hymns honoring God as King. All people are to clap their hands and praise our God as King. Even conquered nations join in the chorus for it is good to be conquered by God. I would rather lose to God than win on my own for with God losing is winning, without God winning is losing. It is God’s will that needs to reign on this earth, not human will masquerading as God’s will.

But what is God’s will? That’s another tricky point. If God’s will were to finally prevail on this earth, I think we would all be surprised in some way because it would be different than any one of us can imagine. No-one has a monopoly on God’s will. It’s so easy to impose our will on others and claim this to be God’s will. This is another form of idolatry.

Psalms of enthronement were used by post-exile Jews at the New Year festival. They “foreshadowed the time when the kingdoms of the world would become the kingdoms of the Lord.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4) We are still waiting for God’s kingdom to come and need to pray for this every day.

So, is there a place for patriotic songs in our churches? Yes, that place is second to God, recognizing that God and country are not one and the same. God always comes first. If God is first, then everything else will fall into place.

How does your church handle Memorial Day Services?

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