On Glory: How We Sing When We Sing about God’s Glory

On Glory: How We Sing When We Sing about God’s Glory

by Michael Norton, Space City Fellow 2021–2022

This one is for my fellow logic-brained thinkers, who feel lost amidst a sea of seemingly random and disconnected words when reading poetry, who wondered—much to your teacher’s pain—“If that’s what the author meant, why didn’t the author just say it?!”, and who haven’t picked up a fiction book since … well, let’s just say since another decade. Come with me; there’s no shame here. We’ve been missing a lot, it turns out.

In Matthew Mullins’s book Enjoying the Bible, he argues that many of us, myself included, view the Bible as communicating truth solely by being an “instructional manual” that provides information about events that happened, what it means to be a Christian, and how to live as one. Scripture certainly does that in places, but the Bible offers far more; it is also written to stir us, to recreate deep in our souls emotions that are true to life as a Christian. As Mullins explains, by use of literary analysis, Psalm 119:105—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”—isn’t just about God’s word being a guide. Mullins wonders to himself, “Why did the author use the metaphor of a lamp & light to describe God’s word? Why does the author say something similar twice? What does it feel like to have light in darkness?” These questions invite us into the deep soulful emotion of this poetic verse. It is written so that we experience the comfort of God’s word, just as we would experience a flashlight if we were lost in a dark forest alone, scared, and unable to find our way.

After reading Mullins’s book and attending his City Nights talk, it made me wonder: how many passages about God’s glory have I read as explanations and instructions about God’s glory while failing to actually experience his glory? Turns out, many of them. Many passages that speak of God’s glory – or his weight in the Hebrew Bible – aren’t telling us about His glory. They are inviting us to experience it.

Let’s see how this happens for the shepherds when the angels announce the birth of Jesus.

11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:11–15).

Now that I’m reading this text looking to experience God’s glory rather than learn about it, I see so plainly that’s exactly what happened to the shepherds. Look at how this scene unfolds. A single angel didn’t show up quietly; a company appeared suddenly. And the heavenly host didn’t explain in plain terms, “God is glorious! Go see him now!” No – The angels glorified God by their majestic voices. The shepherds experienced God’s glory. And they responded by going to the Lord. How much more powerful is this angel’s poem than if they had just said, “God is glorious?”

As I spent the last few weeks reading and, by God’s grace, seeking places in scripture that elicit the experience of God’s glory – I was struck by my “rereading” of Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” For my entire life, I’d read that passage as being about the Fall, sin, and a pretext for the following verses about grace through Christ. That is, this verse was solely about my need and means for salvation. Although it certainly is about those things, I wonder, channeling my inner Mullins, what a “literary reading” might ask, specifically. 

Why didn’t Paul say, “For all have sinned and don’t meet God’s standard for holiness?” Or “For all have sinned and fall short of God’s perfection?” Why did Paul say that we fall short of his glory? I think, like the poets of scripture, Paul is asking us to imagine standing before God’s glory and being utterly and completely in awe (to the extent that we can even comprehend his glory). When I picture myself standing before God’s glory—instead of, say, standing before his measuring stick of perfection—I don’t think of God as the punisher and judge who is condemning me, but rather as a being so glorious that there’s no question about how I stand compared to him. Experiencing his glory draws me toward God, just as the shepherds were drawn toward Bethlehem after they experienced God’s glory. 

So how do we get to experience God’s glory as the shepherds did, instead of just reading about it? Bach has given us a way in his composing Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

When we sing this song, we say, “Glory to God in the Highest.” But the power & beauty of this piece aren’t the words themselves but how the voices and the notes show us God’s glory. Bach was trying, as best a human can using human tools, to create a song that allows us to experience God’s glory.

Much as the heavens declare the glory of God, so too do the voices of his people. As you would stand below the heavens and hear how they declare, demonstrate, and proclaim God’s glory, so too should we stand among the great company of earthly image bearers who do the same with our own voices. This Advent season, I’m going to try not to sing or listen to others sing about God’s glory, but instead experience God’s glory, in small ways, as his hosts proclaim it.

Our four-week Advent blog series is designed to correspond with our Advent Devotional, “A New Vision,” which you can pick up at a future service or download the PDF by clicking here.

Michael Norton
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