Songs of Praise the Angels Sang
“Only the lover sings,” said the wise philosopher Josef Pieper. Here at Word and Song we’re delighted to bring to you some of the great old love songs that people used to know, because it does seem that years go by in our time without anybody composing a single sweet or mirthful song of love. Groans of lust there may be, but lust is closer to hate and anger than to love.
When you love, you want to sing – but why is that? A song is more than a statement of purpose. Nobody sings a pre-nuptial contract. Nobody sings any kind of contract at all. Bare language will do. But song is not bare language. It is not even language with melody added. It is a different form of expression entirely: it springs from wonder and love, and it gestures toward, and longs for, what can never be reduced to mere words. Think of the difference between the grace of a dancer, and somebody just walking down the street. We do not say that the dancer is just like the walker, with something added on top, like icing. The motion is of a higher order.
I have sometimes wondered what atheists sing about, or what makes them burst out and declare, “Let us give thanks, and feast!” For the divine is man’s highest object of wonder and gratitude, and our most powerful mover for song. When Israel worshiped at the Temple, the people did not simply say words. They sang. We have their great songbook, passed down over many generations. They are the psalms. In Paradise Lost, when the still innocent Adam and Eve look at the evening sky and the stars beginning to appear, Adam says that what they are beholding is as one great and mysterious song:
Millions of spiritual Creatures walk the Earth Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep: All these with ceaseless praise his works behold Both day and night: how often from the steep Of echoing Hill or Thicket have we heard Celestial voices to the midnight air, Sole, or responsive each to other’s note Singing their great Creator: oft in bands While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk, With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds In full harmonic number joined, their songs Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to Heaven.
And that lifting up helps to inspire us also, so that we may sing.
That’s the wonder of this week’s hymn, the bold and bright “Songs of Praise the Angels Sang.” The first of its three stanzas (or the first two of its six, depending on the melody you use) take us from creation, when according to the Book of Job, the sons of morning sang out for joy, to the nativity of the Lord, when the hosts of heaven sang in that night, to the triumph of Easter, when the risen Christ led captivity captive. What then comes next? The very end of time, for “heaven and earth shall pass away,” and we are surprised to hear that “songs of praise shall greet that day.” And why not? In the meantime, shall we be stock still? No, says the poet, echoing Saint Paul, for the “church delights to raise / Psalms and hymns and songs of praise.” Why, our lives on earth are a sort of singing school. We learn here, sometimes in fleeting senses of God’s presence among us, sometimes in a burst of inspiration, what true joy is, and so do we learn here “by faith and love, / Songs of praise to sing above.” And the final lines are a hymn to the Trinity, the highest and most mysterious revelation to man of God’s very being.
For this hymn, I favor the cheerful melody RILEY, but I am sure that many others with the same meter will do fine.
Songs of praise the angels sang, heaven with alleluias rang, when creation was begun, when God spake and it was done. Songs of praise awoke the morn when the Prince of peace was born; songs of praise arose when he captive led captivity. Heaven and earth must pass away; songs of praise shall crown that day: God will make new heavens and earth; songs of praise shall hail their birth. And shall we alone be dumb till that glorious kingdom come? No, the church delights to raise psalms and hymns and songs of praise. Saints below, with heart and voice, still in songs of praise rejoice; learning here, by faith and love, songs of praise to sing above. Hymns of glory, songs of praise, Father, unto thee we raise, Jesu, glory unto thee, with the Spirit, ever be.