I still remember the first time I listened to “Whom Shall I Fear” by Chris Tomlin. It was my freshman year in NTU and I had, like a typical freshman, bitten off more than I could chew. It was one day in particular that I was buried under CCA commitments, on top of a whole slew of school assignments in a course I was extremely ill-suited for. Deciding to listen to some gospel music to settle myself, it was then that I noticed this song appearing in my YouTube feed. It looked interesting enough, and so I clicked on it hoping God would speak to me somehow through the singing, the lyrics, anything.
Boy, did He deliver.
The song begins by calling God our “morning song”, a reminder that God is with us from the very moment we awake, ready to meet the day with us. The following lines “Though darkness fills the night, it cannot hide the light” also reinforces God’s omnipresence, and the fact that He is with us through thick and thin, morning and night.
The next verse talks of God’s ability to aid us in the struggles of life. Chris Tomlin sings about how God “crush[es] the enemy underneath our feet”, a biblical reference to Genesis where God tells the serpent that Eve and her descendants shall crush him underfoot. God’s faithfulness is contrasted with Eve’s unfaithfulness, as this takes place after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and been cast out. Despite the choice of our first parents to rebel against God, He still looks out for them when he can. For Catholics, this line also has special significance as it refers to Our Blessed Mother’s role in conquering sin and death through her obedience to God as well, allowing herself to be an instrument in fulfilling God’s promises as the New Eve.
The next lines describe God as our “sword and shield”. This is reminiscent of many of the psalms which refer to God as someone who comes to our aid in very military terms. This kind of language appeals to me, mainly because I’m a massive dork who thinks such things are cool. But more importantly, it reminds us also of the reality of spiritual warfare, that our lives on earth are literally a battle to save our souls, no matter how we slice it. The next line is “though troubles linger still”. I love this line because it grounds the song back in reality, that it still expects trials despite God’s help. Ancient Greek plays employed a deus ex machina, a god out of the machine, to tie up their plays with a neat bow at the end. Our God, however, does not come from a machine, and He empowers man to face their challenges rather than simply handwave them away.
In between these two verses, the line “Whom shall I fear?” is repeated. This line is a challenge, a sign of confidence in God. It’s funny how in biblical terms, questions are often used as challenges. Think of the Archangel Michael’s very name – ‘Who is like God?’
This brings us to the chorus, which begins with “I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind.” The reason why these lines resonate with me is that it reminds me of the famous lines from the ancient Irish prayer, the Lorica of St. Patrick:
“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”
I once read a blog post that said that this prayer is almost mathematical in its construction. It’s very measured and structured, and it’s a good prayer for meditation. It reminds us that there isn’t any facet of our life where Jesus doesn’t permeate or is absent from. And finally the crux of this song:
“The God of Angel armies,
is always by my side.”
Tomlin’s use of ‘Angel armies’ is a striking one, and one that has deep roots in scripture. In the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites is often called the “Lord of Hosts”, alluding to the angels he has under his command. But what does this mean for us, or what did it mean for Jesus back then?
A reading of the Gospels will show us that while Jesus trusts that his Father and the angels are watching over him, he never expects them to magically show up to pull him out of trouble. When facing the Temptations in the Desert, when Satan tempts him to cast himself down so that the angels will rescue him, Jesus declines, saying that one should not put the Lord to the test. A sterner test is asked of him in Matthew’s Gospel at the time of his arrest, when Jesus chooses to go quietly with his captors, remarking that his Father could send “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue if he wished it.
I find Our Lord’s reaction fascinating – this sense of trusting so absolutely in God’s providence while at the same time accepting trials and tribulations with a peaceful heart. Jesus truly shows us by his example what it means to believe that God is always by our side, no matter what may happen. In my own situation, this song reminded me that my own trials were transient, and with some perspective, and perhaps time, I’d eventually be able to see the hand of God at work through these trials. Perhaps in the end, one of the only things I can be sure of is that “The God of Angel Armies, is always by my side.”
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng