July 3, 2013
And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war…And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Revelation 19:11, 15, 16
Perhaps, like me, you’ve been seeing lots of stories in the news lately about Gettysburg National Military Park, because this is the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest and one of the most crucial battles of the American Civil War.
Commemorations at and around the park began June 30 and continue this week—more than 10,000 people are registered to take part in a re-enactment July 4-7 (this is the second; the first was held last weekend—the two groups apparently couldn’t reconcile their differences on how to run the events). The re-enactments don’t take place on the actual battlefield but on private property—the one coming up will be held at Redding Farm north of town.
I read an article about the re-enactors, and the writer noted that these “hobby groups” generally get along well with each other, as they share the goal of educating the public and memorializing conflicts, especially as our country observes the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, through 2015. Vicksburg National Military Park, for one, wraps up its events tomorrow, the fourth of July, by observing the day the Confederates finally surrendered after a months-long campaign, another critical win for the Union (“Vicksburg is the key!” declared President Lincoln. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”).
One re-enactor quoted in the piece said he especially enjoys the camaraderie between the two groups around the evening campfires, where participants swap stories and ideas. That reminded me of the song “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” the melancholy tune popularized during the war:
We’re tenting tonight on the old campground;
Bring us a song to cheer
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
And friends we love so dear.
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting on the old campground.
We’ve been fighting today on the old campground,
Many are lying near;
Some are dead, some are dying,
Many are in tears.
Dying on the old campground.
This video rendition of the song is a stirring visual take on what those campgrounds must have looked and sounded like.
Most Civil War-era songs are tinged with sadness, naturally (one exception being the rousing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”). But perhaps the most memorable and recognizable piece of music to come out of that time is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (hear a beautiful rendition backed by iconic images here):
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
Chorus: Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on!
I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,
His day is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His being that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy let us live to make men free!
While God is marching on.
The verses I quoted at the beginning of this post were the words that inspired Julia Ward Howe to pen the lyrics, to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” (you may remember him as the fiery and controversial pre-Civil War abolitionist), which arose out of the 19th century Christian camp meeting movement. The song links the end-times judgment, as outlined in Revelation 19, and Jesus’ final war with Satan (Revelation 20), with the Civil War.
Nowadays, when society is less Bible-literate, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is seen mainly as a patriotic hymn, and the Christian meaning is essentially unknown and unheeded. But make no mistake: just as there was a four-year-long war that threatened to break up the United States, there will be the biggest battle you’ve ever seen, a concluding showdown between good and evil, between those who have believed and received Jesus as their Savior, and those who have actively rejected or indifferently ignored Him.
That “sifting out” of hearts before the judgment seat is outlined more specifically in Matthew 26:31-46 and Revelation 20:11-15. Like Confederates at the end of the Civil War, those found on the losing side in this last, epic battle will have no happy ending: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelations 20:15).
God’s final verdict will be sharp, cutting, fierce and decisive (Revelation 19:15), but also right, true and faithful (v. 11), because He is the ultimate Judge over all (v. 16). He has graciously, patiently and continually invited us to seek and find Him (Jeremiah 29:11-14, John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, Revelation 3:20), and given us plenty of warning of what is to come (Jeremiah 18:11-12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, 2 Peter 3:10-12, Revelation 22:12-14).
My prayer is that while you honor those who died to secure a unified nation with freedom for all, you’ll also make sure your todays, tomorrows and eternal future are secure as well, by accepting the gift Jesus bought for you with His death and resurrection (Titus 3:3-7), providing a freedom from sin, guilt and death, way more than any war could ever accomplish (John 8:32, 36; Romans 8:1-2; Galatians 5:1)
That’s better than fireworks on July 4th!