You may have noticed that the Worship team at UCM has been introducing a few new songs. The first of these was ‘Is He Worthy’ by Shane & Shane (2019)—at least that is how it appears in our UCM@UBC SongBank. The song was originally written and released by Andrew Peterson on his Resurrection Letters Vol 1 album in 2018—I recommend you give the original arrangement a listen if you have the chance. I thought it would be worthwhile to introduce this song, elucidate some of the lyrics and themes, and spend a bit of time articulating why it has been introduced to our community.
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I would categorize this song as a ‘Liturgical’ one. That might sound intimidating or foreign to you, so let me explain: The term ‘liturgy’ comes from a conjunction of the Greek stems leitos and ergon. The former loosely means ‘public, or ‘of the people’ and the latter means ‘work’ or ‘deed’—together they are taken as ‘public duty’. In a Christian context, liturgy generally refers to how the people in a congregation are involved in the worship service. A church might have a more involved style of liturgy with readings, confessions, prayers read aloud by both the person with the mic and the people. A church might have a less involved style of liturgy, or a more individualistic style of liturgy that only extends to peoples’ private responses to the worship, for example raising hands, clapping along, saying ‘Amen’ during the sermons, etc.
I wanted to introduce ‘Is he Worthy’ because it provides a nice halfway point between a heavier and a lighter style of liturgy. It is good for people to be participating in the worship service—the worship is, after all, not about them but about the object of worship, God himself—and it is good for us to have a mixture of more corporate and individual participation. Thus, the call and response style of the song is supposed to emulate the more involved and corporate style of liturgy, but it falls in the context of a contemporary Christian worship song. This song is powerful because it gives us, the congregation, the people, an opportunity to respond with simple affirmations to biblical statements.
Turning to the lyrics now; ‘Is He Worthy’ utilizes a few metaphors and allusions that might be confusing to some. As such, I will go through, pick a few of these out, explain what they mean and why we sing them.
The whole song, but especially the first two verses are best understood in light of what might be called an eschatological orientation. (Eschatological is a fancy word referring to the study of the end-times: death, judgement, Jesus’ place in that, and the hope of eternal life with him). This means the song is oriented towards the end-times and is marked by Hope—Hope in what is to come and Who is to bring it about. The phrase “New Creation” in the second verse refers to the Christian Hope and belief that God will come back one day to redeem His people and His creation—He will make what is broken and deep in shadows new. “The glory of the Lord…the light within our midst” is a reference to Revelations 21:22-25, a description of the ‘New Jerusalem’ that has no need for the sun or the moon because the Glory of God gives it light. “Does our God intend to dwell again with us?” might be a genuine question that you are asking, not statement you are affirming: this is in reference to a theme that persists throughout scripture, the theme of God dwelling with his people. It would take up too much space to elucidate how that is worked out throughout scripture, for my analysis would start with Genesis 1 and would continue through to Revelations 22. In the meantime, it is adequate for me to say that it is God’s ultimate plan to dwell with his people—Jesus said that “…this is eternal life, [to know] the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent”—it is and has always been God’s plan to dwell with us.
In the chorus, the reference to one who “breaks the seal and opens the scroll” is likewise a reference from Revelation. This time it is from chapter 5 verse 2—No one from heaven or earth is able to open the scroll except the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” who has conquered (Rev 5:5). The Lion is identified as coming from the Tribe of Judah and being the Root of David—these are references to the Messiah, prophesied to be of the “Stump of Jesse” (The father of King David) in Isaiah chapter 11. The genealogies in both Matthew and Luke place Jesus at the bottom of this line, of the tribe of Judah and a descendent of David. This Lion is then associated with the Lamb who stands in the midst of a throne (Rev 5:6). We know this to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), the Lamb sung to in Revelations 5:9-10. This Lion/Lamb is the very person who died to take away the sins of the world, the one whose blood was poured out as an offering for sin, the one who has conquered sin and death, the one who rose from the grave and the one who grants us new life. This is the Lamb who is victorious and the Lion who was slain; this is the ultimate paradox and the ultimate expression of love and power. This is our King Jesus.
If I’m honest, I had to take a break from writing for a moment. I love this song for two reasons: its eschatological orientation, which I mentioned above, and that it centers this orientation on Jesus. The first two verses paint a bleak picture of our world but allude to the hope that there’s something better. The chorus brings us to bear on the foundation of that Hope: The Lion/Lamb, the one who conquered and who was slain, Jesus. “My hope is built on nothing less/than Jesus blood and righteousness” (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Sovereign Grace Music). The third verse provides a beautiful trinitarian understanding of our triune God’s love for us: The Father’s love for us, The Son’s work as a manifestation of that love, and the Spirit as the continuation of that love. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We can face the darkness around us, the brokenness of this world, the peril of our groaning creation, the turmoil of our political climate both home and abroad, the hurt in homes and families, the self-love and selfishness that seem to dictate the world around us, only because we have a Hope set on something else: Hope set on eternal life with our Father, bought by the blood of the Son, fortified by the work of the Spirit.
So, Is He Worthy? Next time we sing this, I would encourage you to dwell on the lyrics and ask yourself that question. Is he worthy of the songs we sing, of the honor and glory that we give him? I would encourage you to sit down with Revelations 5, read the whole chapter. Then skip ahead a bit to Revelations 21:1-10, 22-27. Then stand up and sing that last chorus with all of the strength you have, for truly, “He is.”
Jameson is one of the staff members a UCM at UBC. He's currently studying at Regent College in Vancouver. Check out his full bio here.