I Am Living in a Land of Death

by Nathan Schneider on October 14, 2020

As a worship pastor, it's my responsibility and privilege to think carefully about what we sing as a local church. Corporate worship is immensely important, and overwhelmingly theological. When we sing as a congregation, we are speaking our theology in unison together.

That reality should be profoundly efficacious to you as a believer. For one, it should be quite obvious that this kind of worship is never something you can do on your own. Yes, your whole life is an expression of worship, lived out as a living sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1). But make no mistake, corporate worship doesn't work on your own. The way you worship at home, or with your family, is markedly different than how you worship in your local church. And one of the unique ways in which the church worships is through song (cf. Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

But beyond that, the idea of "speaking our theology in unison together" is profound because it calls us to be accountable for what we sing. Now, I will heartily admit that the church in ages past has often been devoid of passion. Too often, believers have shied away from emotion and have approached corporate worship as wholly cerebral. It would probably surprise us to learn that John Calvin...if there was ever a figure in church history connected with intellect and cerebral Christianity...opened his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion by says, "Properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety." He then goes on the define just what he means by "piety" when he writes,

"By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity." (John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 [Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845], 51-52.)

There's no question in my mind that Calvin would have thoroughly rebuked a stoic, unemotional Christianity devoid of what Jonathan Edwards would later call the "religious affections." The truth of God and the gospel, rightly understood, should affect the person, engaging not only their mind but their whole person. Thus, in the minds of men such as Calvin and Edwards, there is no such thing as emotionless worship.

People, however, in an effort to react to deficiencies in the church, have this uncanny ability to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and land in an equally bad place. Mindless, emotionally-driven music and worship is as equally profitless as affectionless, intellectual worship. The first purports to love God without the mind, while the second purports to know God without it actually affecting him. Both do not engage God in worship.

I fear that far too often today, believers approach the songs we sing as a church without a finely tuned and engaged mind. We tend to gravitate towards songs based on their musical style without heeding much of what is actually contained in the lyrics.

Beyond that, I would venture a guess that even the songs we love because of their content have not undergone a thorough evaluation as to what they say theologically. We know the words are sound, but we don't always take the time to think about why and how they articulate the truths of the faith so effectively. But that's one of the chief characteristics of an effective worship song: how it uses and expounds upon Scripture to formulate a musical theology. I like how Bob Kauflin put it:

"Singing God's Word can include more than reciting specific verses in song. If the Word of Christ is going to 'dwell in [us] richly' (Colossians 3:16), we need songs that explain, clarify, and expound on what God's Word says. We need songs that have substantive, theologically rich, biblically faithful lyrics. A consistent diet of shallow, subjective worship songs tends to produce shallow, subjective Christians." (Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters [Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2008], 92).

With that being said, I've been listening to one song in particular which has captivated me with its lyrical depth and vivid imagery. It's a song which fits perfectly within the current cultural, religious, and political climate of our day. What I found as I listened to this song on multiple occasions, was the immense use of Scripture the writers incorporated into this song in order to communicate and celebrate the life-giving and life-sustaining affects of God's word for the believer. Any song can make theological statements. But a good and effective worship song paints pictures, engages the mind and the emotions, and weaves God's word in with the poetry of the songwriter.

That's what I discovered with the song I am Living in a Land of Death by Brian Eichelberger and Zach Bolen. Surprisingly, this song is not brand new. It was written in 2012. But it's words strike a particularly powerful chord today as we look around at the situations before us. At the end of this blog, I'll give you a link to hear the recording of the song as performed by the band Citizens, but before you hear it, I want you to engage with this song and understand the Scripture and theology behind it.

VERSE 1

The opening verse of the song paints the picture of the Fall and its ravages. The imagery is powerful and evocative. Death, darkness, smoke...these are the totems of the world as portrayed in the opening lines, and the verse is extremely effective at setting up the hope that comes in the remainder of the song:

I am living in a land of death
The trees are burnt and grey
There's a smoldering smoke overhead
And the night looks the same as the day
It seems a miracle that I can stand
When everyone I've known
Drifts up in the air with the ash
Every time that the wind starts to blow

Even within these words, which are the least Scripture-laced portion of the song, there are echoes of biblical descriptions which should ring familiar to us. Death, smoldering smoke, darkness, ash...these are motifs which accompany the day of the Lord and God's judgment on the world. Yet it's apparent that here the words are as much spiritual as they are prophetic. It's not just a world under judgment to which the songwriters point, but also to a world that is spiritually dead, decaying, and destroyed. The point they are making is that the speaker...in this case, the believer...is miraculously alive in an environment which should spell his doom. So perhaps the final judgment is on their minds after all? This is part of the fun of thinking carefully about a song for worship...

Regardless of the emphasis, I can't help but detect a faint trace of Psalm 1 in the closing lines of this verse. I say that only because I know that later on in the song the ties to this important psalm will become more apparent. The words, "when everyone I've know drifts up in the air with the ash every time that the wind starts to blow" reminds me of the illustrative depiction in Psalm 1:4 of the wicked who are "like chaff which the wind drives away."

Still further, Psalm 1 goes on to articulate the ultimate fate of the wicked: "Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish" (Ps 1:5-6). The fact that the songwriter/singer thinks it a "miracle that I can stand" reinforces my thought that verse 1 of this song is a poetic illustration Psalm 1:4-6. It is the "wicked," after all, who will "not stand in the judgment." Still more, Psalm 1:3 asserts that the righteous will be life a tree "whose leaf does not wither," which contrasts vividly with the statement in the song that "the trees are burnt and grey."

PRE-CHORUS 1

Following verse 1, we're taken into the first repeated section of the song, usually referred to as a "pre-chorus" or "channel," because it's designed to link the verse into the main chorus of the song. It's here in this section that the songwriter unveils the reason that he remains alive in the midst of this "land of death":

But I feel alive with a life that's not mine
Your law is a stream in this wasteland, my lifeline

Here is where the Scriptural strands really start to thread through this song. We're moving from mere allusion to more overt reference. In this case, the songwriter/singer maintains that he is alive in the midst of death because of a life alien to his own...his life is due to a "life that's not mine."

Immediately, our minds should be springing into action. It is God who "made us alive together with Christ" even while we were "dead in our trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:5; cf. Col 2:12-13). It was Christ who said to his disciples in the upper room, "Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19). In 1 John 4:9, the apostle John writes, "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him." In each of these passages, the emphasis is on our life in and through Christ.

But it's equally apparent in the next line of the pre-chorus that the songwriters have linked the spiritual life of the believer with God's "law," i.e., God's word. In other words, the Christian can sing "I feel alive" in this land of death because of the life-giving effect of God's word, and to this, we must consider those passages which speak of Scripture as that instrumental means for spiritual life. In James 1:18, we read, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth." The language of "bringing forth" speaks of birth, similar in concept to the new birth spoken of in John 1:13 and 3:3. It is that new birth which Peter speaks of when he writes, "He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet 1:3), an act which he then ascribes to the imperishable seed of the "living and abiding word of God" (1 Pet 1:23).

Yet I can't help but point out, once again, the link to Psalm 1. While the judgment in the first verse has caused "everyone I've known" to "drift up in the air with the ash," the Christian is alive in the midst of judgment because "Your law is a stream," which seems to me to be a pretty clear reference to the "streams of water" by which the blessed man...the righteous man...of Psalm 1 is planted (cf. Ps 1:3).

Chorus

From here, we come to the heart of the song. How should a believer respond to God's word, which has made him or her alive in Christ? In what way does intellect and affections marry in the heart of such a person who stands alive in this land of death? The chorus spells it out through a reference to one of the most beloved portions of the psalms which deals with the word of God:

So much more than precious gold are Your promises my Lord
By them is Your servant warned and in keeping them great reward

While Psalm 1 seems to undergird much of the song's verses and pre-chorus, it is Psalms 19 which emerges as the driving text here:

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:10-11)

This is brilliant on the part of Bolen and Eichelberger. The allusions and buried references now break free and there is clear Scriptural quotation from a well-familiar text of Scripture dealing with the Word. It's exactly where the song needed to go. The emphasis is on preciousness and value. As the Word has made the believer alive, it becomes precious and beloved to him: "The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces." (Psalm 119: 72; cf. 119:127).

But note that even the reference to the Word as the means of warning and reward will reappear later in the song.

Verse 2

Beginning in verse 2, the song turns from the the portrait of the judgment on the wicked and it begins to describe the believer who is trusting in and following God's word. Here, we pick back up with Psalm 1, where there are clear allusions and echoes to Psalm 1:2-3.

Your direction is my delight
Your law secures my roots
I will meditate day and night
And in season you'll harvest the fruit
Though the poison should threaten to kill
I know my Savior reigns
And when the breezes of death leave a chill
I've got Jesus' blood in my veins

As I already stated, Psalm 1 runs thickly through these words. It is, after all, the blessed (read: righteous) man who "delights in the law of the LORD" and "meditates [on it] day and night" (Ps 1:2). The effect of that delight and meditation, we learn from verse 3 of the psalm, is that he is spiritually "like a tree planted by streams of water," alluded to in the song by means of the phrase, "Your law secures my roots." Likewise, this thriving location, rooted beside the flowing stream of God's law allows the believer to "yield its fruit in its season" (Ps 1:3b), picked up in the song by the phrase, "and in season you'll harvest the fruit."

The second portion of verse 2 seems to develop the statement made in the chorus and echoing Psalm 19:11 that God's word is that by which "Your servant is warned." I could be reading more into these words than intended, but it seems that the references to "poison" which threatens to kill and "breezes of death" fit with the idea of warning. The final line, "I've got Jesus' blood in my veins," once again harkens back to that "life that's not mine" first introduced in the pre-chorus.

Pre-Chorus 2

In this second pre-chorus, the opening line repeats what was originally sung, but the second line emphasizes something else: the sovereignty of God.

So I feel alive with a life that's not mine
And I'm believing that that was your intended design

I won't repeat the verses mentioned early, namely James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23. But I will simply point out that what they emphasize is the sovereignty of God in the act of new birth. The Christian is made alive "by [God's] own will" (Jas 1:18). "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). There, I had to at least put that in there!

Bridge

After an extended instrumental interlude, the song enters its final section, the bridge, where it slowly builds to an intense and dynamic conclusion. This section is perhaps the most lyrically complex portion of the song, filled with imagery mixed with faint biblical allusions and echoes which reinforce everything that's been sung up to this point. While time won't permit me to expound on everything, certain key passages seem to anchor and drive this final section.

The kingdoms of man have all decayed
The ruins of progress have turned to waste
The gods of greed lay in their graves
Darkness is everywhere

We've returned to the scene of death and judgment first introduced in verse 1. If you were to look closely, you may find trace echoes of Isaiah 24 and other similar passages in the psalms and prophets which speak of the devastation to come upon the world. Lyrically, the songwriters are speaking of the judgment of the end, with that final phrase, "Darkness is everywhere" as the encapsulating statement.

But there's a path in the dark that has emerged
I can see a great light beyond this curse
A brilliant blaze that is your word
A beacon of hope that burns

The language of darkness is broken by the introduction of light as the major theme in connection with the Word. At first it's described as a "path" emerging in the dark, perhaps a veiled reference to Psalm 119:105 which speaks of God's word as being a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path." But then the light grows...it becomes a "great light" which illuminates the world "beyond this curse," a "brilliant blaze" and "beacon of hope that burns." All these phrases reinforce what the word offers to the believer in this lost, fallen, and ultimately cursed and soon-to-be-destroyed world. It offers light, life, hope, direction, and an ultimate end and way out of the curse. In the end, I think the passage that is most clearly in the forefront is 2 Peter 1:19, where the apostle Peter writes, "We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." That morning star is none other than the person of Christ, to which the songwriters turn next.

And I focus my captivated gaze
On the radiant light from Jesus' face
The water of life is all I crave
Only your word remains

Here is where the theology of this song begins to really flourish. The believer, captivated by the brightly burning beacon and brilliant blaze of the word which is illuminating a path through the darkness, gazes intently at that light which is now revealed to be none other than the "radiant light from Jesus' face." Here, the written word meets the incarnate Word in the song, and it becomes clear that what the former points to, anticipates, and reveals, is the latter. It is Christ's face that is the light shining in the darkness. Just as it is Christ's life that is the "life that's not mine."

The passage at center stage here is 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, a text which deals with the illuminating work of God:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

"Those who are perishing" are clearly referenced in the first verse of the song, as well as the beginning stanza of the bridge. In the language of Psalm 1, it is "the wicked" who will not stand in the judgment. In Pauline words, they are those who are blinded by the god of this world. Where the believer sees light, they see darkness. They don't see the "light of the glory of Christ."

But the believer sees more than light. He sees (in the words of the song) "radiant light of Jesus' face," or more fittingly in the words of Paul, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." The life the believer has is because of the illuminating work of God, working through the word, pulling off the blinders of the god of this world so that we may see Christ's glory and have his life.

"Water of life" is obviously a reference to that living water which is so prevalent in Scripture (cf. John 4:10; 7:37; Rev 21:6; 22:17), but look particularly at the phrase, "Only your word remains," which directly quotes from Isaiah 40:8. This reference is fascinating, in that Isaiah is directly contrasting the frailty and transience of mankind (depicted in Isaiah as withering grass, while in the song as the wasteland of verse 1) with the security and eternality of God's word.

So much more than precious gold
Is the beauty I behold
Give my the glorious reward
Of knowing you, my King, my Lord

The final stanza of this extended bridge is really a modified form of the chorus, but the transformation from written Word to incarnate Word continues as the focus moves from the preciousness of "your promises my Lord" in the chorus to "the beauty I behold" in the bridge. Now that the light has been identified ultimately as the light of Christ's face, it is that beauty which is most precious of all.

Remember how I mentioned that the song develops the concepts of "warning" and "reward" from Psalm 19:11? We saw the warning in verse 2. Here, we see the reward come into the picture. The "glorious reward" is simply this: knowing Christ. It's what Paul speaks of when he talks about the "knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). But ultimately, I think Brian Eichelberger and Zach Bolen are actually harkening all the way back to Psalm 1 in this final line, to the final statement of that psalm, which reads, "For the LORD knows the way of the righteous..." (Ps 1:6). Now, you might say, "Wait, the lyrics are talking about us knowing God, not God knowing us." But to that, I'll simply remind you of what Paul told the Galatians: "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God..." (Gal 4:9). Knowledge of God, whether it's our knowledge of him or his knowledge of us, involves relationship, not intellectual assent. As we gaze upon the word, we come face to face with that which reveals Christ to us.

wrap-up

I hope you can see that there's a lot to be gleaned from this song. The songwriters have put a great deal of thought and effort into crafting a song that is not only singable but also littered with the Bible. This little exercise just reinforces Bob Kauflin's words, when he writes,

"Songs are de facto theology. They teach us who God is, what he's like, and how to relate to him. 'We are what we sing,' one man said. That's why we want to sing God's Word." (Kauflin, Worship Matters, 92).

There's a lot that this song can teach us. There's a lot that other songs we sing in church can teach us...if we would take the time to consider what they're saying. 

With that said, if you'd like to hear this song as performed by Bolen and Eichelberger and the band Citizens, you can have a listen. I hope that as you hear the song, regardless of whether you appreciate the indie rock style, you'll have a far greater appreciation for what the song is teaching. Perhaps that will help us as a church to sing out even when we're being asked to sing songs that don't connect with us stylistically.

I am living in a land of death
The trees are burnt and grey
There's a smoldering smoke overhead
The the night looks the same as the day
It seems a miracle that I can stand
When everyone I've known
Drifts up in the air with the ash
Every time that the wind starts to blow

But I feel alive with a lire that's not mine
Your law is a stream in this wasteland, my lifeline

So much more than precious gold
Are your promises, my Lord
By them is Your servant warned
And in keeping them great reward

Your direction is my delight
Your law secures my roots
I will meditate day and night
And in season you'll harvest the fruit
Though a poison should threaten to kill
I know my Savior reigns
And when the breezes of death leave a chill
I've God Jesus' blood in my veins

So I feel alive with a life that's not mine
And I'm believing that that was your intended design

The kingdoms of man have all decayed
The ruins of progress have turned to waste
The gods of greed lay in their graves
Darkness is everywhere

But there's a path in the dark that has emerged
I can see a great light beyond this curse
A brilliant blaze that is your word
A beacon of hope that burns

And I focus my captivated gze
On the radiant light from Jesus' face
The water of life is all I crave
Only your word remains

So much more than precious gold
Is the beauty I behold
Give me the glorious reward
Of knowing you, my King, my Lord

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