It’s so hard for me to pick a favorite song off an album as great as this one, but if I was pressed hard I’d probably say my favorite is Deliver Us. Partially this is because I’m such a fan of Derek Webb — who sings this song on the album as well as in most of the live concerts — but mostly because the lyrics and melody are so beautiful!
Our enemy, our captor is no pharaoh on the Nile
Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand
Our ankles bear no calluses from chains, yet Lord, we’re bound
Imprisoned here, we dwell in our own land
Deliver us, deliver us
Oh Yahweh, hear our cry
And gather us beneath your wings tonight
Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay
These shackles they were made with our own hands
Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give
So Yahweh, break this silence if you can
How often I have longed
To gather you beneath my gentle wings’
This haunting song is a lament, coming from the perspective of a faithful Jew who is longing for the Messiah during the inter-testamental period. This period is known as the “silent years”, because from about the 4th century BC until John the Baptist, God sent no prophets to the people of Israel. There was no new revelation; God seemed to have abandoned His people.
During this time, the Jews lived in the land God had given them, and they had their temple in Jerusalem (reconstructed in 516 B.C. after the temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.), yet they were never really free. Even when the temple was reconstructed and the people returned to Israel after their Babylonian exile, they were under the rule of the Persian empire. The Persians were defeated by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, who then began to rule the Jews.
Upon Alexander’s death, rule of Palestine was divided. The Ptolemaic Empire controlled the Jews from 320 to 198 B.C., when the Syrian Seleucid Empire took control. About 35 years later, a Jewish priest led a revolt against the Seleucids, who had forbidden the Jews to practice their religion and their sacrificial system. The revolt was successful, and the Jews were led for about a hundred years by a family of Jewish priests known as the Maccabeans. These priests, however, became corrupt and oppressive, causing Jewish leaders to ask the Roman general Pompey to come and remove them. This began the Roman rule of Jerusalem, which was in place at the time of Christ.
Throughout this entire period, faithful Jews looked for the promised redeemer, but God remained silent. His last word to them had been that the “sun of righteousness” would rise for those who feared the Lord, bringing healing to His people and victory over the wicked (Malachi 4:2-3). Until then, they were to remember the Law of Moses (Malachi 4:4), and watch for the prophet Elijah who would come before “the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5-6). This last promise was fulfilled by John the Baptist, a prophet who came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Matthew 11:13-4; Luke 1:16-17).
The phrase “gather us beneath your wings” refers to the act of redemption according to Jewish custom. One of my favorite books in the Bible is Ruth, which tells the story of a man (a descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph) who exemplifies many aspects of the Lord’s character. He acts as a kinsman-redeemer for a widow named Ruth. In Ruth 2:12 and 3:9 we see this terminology used, as Boaz gathers Ruth under his wings to redeem her.
The last couple lines of this song are sung by Andrew Peterson, not Derek Webb. These words are the echo of Jesus Christ’s lament shortly before his death (Matthew 23:37). Though God had been silent, He had not forgotten His people. He laments their disobedience and their refusal to come to him (John 5:40). Thankfully, He is a faithful God, who overcame our inability to come to Him, and descended to Earth as the righteous Redeemer for which Israel was longing.
This song is followed by the first of the album’s two excellent instrumental features. It’s an arrangement of one of my favorite Christmas carols, O Come, O Come Emmanuel; a beautiful hymn of expectation expressing Israel’s longing for her Messiah. The prophet Isaiah had written: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)“. Israel’s waiting ended when the virgin Mary did conceive and bear a son, fulfilling the words of the prophet (Matthew 1:20-23).