Make Songs of Joy
A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Text: Juraj Tranovsky (1591-1637)
Translator: Jaroslav J. Vajda (1919-2008)
(Lutheran Service Book 484)
(Primary Biblical References: 1 Corinthians 15:55–57; Isaiah 53:4–6)
Make songs of joy to Christ, our head;
He lives again who once was dead!
Our life was purchased by His loss;
He died our death upon the cross.
O death, where is your deadly sting?
Assumed by our triumphant King!
And where your victory, O grave,
When one like Christ has come to save?
Behold, the tyrants, one and all,
Before our mighty Savior Fall!
For this be praised the Son who rose,
The Father, and the Holy Ghost!
“Make Songs of Joy” was written by Juraj Tranovsky (1591-1637). He is sometimes called the “Father of Slovak hymnody” and sometimes the “Luther of the Slavs.” The son of a blacksmith, he began studies at the University of Wittenberg in 1607. Ordained in 1616, he spend his life teaching and preaching in Prague, Moravia, Silesia, and finally in Slovakia. Under Ferdinand II Lutherans were persecuted, and Tranovsky was imprisoned in 1623. At that time two of his children also died of the plague.
Tranovsky was a lover of poetry and hymns. He issued several collections of hymns, the first being the Latin Odarum Sacrarum sive Hymnorum Libri III in 1629, but his most important and most famous work was Cithara Sanctorum (Lyre/Harp of the Saints), written in Czech, which appeared in 1636. This latter volume has formed the basis of Czech and Slovak Lutheran hymnody to the present day. In addition to hymn collections, Tranovsky translated the Augsburg Confession in 1620 into Czech. These two latter works together with Bible of Kralice are the pillars that supported the Slovak Reformation. Our Lutheran Service Book has three of his hymns.
“Make Songs of Joy” was translated by Jaroslave J. Vajda (1919-2008), a LC-MS pastor and the son of a Lutheran pastor of Slovak decent. He was a prolific hymn writer and translator. It is no surprise that a man whose ancestry is Slavic brings us hymns from the “Father of Slovak hymnody.”
It may, at first glance, seem odd that I’ve picked an Easter hymn for Holy Cross Day. However, not only are Easter hymns always appropriate for Sunday worship because Sunday worship is always done in remembrance of Easter, but I am also drawn to this hymn because of its references to death and the cross.
The joy we have as Christians as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord is expressed right away in the first line of the hymn, “make songs of joy to Christ, our head.” Paul discusses Christ as our head in Ephesians. He wrote: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). The image is always corporate. He is “our” head, not “my” head. So the Church corporate sings songs of joy and we grow in our Christian Faith within the Body of Christ, the Church, of whom Jesus is the head.
The reason for this joy is that our Lord has defeated the enemy. The enemy that receives special attention in this hymn is death. So St. Paul tells the Corinthians:
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul points also to the connection between death and sin. Christ’s victory over death also means his victory over sin. As he is our head and we are his body, his victory is also our victory. So, when we sing “He lives again who once was dead” we also are singing “we” live who once were dead, for we died and rose in Christ. Paul unpacks this connection in Romans 6 when he writes about our baptism. Therefore all images that speak of us as the body of Christ and him as our head are also baptismal. Thanks to Christ’s victory over death, and our connection to it through baptism, death and sin have lost their power over us. Of course Christ was sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21) so our baptismal union with him also grants us his sinlessness. In Christ we are without the stain of sin.
As Paul points out in verse 57, our response is to thank God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ. So our hymn is filled with praise and thanks. The repeated singing of “Alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” keeps that before us, as do the English phrases like “For this be praised the Son who rose … the Father and the Holy Ghost!”
Notice how Paul honestly indicates that we have done nothing to gain this victory—not works, prayers, contributions, and so on. He gives us the victory. In His grace and His unfathomable way, in eternity, He chose those whom He would bring to faith in His Son through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:4); He works through the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus (Romans 1:16), which can be rejected (Acts 13:46). Believers, however, cling to the Scriptures, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42).
Isaiah foresaw what the Messiah would do to earn the victory and wrote about it.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Jesus defeated three enemies: Satan, sin, and death. Satan, the perpetrator of sin, heaps problems upon us. God took all of them and put them on His Son. Those problems include our griefs, sorrows, transgressions, iniquities, and stripes (scourging, wounds, and bruises).
Isaiah wrote, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That is when God accomplished his great purpose. That is what the cross of Christ is all about. Then He rose! Alleluia!