Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying….
Judges 5:1 (NRSV)
For centuries, nations celebrated key military victories with song. Back in the Exodus, Moses’ song was sung after the victory over the Egyptians. Psalms 18, 20, and 118 are examples of songs of victory in David’s day. Today, the practice is more apt to be associated with athletic victories. When our beloved Cubbies win (over 100 times this past season!) I can’t help but break out in the refrains of “Go, Cubs, Go! Hey Chicago whattaya say? The Cubs are gonna win today!”
The practice had several practical elements.
First, it united the people in celebration. There’s nothing quite like everyone joining together in song. We do it in almost all communal events. In church we have hymns. In pubs we have drinking songs. At sporting events we have fight songs. Songs bring people together as one in the moment, and a victory is a key moment for such an event.
Second, it helps assure historic memory. I’m sure most ancient victory songs are forgotten in time, but the victory songs of Moses, Deborah and David have lasted millennia and I myself remember singing the song of Moses in Sunday School. A good victory song was a way that a victory might be memorialized forever.
Third, it would encourage future generations. As victory songs were sung through time, they inspired and encouraged soldiers that victory was possible for them, too. “If them, then why not us?” soldiers would think as they sang the familiar victory songs and shored up their anxious souls.
Also, the victory song could be instructive. Armies feeling good about themselves, basking in the glow of their achievement, could be reminded to be grateful and humble. Battles can go either direction and there’s no sense in gettin’ the big head. Thank God for the victory. There’s a great scene at the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V after the historic battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered 5 to 1, the British pulled out an improbable victory over the French.
Shakespeare penned this dialogue between Henry and his Captain (and cousin) Fluellen:
“Non nobis” and “Te Deum” is the latin version of “Not to us, but to Thy name be glory.”
Today, I’m thinking about victory and encouragement and community and humility. I enter today with a handful of songs on my lips.