Our choir at church is preparing for the annual Hanging of the Green and a Christmas cantata. Two of the songs we sing, “Sleeping Adonai” and “Make my Life a Bethlehem,” evoked some thoughts from me that I have shared with the rest of the choir. I am putting those notes here:
A Few Thoughts on Two of our Songs this Christmas
As we sing the song, “Sleeping Adonai,” how should we think about these words? What does it mean to say that the infant Jesus is Adonai asleep? To answer this, it would be good to begin with an understanding of the word Adonai. Adon is a Hebrew word that is usually translated as lord, often in reference to a human lord. Adonai is a particular form of the word that could be translated as my lord, but it is used only in reference to God and is simply translated Lord.
There is another more common word that refers to God, however. That word is often read as Yahweh. Yahweh is the name of God in the Old Testament. We find it in Exodus 3 in the conversation between Moses and God. Moses rebuffed God’s command to go to Egypt to bring out the Israelites, asking God, if they ask who the God is who sent Moses, what should he say? “Tell them that Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has sent you,” God says to Moses. While it is unclear what his name means, it is clear that it is God’s name. A passage like Isaiah 45 brings out especially well God’s character and actions, and he uses his name, Yahweh, to great advantage in this passage:
I am Yahweh, and there is no other; besides me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known me.
That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun, that there is no one besides me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no other.
I am the one forming light and darkness, causing well-being and creating disaster.
I am Yahweh who does all these things.
If you are looking in your own Bible, you will notice that it likely reads a little different. Most notably, the word Yahweh has likely been replaced by the LORD. The reason for this translation is that there was an early Jewish tradition, begun before the time of Christ, not to pronounce the name of God for fear of blaspheming the name. So whenever the name of God, Yahweh, came up in the Old Testament, the Jewish tradition was to say the word Adonai in its place. This tradition was followed in the earliest Greek translations, which replaced the name of God with kurios, “lord” in Greek. In effect, rather than translating Yahweh, they were translating the word Adonai which was read aloud in place of the name.
So then we come to Isaiah 45:22-24a:
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is no other.
I have sworn by myself; the word has gone forth from my mouth in righteousness, and I will not turn back,
That to me every knee will bow, and every tongue will swear allegiance.
They will say of me, only in Yahweh are righteousness and strength.
Paul used this passage in Romans 14:11 when he wanted to say that all of us would come under the judgment of God:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
But this was not the only time Paul used Isaiah 45:23. Philippians 2:5-11 represents one of Paul’s most sublime writings about Christ. He tried to show the humility of Christ as he abandoned his place as God and lowered himself to become a man.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Look in particular at verse 11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios], to the glory of God the Father.” Do you hear the echoes of Isaiah 45:23 in this verse?
But see the great irony here. Isaiah 45 is an incredible piece extoling the fact that Yahweh [Adonai/kurios] alone is God. All things come from him. There is no other God beside Yahweh. But now Paul was telling the church in Philippi that at the name of Jesus every name would bow and confess that Jesus is Lord [kurios].
Paul was turning things completely upside down with these kinds of teachings. He was saying, in effect, that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament, whom the Jews confessed was the only God, and beside whom there was no other. Paul would even say in other places that creation happened through this Jesus. There is no mistaking the notion that for Paul, Jesus and the God of the Old Testament were one and the same.
So when we come to our song, Sleeping Adonai, understand the weight of these words you sing. The God of the Old Testament, the creator of all that is, has abandoned his place as God and became a man, even taking the form of a little infant, asleep in a manger. He did this because of a plan that was in place long before, that through him, all those who believed on him would be saved. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, those who believed in him would be forgiven of their sin and would be raised to a new life.
This is what the phrase “Sleeping Adonai” is about.
We are also singing the song, “Make my Life a Bethlehem.” The first time that I went with my wife and son to Italy, we traveled to Naples and took a drive along the Amalfi coast. We were there in the time between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6)—the 12 days of Christmas that we often sing about. We stopped on our drive at one point and found, placed in a hole in the cliff next to the road—almost a tiny cave—a model of the town we had just passed. It was like the old villages that I used to see when I was young that people would build on their model train sets. Here was this tiny little, modern Italian village. But then I noticed something interesting in the corner. Up on a hill, nestled in the middle of the village, was a small barn and inside the barn a light glowed, and if you looked more carefully you could see the infant Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.
As we continued our travels I found that every small town or neighborhood had something like this—a recreation of their modern town and in that town the reenactment of Jesus’ birth. As I reflected on this tradition, I found a very real truth being displayed. While Jesus’ birth is a historical fact that happened in a certain place and time, the significance of that birth for us continues to bear fruit each year that we remember it. Jesus was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. But this Christmas, each of us can celebrate Jesus being born in Wake Forest, and even in our own heart. This happens through our faith in him and our confession that Jesus is Lord (kurios/Adonai/Yahweh).
Have a Merry Christmas!