Do You Hear the People Sing?

By Paul Koch

les mis

If you haven’t yet seen the musical “Les Miserable” I highly recommend you do so, the recent movie made of this beloved story is well worth your time.  It is a powerful depiction of the challenge of the Gospel to triumph over the imprisonment of the Law.  At the end of the first act there is a great song, perhaps the most popular song of the musical, often called “The Peoples Song.” It comes right as the people gather in the spirit of revolution, tired of their oppression, longing to be free, they begin to raise their voices and sing:

“Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart

Echoes the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start

When tomorrow comes!”

Songs are powerful things, when they are sung together they unite people they move people, they can bring tears to our eyes and hope to our hearts.  When speaking about hymns in the church Luther said that good hymnody was signing theology itself into your hearts.  Songs get in deeper and linger longer.  Anyone who has gathered around the bed of dying brother or sister in Christ and has dared to sing a hymn knows the power of music to give confidence and courage.

When we gather together in worship we sing, and rightly so, for as the rebellious youth of Les Miserable we join our voices in opposition to the tyranny of sin, death and the devil.

And so it is with great joy that we are given to read Isaiah chapter 12.  For this chapter is a hymn, it is a great song of the ancient people of God, a song for the church throughout all time.  It is a song of salvation and hope, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.  Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”


This is a song of God’s deliverance.  It tells the story of a God that turned away from his wrath, a God that sought to bring comfort to his people though they did not deserve it.  It is a song of mercy and this song is most certainly our song.  It is the song of all the people of God of all time, of every nation and tongue.  For of all the mighty deeds of our Creator the most spectacular is his great work of salvation, his birth, suffering, death and resurrection to reconcile us to the Father.  And so we sing.

But the song of the church is often drowned out by our world, for just as we sing so the world has its own song.  We sing of mercy and the world demands justice, we sign of hope and the world calls for despair, we sing of enduring until the dawning of a new age and the world says that we ought to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  In fact the songs the world come at us with such frequency and power that it is hard to discern them.  They are the constant background noise to our lives.  They are there behind every form of entertainment, every radio program, ever billboard along the highway.

But it is not just he the world that disrupts the churches song; no we don’t help matters ourselves.  You see, even when we hear it, even when we know the song and sing the song we have a distrust of the words we sing.  Even as they fall from our very lips we wonder if they might be too good to be true.  Surely, we say, we must at least show some signs of improvement, surely we must make gains in righteousness if we are to sing such a song.  Otherwise we fear that we sing as hypocrites, we sing falsely, we sign as those who have no business doing so.  We question whether his anger is really turned away, if we need to do more to be worthy of such a gift.

young woman

And between the songs of our world and the doubts of our own hearts and minds and the trouble that brews within each and every one of us the song of the church gets pushed into the background.  Sure it’s there, but it’s hard to hear, it’s difficult to make out the tune and if we are not careful we may even forget the words.

But this song is not going anywhere, it will not be silenced, it cannot be put away.  As we said, this is an ancient song.  In fact even as the prophet Isaiah takes up the chorus we find that it was sung long before he voiced it.  This was the same song sung as the Israelites marched out of Egyptian slavery right through the Red Sea on dry ground.  And so Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  Saved through water.  And who can forget the dark night at Golgotha when our Lord breathed his last and gave up his life for us all.  There they came to break the legs of the men and so put a quick end to their suffering but when they came to Jesus they found that he was already dead so instead the Roman centurion took the spear and pierced his side and what came out?  Blood and water.

And so you to have been gathered together by our God delivered from the slavery of the law of sin and death through the waters of salvation.   He drew up the waters from the wells of salvation and washed you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  This song is your song, not by any work of your own hands, not by any cleverness on your part but because you have been washed and made clean by God himself.  This song is your song because just as he delivered his people Israel so he has delivered each and every one of you.  This song is your song for he has looked upon you in your sin, in your failings and he has said, “You are my own dear children, you are forgiven.”


This song sung in Isaiah is a song both of battle and triumph, it is a song that we sing about a promise that is already given to us, even if we cannot yet see it.  It is a song that we sing about a day that will come, the day promised long ago, the day when our Lord will return in glory, when he will dry every tear and bind every wound, when he will usher us into the new heavens and the new earth.  And so until that day we come together and we sing, we sing to our God, we sing to one another, we sing to our children and we sign to this world, we sing for great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel.

That song of the people from Les Miserable comes up again at the end of the story.  It starts low and picks up as you move to the final scene.  The scene is no longer one of young rebels preparing to fight for their freedom but it is a song of those who now rest from their labors, those who recline at the eternal feast of Christ.  It is the song heard by the hero of the story as he walks into paradise.  And though the tune is the same, though the melody is distinctly heard the words are slightly different.  The voices rise in a great chorus and sing,

“Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes…”