I can’t remember richer times of worship than at the bedside of my dying grandfather. I am not usually given to singing (especially solo), but I surprised myself when, in the rollercoaster of the few days leading up to his departure, I could not sing enough to him.
My family shared many precious (and very hard) moments together as he lay dying. Through tears, we spoke with him while we could, reminding him of our great appreciation and love for him, reminding him of his great hope, his great Savior. And as his senses rapidly declined, the final faculty to remain was his hearing.
So, we stood there with him, on the shore of eternity, praying, reading, and singing him into glory. A few hours before the Lord took him home, we sang Rock of Ages, and he tried to mouth along. Our voices in his ears, soon gave way to Christ’s.
Sing Them Home
I won’t pretend to have much experience at the bedside of dying saints. But I do know that when I sat for days at the side of one I loved most dearly, I could not stop singing and humming songs of Christ. As my grandfather unmoored from this world, and set off to sea, I wanted to remind him — and myself — of Jesus. And my soul longed for expression that only music could afford. I wouldn’t have exchanged those songs for any other words. So I recommend, if God affords you the opportunity, sing your loved ones home.
And know that it matters which songs you choose. Reflecting on those precious moments, I can identify four aspects, in particular, that made some songs a natural soundtrack as his final page was being turned.
Songs of Jesus
Bad songs, like the Pharisees’ biblical interpretations, have religious themes woven throughout but refuse to go to Jesus to have life (John 5:39–40). Michael Reeves’s piercing observation of Spurgeon exposes what can too readily be applied to our songs: “Spurgeon preferred to speak of preaching ‘Christ’ than preaching ‘the gospel,’ ‘the truth,’ or anything else, because of how easily we reduce ‘the gospel’ or ‘the truth’ to an impersonal system.”
“We sing in the face of death because our hope is stronger than the grave.”
Sing songs that remind them of the dying of Christ — present him before their closing eyes. Remind them about what he has done and that he is. Sing of the Christ loving, living, and reigning over death right now: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18).
Below are some of the verses we enjoyed most:
Come, behold the wondrous mystery:
Slain by death, the God of life —
But no grave could ever restrain him.
Praise the Lord, he is alive!
What a foretaste of deliverance,
How unwavering our hope!
Christ in power resurrected
As will we be when he comes.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Oh, that day when freed from sinning
I shall see thy lovely face.
Clothed then in the blood-washed linen,
How I’ll sing thy wondrous grace.
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry;
Take my ransomed soul away.
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.
Sing songs that explicitly plead, point to, and worship Jesus Christ — the only Mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). Let his name — the only name by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12) — spring forth from your lips.
Songs That Stare Down Death
The Christian inherits a hymnal that does not hide from death. We alone are those freed from the “lifelong slavery” to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). We do not pretend that death is not coming. We do not pretend it is not an enemy. Yet, we can stare it in its face — with all its horror — because, through Christ, it is not final. In its face, the Christian alone has reason to do what would be foolish to imitate: we sing.
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness:
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
Then shall my latest breath Whisper thy praise; This be the parting cry My heart shall raise; This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Lord, to thee, More love to thee!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
We sing in the face of death because our hope is stronger than the grave. Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, has conquered Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18; 20:13–14). Our songs acknowledge that the foul vessel must now set sail to bring us to heaven.
Most of the songs we sang in the hospital room were hymns. Hymns are not the only tradition that honors Christ. We sang these songs because my grandpa knew them and could sing along in his heart — long after his mouth stood silent and his eyes no longer could read the lyrics. Whatever you sing, sing songs they can sing in the dark.
And here lies an application for all of us: let’s fill our lives now with songs we want to sing while crossing the river Jordan. Songs that will breathe fresh courage when it comes time for us to draw our oars and set off to the next world.
“Corporate worship is a weekly dress rehearsal for when our day comes.”
Memorize the lyrics. Sing them to your children. “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19–20). Why set sail in silence when our souls are desperate for a soothing melody?
Songs of Dying Saints
Singing at the beside of my grandpa reawakened me to what our Sunday gatherings truly are: dying saints singing with other dying saints of our living hope. Corporate worship is a weekly dress rehearsal for when our day comes. All of our outer selves are wasting away, even as our inner selves are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). We spring forth rivers of living water, and the gentle babble of our soul’s brook is song. We make music in our hearts because we love him.
Every weekend we gather, we are preparing to wade into death and arrive on the other side to eternal life. Whether our loved ones currently sing by our side, or we sing over their grave, no matter how low our notes will go in lament, our songs will eventually rise to the height of the hope we share in Jesus Christ. We are all singing each other home.
When these poor lisping, stammering tongues
Lie silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
We’ll sing his power to save.
We’ll sing his power to save.