This is just about the most militaristic, jingoistic hymn we have available. There are soldiers right there in the title, and we sing about “marching as to war” and going “forward into battle.” It has a sharp, crisp cadence to it, making you feel like you want to stand up and march. You want to strap on a helmet, grab a sword and shield, and do battle with the adversary. It’s a pump-up song at its finest.
Only despite all the military zeal drummed up by the hymn, at no time do we sing about weaponry, injury, or even attacking at all. We gather behind Christ, the royal Master, we march into battle… and that’s it, right? Why are we marching into battle if we’re not even armed? How do we expect to come off conqueror against the enemy?
Well, it’s not as though we’re completely unarmed. We remember hearing Paul describe the armor of God as he taught that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of the world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” We’re waging a war against an enemy that can’t simply be cut into little pieces. We’re battling an enemy composed of ideas, temptations, and allurement. So we protect ourselves with truth, righteousness, preparation, and faith. We take up the sword of the Spirit–not to take the offensive, but to defend ourselves against the enemy’s parries and thrusts.
We do have one weapon in our arsenal, though. In the second verse, we sing that “hell’s foundations quiver at the sound of praise.” We’ve heard that in the scriptures before, too. The children of Israel circled Jericho over and over, doing nothing but walking. But when they circled the city that seventh time, Joshua called out to them, “Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city,” and while the scriptures don’t explicitly say that they were shouts of praise, I imagine the knowledge that the Lord had given them the victory without having to raise so much as a hand couldn’t help but make those shouts of praise.
Like a mighty army moves the church of God, but it’s not up to us to do the fighting. The Lord can fight His own battles, and He, in fact, does just that. We’re all too willing to leap into the fray, but more often than that, it’s not what He asks of us. He wants us to remain with the group and assume a defensive position. “We are not divided,” we sing of our united army. “One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.” While the Lord fights our battles, we defend one another, building up faith, watching out for temptation, and looking after our fellow saints. The Savior leads out against the foe, and we follow, singing shouts and anthems of praise, causing the enemy to flee before us.
So we sing with military zest and precision. The snappy beat and meter fills us with pep and zeal. We stand up and begin marching as to war, but not to the actual war itself. We form ranks, fill lines, and assume our positions, ready to defend the kingdom of God and its citizens. Our job isn’t to take the offensive and deliver the crushing, finishing blow to Satan; that job has already been completed, as we remind ourselves by the fact that we are led by the “cross of Jesus going on before.”