Everlasting Arms, track number seven on “Modern Vampires of the City,” is a lyrically convoluted song with a plethora of mixed references. Under most circumstances this would be frustrating, but in this song’s case it perfectly fits the message that it’s trying to convey. Carl Laamanen over at mbird.com beautifully describes this song’s nuances. He writes:
“Everlasting Arms” is one of the most profoundly spiritual songs I’ve heard this year, as Koenig’s lyrics vacillate between faith and doubt, often within the same line. With repeated refrains and a sporadic organ, “Everlasting Arms” reminds me of a hymn, even though its lyrics are the uncertain ramblings of broken man. In that regard, perhaps it is a perfect hymn…”
I couldn’t agree more. Personally, this song paints a picture of someone like Job or the author of Lamentations trying to find comfort in God in the midst of conflicting realities. Check out the similarities:
“I took your counsel and came to ruin, Leave me to myself, leave me to myself…I thought it over and drew the curtain, Leave me to my cell, leave me to my cell…”-VW
Job 7:16-19 “I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, 18 visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone.”
Job 10:20 “leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer”
“Hold me in your everlasting arms, Looked up full of fear, Trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down” -VW
Lamentations 3:7-13 “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver…”
Lamentations 3:21-24 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Here, as the mbid.com post hinted, Ezra Koenig oscillates between faith, doubt, anger, and frustration towards God. I love this, because the Bible does the same thing. More than this, any honest person of faith does this as well.
Another thing that makes these contrasts all the more compelling are the two hymns that are referenced in this song: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and the “Dies Irae (Day of Wrath).” Look at the contrasts:
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,Leaning on the everlasting arms;What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,Leaning on the everlasting arms.
O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,Leaning on the everlasting arms;O how bright the path grows from day to day,Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,Leaning on the everlasting arms;I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,When from heaven the Judge descendeth,On whose sentence all dependeth.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,Yet, Good Lord, in grace complying,Rescue me from fires undying!
My prayers are not worthy:however, Thou, Good [Lord], do good,lest I am burned up by eternal fire.
Here it appears that Koenig is simultaneously yearning for God’s grace (i.e. Everlasting Arms) and fearing his wrath and Judgement (i.e. Dies Irae). Thus, as it was with the song “Unbelievers,” Koenig is wrestling with themes of law and gospel and judgement and grace. It seems as though Koenig in this song and the whole album for that matter is, to barrow a phrase from Martin Luther, experiencing the Agonizing Struggle (Tentatio) where God teaches us new things. Paraphrasing Luther, Oswald Bayer writes:
“It [the Agonizing Struggle] brings one into the situation in which ‘everything disappears/ and I see nothing but my nothingness and destruction,’ in which I become and enemy to myself and the entire world becomes my enemy; ye, even God himself causes agony for me…”
“For the agonizing struggle ‘teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting… God’s Word is.'”
In this way Koenig’s song “Everlasting Arms” gives us a voice in those moments when we’re crushed by the law and yearning for grace. One’s faith is not a straight ladder to heaven, but is more often then not; like this song; a convoluted mess that simultaneously runs from and toward God. The comfort for the Christian in all of this mess is that while we’re running God is pursuing us in grace. Or to quote the words of Lamentations again:
Lamentations 3:22, 23 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.