A true story. This version originally published in: “Thank You Therapy: Winning the Worry War” by Don Baker
In the year A.D. 320, in a vain effort to impede the growth of the church, the Roman Emperor Valerius Licinius decreed that all civil servants and members of the military must offer sacrifice before the local gods. One cold, winter morning, the order was read to the Twelfth Legion, stationed at Sabaste in Armenia, and the soldiers were called upon to demonstrate their loyalty to Caesar through the prescribed offering. But there were forty Christians in the ranks of the legion, who informed their captain that they could not sacrifice on a pagan altar.
The commander was dismayed. Dare these men defy the emperor? Yet, knowing they had proven their bravery many times on the field of battle and not wanting to inflict punishment upon them, he ordered the Christian soldiers placed in confinement overnight, to reconsider their decision. Next morning they were brought forth and again commanded to worship the pagan gods. Again they refused. “We have made our choice,” they said, “We shall devote our love to our God.”
At this, the captain grew angry and ordered the men bound over in custody of the jailer, to await arrival of the general who would pass sentence. During this period of imprisonment, often the soldiers could be heard singing psalms of praise to their God. When the general arrived, the men were informed that if they did not obey the emperor’s decree, they would be delivered over for torture. Unshaken, the Christians replied: “You can have our armor, and our bodies as well. We prefer Christ!”
Early the following morning, sentence was pronounced. The men were to be led to the shore of a nearby frozen lake, and there, at sundown, they were to be stripped and escorted out to the middle of the ice, to await death by freezing. Because of their high reputation for valor, however, the general had ordered that they be given the privilege of recanting at any time. To encourage this, a heated bathhouse on the shore was readied for any of the soldiers who were willing to renounce their faith and return to the comfort of the world.
A bitter wind whipped over the lake’s surface as the men were driven out, shivering in the dusk. Guards were posted on the shore, among them the jailer in whose custody they had been kept during their days of imprisonment.
Then one of the forty soldiers lifted his voice out on the lake and began to sing. He was soon joined by the others:
Forty soldiers for Christ! We shall not depart from You as long as You give us life.
We shall call upon Your name Whom all creation praises. On You we have hoped, and we are not ashamed.
Powerfully they sang, while the ice chilled their feet. The night air resounded with one song of praise after another. But as the hours passed, their songs grew more feeble, until finally they could not be heard by the men on shore.
Then a strange thing happened. One of the forty was seen emerging from the darkness, staggering toward the shore. The guards posted there were dozing, except the jailer, who through the night stood motionless, peering out upon the lake, his ears straining to hear the mumbled prayers of the dying Christians.
“Thirty-nine good soldiers of Christ,” came a thin faltering voice from the distance. The jailer watched the man fall to his knees and crawl into the bathhouse.
At that moment, something happened in the heart of the jailer. Only he and God will ever know what it was. But the guards reported hearing a shout that woke them from their sleep. Opening their eyes, they saw the jailer wrench off his armor and run to the lake. Lifting his right hand he cried, “There are forty good soldiers of Christ!” Then, marching out on the ice into the darkness, he began to sing:
We shall not depart from You as long as You give us life. We shall call upon Your name Whom all creation praises.
On You we have hoped, and we are not ashamed.
In the morning the forty men, including the jailer, were found in the middle of the lake, huddled together in a frozen heap. As the captain watched their bodies being carted away, suddenly he turned to one of the guards and demanded, pointing to the jailer, “What is he doing there?”
“We cannot understand it, captain,” replied a guard. “It was far into the night, when all of a sudden he jumped to his feet, shouted something, stripped off his armor, and ran out on the lake.”
“Was he bewitched?” the captain asked.
“Probably, sir. Ever since those Christians came under his care, we have noticed something different about him. At times he would be singing under his breath. It was a bad sign, we decided. Too much music is bad for soldiers. Makes them strange. Don’t you think so, captain?”
Yes, too much singing in the Spirit does seem odd, in a world that has no lasting joy. Such happy troubadours of song are earth’s misfits, but they are no strangers in heaven. And one cannot be around them long, before sensing a tug, something of that pull of another world, where joy unceasingly erupts from love, and praise to the Lamb never ends.