I will call upon the Lord,
Who is worthy to be praised;
So shall I be saved from my enemies!
The Lord liveth
And blessed be the rock
And let the God of my salvation be exalted!
The words to this song are adapted from Scripture, from the text of II Samuel 22 and/or Psalm 18 (both contain parallel ideas and language). They were set to music by Michael O’Shields in 1981. At the time, O’Shields was struggling in a ministry career to make ends meet for himself and his family. As his family’s provider, he looked up to God for help. Though the song is written in a major key with a jaunty bounce and echo, it – and the scriptures from which it was taken – are written from a heartbroken distress and they look forward to the happy assurance of these lyrics.
I Will Call Upon the Lord was O’Sheilds’ only published song – he does not consider himself an especially musical individual – but it is one that has become engraved in the hymnody of the churches of Christ and of the larger evangelical world. The Christian Rock group Petra recorded I Will Call Upon the Lord for their 1989 album The Rock Cries Out, catapulting the praise and worship song into the limelight and consciousness of the early “CCM” movement (“Contemporary Christian Music”).
What does it mean “I will call upon the Lord”? How do we “call upon the Lord”?
All the way back in Genesis the Bible observes a distinction between those who are worldly and those who “call upon the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (4:25f). The sins of jealousy and hatred had welled up in Cain as he murdered his brother Abel, but God gave Adam and Eve another heir – Seth – through whom the promised victory against the serpent would come (3:15).
Abram, the father of faith, is said to have “called upon the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ,” having built an altar (12:8; 13:4; 26:25). Over and over the Old Testament sees individuals and the nation “calling upon the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Dt. 4:7, Jdg. 15:18; I Sa. 12:17f; etc.) – they are reaching out to Him for their salvation.
The words of this praise song come particularly from II Samuel 22:4-7, “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I called. From His temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to his ears…” In the rest of the chapter God is seen riding out from heaven to rescue the one who calls upon his name. The Lord thunders from heaven, rescues, supports, delights, rewards, delivers – He thoroughly and completely saves from danger and death the one who calls out to Him.
In Joel 2, the prophet writes of future destruction, a terrifying and impending doom. “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lᴏʀᴅ is coming; it is near … the day of the Lᴏʀᴅ is great and very awesome; who can endure it?” (Joel 2:1, 11). He proceeds to write about total devastation, but holds out a ray of light. He speaks of the righteous actions of fasting, mourning, weeping, and being heartbroken in repentance; he speaks of consecration and “returning to the Lord your God.”
If we casually read Joel 2, we might think that Joel is talking about the end of the world. Of course, if Joel’s words were literally true, “the sun [would be] turned to darkness, and the moon to blood,” meaning an entire end to life on Earth – the literal end of the world. However, this can’t be the end of time, as he holds out hope for returning to God and escaping the judgment. He envisions a remnant (“survivors,” 2:32) who will find renewed faithfulness and keep their covenant with God. These are people who have the same spirit as Seth, as Abraham, and all other men and women throughout Bible history who “called upon the name of the Lord.” Joel says, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:32). At this point, time waits for the prophecy of destruction – and salvation – to be fulfilled.
In Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s powers are made manifest as He gifts the apostles with the miraculous ability to speak in tongues. What sounds like gibberish to some sounds like the sweet voice of home to others. Facing an accusation that the apostles are drunkenly babbling on, Peter stands up and declares that the apostles are not in fact drunk, but affirms “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). He then quotes Joel 2:28-32 about the coming destruction, noting that there is a promise of rescue made to those “who call upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21). He has their attention – danger is imminent, but there’s light and promise if they will humble themselves!
The rest of his sermon squarely puts the hope of Israel – their salvation – upon the long-awaited Messiah/Christ. However, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ when he says, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men … This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” They crucified their only hope, the one sent from God to save and rescue them.
In bleak despair Peter’s audience interrupts him and asks, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Now, he’d already told them what to do, hadn’t he? “Call upon the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ.” What are they really asking? They’re asking, “How do we ‘Call upon the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ’?”
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
To people who were convicted of their sins, convinced of the Lordship of Jesus (including his death, burial, and resurrection) – Peter said, “turn away from sin and be immersed – every one of you – by the authority of Jesus Christ” and there will be two results, “forgiveness of your sins” and “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is God’s promise to them, to their children, and to us – anyone who is called by the gospel of Christ (II Thess. 2:14) receives this same promise in Jesus! It’s the same promise God made by prophecy – “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21).
They thought about it and three thousand agreed to submit to the Lord Jesus! What did it look like for them to “call upon the name of the Lord” in Acts 2? How does the Bible say they accepted the promise of God? “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
Later a different apostle – Paul – would tell his own testimony of meeting Jesus on the road to the city of Damascus, a destination at which he intended to imprison and even execute Christians. As evil and as cruel as his heart and been as he persecuted Christians, and even Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4f), the promise of salvation was open to him as well. What did he need to do? He, too, needed to “call upon the name of the Lord.” What was he told that looks like? The preacher told him, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16) Paul called upon the name of the Lord in the same way that the crowds on Pentecost did – by being baptized into Jesus the Christ.
Baptism is more than just getting wet; baptism is a great moment of submission, of passivity. It’s not an action (“work”) we perform, it’s a passive action that’s done to us. And it’s not even the preacher or “baptizer” that’s doing the work; God is the one at work in baptism (Col. 2:11-15). God is faithful to the promise He made on Pentecost – if we will call, He will answer.
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
“The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be my God, the rock of my salvation…” (II Samuel 22:47)