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Calling Down Fire

Spending some of my spiritually formative years in charismatic churches, a common theme I became accustomed to hearing in prayer and song was that of “fire.” We sang songs such as “Refiner’s Fire” and “Light the Fire Again.” It was common to hear prayers to God from the front asking him to “send your fire,” and there were times I saw young Christians, lost in prayer, whispering “Fire” over and over again, as if it were a chant. One popular Hillsong worship piece titled “Fire Fall Down” asks God, over and over: “Fire Fall Down/Fire Fall Down/On Us We Pray.”

The prevalence of the theme of “fire” in evangelical worship is understandable, given the connection of this theme or image with the Holy Spirit. And it is an emphasis going back in the roots of the charismatic movement; William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army and one of the forerunners of Pentecostalism, wrote a song called “Send the Fire” which pleaded for God to do just that. Now, certainly, fire is an important symbol in Scripture. Something never sat right with me, however, with the way this word, this idea, was used. Now, to be fair and honest, I was hardly a discerning Christian in that period of my life, and my discomfort might have had more to do with my own background than any biblical understanding. An artillery officer worshiping in a Pentecostal church is likely to have a different mental image come to mind when “calling down fire” on himself than his brother or sister in Christ next to him!

That secular image is ironically far closer to the truth than the understanding of many modern evangelicals, however. The reason is simple: fire is almost uniformly a picture of judgment in Scripture. It’s easy to point to examples like Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire (Genesis 18-19), as well as the destruction by fire of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:2), of some of Israel in the wilderness at Taberah for complaining (Numbers 11:1-3), of Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16:35), and of Ahab’s soldiers (2 Kings 1:10-12). Even more systematic and widespread in the Old Testament is the sacrificial fire which burns up offerings to the Lord, such as the burnt offering and the guilt offering, and in particular the sin offering (Leviticus 4).

God is frequently described as coming with fire to destroy his enemies (Psalm 97:3, Isaiah 47:14, 66:16). God sent fire along with hail to plague the Egyptians (9:23-24). God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). The Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament described the coming One as a devouring fire, like refiner’s fire (Isaiah 10:17, Malachi 3:2). Jesus stressed that the final destiny of the wicked would be in fire (Matthew 13:42, 25:41). That final judgment which sends them to that fate is itself described as being a fiery event (Daniel 7:10, 1 Thessalonians 1:8).

Certainly there are positive aspects to the presentation of fire in the Bible. Fire is described as a purifying agent (Numbers 31:28, 1 Peter 1:7, Revelation 3:18), an idea that Booth was emphasizing in his hymn. Fire gives warmth to the cold (Mark 14:54) and light to those in darkness (Psalm 105:39). It is used as an image of God’s protective power (Zechariah 2:5). Yet even those positive aspects are inextricably related to the destructive power of fire. Fire purifies because it consumes dross and burns up impurities. Fire gives warmth and light because it consumes fuel, a characteristic that, if allowed to escape control, can be very destructive (Exodus 22:6; see also James 3). Fire is protective of Israel because it implies the destruction of its enemies by God.

So is it a bad thing to pray for God’s fire to fall, or to use the image of fire in our worship? Not at all, in principle; it’s a legitimate (and important) biblical motif. “Refiner’s Fire” is a good example of understanding the biblical meaning and using the motif in worship. But we need to take heed, lest our worship be careless and misguided. We need to use these images and ideas with understanding and fit them in their proper biblical context. Now, the evangelical emphasis on fire is connected with biblical imagery; certainly tongues of fire did fall on the disciples in Acts 2, for instance. Yet Pentecost was a fulfillment of prophecies promising judgment upon Israel, another sign of which was “people of a foreign tongue” speaking to them (Isaiah 28:11) – only to be ignored and then judged (as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 14). The languages that accompanied the tongues of fire at Pentecost were a sign of God’s judgment on Israel (hence why Paul describes tongues as a sign for unbelievers and not believers). The fire that accompanied the words underlined the judgmental nature of the miracle.
Singing, “Send your fire, Lord!” may seem like an innocently pious expression, and it was certainly meant that way in the churches I attended in the past. It was usually understood as an image of revival. And historically, revivals have spread “like wildfires.” Yet understanding what fire actually represents in the Bible makes it very hard to sing and pray that way, as it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re calling down God’s judgment on yourself or on others.
My biggest concern, therefore, is related to the understanding of Scripture that such worship betrays. I fear that an extra-biblical and un-related conception of “fire” as a metaphor, taken from secular ideas, will influence the reading of such imagery in Scripture. Young charismatic Christians approaching the Bible are much more prone to read passages talking about a “spirit of burning” or “river of fire” as referring to an urge to evangelize and spread the Word, when the texts actually say something quite different. In short, I fear that our “Christianese” will actually distort what the biblical text says, because it is importing a foreign concept into our reading. It teaches Christians to read the text in a way that its original authors never understood.
Let's take heed, and allow the Scriptures to inform our worship.

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