The Saints (Are Coming): Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson (1978)


Skids (1979).  Punk.  Album: Scared To Dance.


Green Day and U2, (2006).  Rock/Pop. Album: U218.  This version incorporates additional lyrics and was released to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Von Thronstahl (2008). Neofolk/Electronic.  “Thirtieth anniversary tribute” featuring Runa from V.A.M.P.

The text appears at first to fit the Biblical pattern of a “Psalm of Lament”, a song in which innocents in crisis cry out to God for help and demand an explanation and a restoration.  Questions of theodicy and human culpability attach closest to the U2 and Green Day version whose added verses locate the cry within the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the mismanagement of civic flood defences and levees around New Orleans.

A second reading raises a sense of confusion about the expectation that God will act: the “saints” might be coming, but there’s no reply from “daddy on the telephone”.  Is God so incapable or ambivalent that humankind must act to alleviate its sorrow and grief without divine help?  No specific context is provided by “Skids”, but in Von Thronstahl’s music video the story is one of a (uniformed Nazi) woman who has lost her beloved in the war.  If a closed or resistant Heaven in understood then the song becomes a dirge, a song of hopeless grievance, a song which is neither a Hosanna nor a “broken Hallelujah”.

A worship leader or preacher coming to the original song with thoughts of using it as a contemporary example of lament needs to take into consideration the second reading where God’s answer is not expected by the song writers.  The song might actually function as a critique of the hope found in Biblical lamentation; the understanding from a non-believer’s perspective that it’s up to “the saints”, men and women of compassion, to do the work of alleviating the cause of complaint rather than waiting in the (misguided) hope that the clouds will roll back for some random deity to descend in rescuing power.  In the 2008 version the saints are sung to be “calling” rather than “coming”, and there is “no reply at all” to their call.  Not even the prayers of the faithful are answered.

In the 2006 version the lines “the stone says/this paternal guide once had his day/once had his day” are replaced by “how long now/when the nightwatchman lets in the thief/what’s wrong now”.    In this the theme that God cannot be waited upon but that humankind must take the initiative, (even if that is in the form of local Christian “saints” getting involved), is joined by the Biblical theme of nightwatchmen and specifically those who are derelict or deceitful in duty.  The song points to the various facets of human responsibility seen in the causes, effects, and responses to disaster.

It is with supposedly unanswerable questions and criticism with which The Saints Are Coming engages the Bible’s twin themes of hope in despair and the faithfulness of the God of the covenant, ultimately making the observation that God cannot be trusted to answer.


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