When in our music God is glorified: Fred Pratt Green
Bible Study by Alan Luff
This is not at first glance the most biblical of texts. But if it is studied alongside the Bible its message is deepened and our Christian worship enriched.
Verse 1. The sounds of Jesus’ world
Look up: Jeremiah 25. 10
Revelation 18. 23
Mark 5. 22. 37-39
Matthew 25. 1-13
Our picture of the New Testament is rather like a silent film. The figures of Jesus and his disciples, together with the people he meets move across a silent landscape, with short fragments of speech flashed up from time to time. All the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels would only take an hour or so to speak. Yet this is the record of what may have been as much as three years of ministry.
Besides his words we miss the sounds of the world around him, both those of the natural world and the sounds of the people round him. We need to fill in these as well. Strangely most of these ordinary sounds only come to our attention in the Bible when they are about to fall silent. These are the sounds that everyone normally hears and takes for granted until they stop.
There can be few places in the developed world where we can now have the experience of hearing such sounds. One of them is Venice, where along the shore of the Lido one hears the slapping of the waves on the gondolas, as it must have washed against the fishing boats on the Lake of Galilee; and in the streets and the squares there is the sound of feet and the sound of voices, all because there is no traffic. Add to those kinds of sounds the lowing of oxen at work, and the braying of donkeys, and we begin to hear what Jesus heard. He heard too the sounds of children at play—again we hear a story of something going wrong when they quarrel: but it implies that they would normally be there in the village street, playing their singing games, inviting each other to dance, or to play at funerals.
This leads us on to think of Jesus at the house of Jairus. The family and the professional mourners would have been singing the traditional songs. And what of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. We play that story in silence too, apart from a few words spoken: but most cultures other than our own have the traditional songs that the women sing around the bride on the days leading to the marriage, and the songs that the men sing bringing the bridegroom into the house. We have to put them back into our silent picture.
Besides that, the whole world around Jesus would be taking its part in the the song of ‘the whole creation’, that world that has its birdsong, and its many animal cries, and, as we now know with some wonder, the huge songs of the whales.
Look up 2 Chronicles 5. 11-14
What of that ‘new dimension in the world of sound’ of which v 2 speaks. This too has its counterpart in the biblical experience. At the consecration of Solomon’s Temple, at the point when a great orchestra and choir made music, the presence of God became known, and the Shekinah, the glory of God in a great cloud, filled the Temple. This is what is happening to us when as individuals or as a whole congregation we are uplifted by the song in which we are taking part, when emotion sometimes suffocates us so that for a moment we cannot sing, and must leave it to others. This is our own Shekinah experience, our ‘new dimension’. It is both a presence of God and a lifting of ourselves, made in the image of God, to be more fully ourselves.
Look up 1 Chronicles 15. 16-24
Those who brought together the stories that make up our Old Testament, and edited and re-edited them for the use of subsequent generations, thought fit to retain, even after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, the details of the organization of the music, for the training of the singers and instrumentalists, and even the rota on which they attended for their duties. This was the way, ‘in liturgy and song’, that there was set before the people an ideal of praise and prayer offered to God, whether they felt like it at the time or not, because it was a vital part of the life of the people. The round of faithful prayer and praise continues, bearing ‘witness to the truth in every tongue’, and therefore in many styles and idioms. The church has an immense heritage of music. It cannot be claimed as our own however unless we are today adding to it. We have been doing that in our generation, and this hymn is one of the finest examples of the new hymnody.
Look up Mark 14. 17-26 Psalms 113-118
We as Christians have a special reason to sing. In v 4 we are brought to the very heart of that reason, the point at which Jesus has celebrated the Passover with his disciples, has given them instructions to take bread and wine and to remember him, and is now setting out, with the pain in his heart that we shall glimpse in Gethsemane.
The Gospel narrative takes it for granted that the rest of the Passover will have been celebrated in the traditional way, with the questions and answers about the meaning of the meal, and the singing that goes with the passover meal until today. So at the end the proper psalms are sung, the Hallel psalms (nos 113-118), the ‘Halleluia’ psalms. We echo that ‘Halleluia’, because Jesus at that point did not turn back, but moved forward to Cross and Resurrection.
Look up Psalm 150 Colossians 3. 16-17 and Ephesians 5. 18-19 Hebrews 7. 25
The last of the Psalms is the clearest invitation that we have to ‘tune every instrument for praise’, and to ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord’. There is never any excuse for holding back from the praise of God. Different cultures do it in different ways. Those of us who are of a hymn-singing tradition are amazed that the Orthodox Churches do not have any congregational hymn-singing at all. But they do have music, constant music in fact throughout the liturgy, and the people clearly are ‘singing and making melody in their hearts to God’.
In our tradition, as Wesley instructs, the ideal is, ‘let all sing’. If all sing, then no one is listening, except God—and perhaps s/he is joining in too. Just as Christ our Great High Priest lives to make intercession for us, we may like to imagine that Christ will also be singing along with us, and making up our deficiencies. This all requires faith and so the final line of the hymn is a prayer that we may always have the faith to sing that ‘Alleluia’.
And the meaning of ‘Alleluia’? It is in Hebrew ‘Hallelu’—’Praise’ (an order or exhortation)—’Yah’— a very ancient name, or form of address for ‘God’, ‘The Lord’. It is the directing of all our life and being to what is the true centre of all things, God himself. It sums up our returning as creatures, made in God’s image, to our true source, in order to become our true selves. In this life it seems that we do this best ‘in our music’.
Questions for discussion:
1. Is it only church music that glorifies God? Must music have sacred words to glorify God?
2. Does all music to religious words glorify God? What of The Lord’s Prayer to ‘Auld lang syne’? What of shoddily written words and music?
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