14 Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will quiet you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
This reflection is probably the most “unlenten” lenten reflection I’ve ever put together. But given the fact that it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish are known for many things, one of the most important being their songs. The Irish have an uncanny ability to tell stories and capture something of who they are with music.
The songs we sing say a lot about who we are. The songs we sing reflect our values and our experiences. We are drawn to songs which speak to us, which articulate something we hold dear or songs that “tell our story”. Krista Dalton just shared on her blog how she has found songs which tell her story better than she can (When Songs Tell a Better Story). We love those songs which seem to say what we’re feeling/thinking. Songs have power to express our thoughts and desires. They also have the power to teach. We learn a lot of theology (for better or for worse) from our songs. One of our Sunday School teachers shared with me her desire to see our kids learn the stories of the bible and the songs which introduce them to the important foundational elements of the faith. If they forget everything else about Sunday School, but remember “Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so” they’re on their way.
Have you ever stopped to think about the songs we sing? What do they say about us? And do they truly articulate the full scope of our theological values and experience?
The bible gives us a lot of stuff about songs, and all sorts of genres, and topics, which also represent a journey- a journey I think we might identify with if we look a little closer. And the themes and images and topics they cover in Scripture, I think, are broader than the small collection of hymns most communities of faith tend to stick with. We gravitate to a small “canon” of songs. But the songs of Scripture cover everything imaginable- and even a few unimaginable thoughts. The people of God have a much broader scope when it comes to their songs. Let’s journey through this…
…Songs of Zion…
This is something I use to refer to a specific set of simple, straighforward Psalms of praise (there are some who use the term to refer a specific set of Psalms, so it’s probably a terrible term to pick, but alas…); songs of joy, composed in “better times” or simpler times. These songs are our starting place. They may be filled with excitement, joy, and the basic truths. They get us started. A few examples would be Psalm 117 or 134.
But they’re naive songs. They’re simple, and lack the fullness to depict the whole of our experience. When things go wrong, it becomes hard to sing these songs. They just don’t line up with our experience. They lack a certain depth. These are songs that reflect an optimistic view of the world. All is good and nothing can go wrong. We often link songs with our experience. There are often songs we connect with specific events or times. They were somehow able to articulate what was felt by a person or group during a particular time. When life is going well we sing simple songs. Happy songs. Carefree songs. These songs reflect a world viewed through rose coloured glasses. When we’re falling in love we enjoy those cheesy top 40 love songs. When I look back at what I was listening to just after Jenelle and I started dating, I cringe. What was I thinking?
When life suddenly gets tough, we don’t want those happy songs anymore. When things are frustrating we may turn to something else. I paid my way through school working in kitchens. Not the most happy place to be most of the time. When I was driving home, I sure wasn’t listening to happy songs. When I got home I’d usually put on Gladiator or Braveheart to sooth myself a bit.
Ps. 137 is one of the toughest passages of Scripture. It rocks you to the core if you think about it with any intentionality. When Israel was under Babylonian domination, the Babylonians would torment them; sing those songs about how great God is, and how beautiful Jerusalem is;
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Sometimes “Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so” doesn’t accurately describe where you’re at. When a loved one dies, or you can’t seem to make ends meet, or you see news of war and famine, Jesus loves me seems trite.
When life sucks, you don’t want to sing happy songs. A big chunk of our bible is dedicated to what God’s people do when life is not going according to plan. There’s a whole genre of literature within the Bible which is what God’s people do when things look bleak.
Songs of Lament
In our dark days, we either take to singing mourning songs, complaining songs, even angry songs or we just stop singing, and hang up our harps on the trees and just sit and cry. Some of us say I just don’t feel like singing at all anymore, or we “change our tune” and sing songs that say something is wrong. Songs that say, I don’t feel like Jesus loves me today. The bible says he does, so i “know” he loves me, but I don’t feel that way right now.
These songs are painfully honest- they may sound dark, angry, sad, but they’re healthy. God, where are you? God I thought you promised to take care of me? God, why did you let this happen? Why did I have to go through this? God is ok with being asked those questions. We should have songs of mourning. How many of us have never experienced grief?
Consider Psalm 6:
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
We need songs to express this feeling. Sometimes we experience “deep anguish”. We hate those songs, but they serve a purpose. But so often we lack the songs to do this. Israel had those songs. Tons of ’em. Our hymnal here at Centre Street is called the “Celebration Hymnal”… we have a list of Funeral Hymns in the index… but those aren’t lament songs. For some reason the Western church has forgotten how to grieve well. We seem to have this idea that we’re always supposed to be happy. Yeah, rejoice in the Lord always… but when things are bad, we need ways to cry out to God. We need the vocabulary and melodies of lament.
However, virtually every lament in Scripture has a “but”- a big but. These songs aren’t meant to be sung forever, and we even see that in the songs themselves. I will hope in God, God will deliver me, God is good. He will deliver me from this, and suddenly a lament will not suit the occasion.
A New Song
“A new song” is used 9 times in Scripture (according to the NIV). 6 are in the Psalms, 2 in Revelation, 1 in Isaiah. These are always used in conjunction with a mighty act of God. When God moves, and does something powerful, his people write new songs. Don’t just go back to the oldies. They may be good, but they don’t fully articulate what’s happened.
When you’ve overcome something, gone through grief and found new grace and peace, those naive songs don’t quite measure up. You’ve grown. You’re stronger, wiser, more mature. This calls for a new song (when I say “new” this may include “new to you” songs which you may not have heard or may not have grasped when your experience didn’t line up with the particular song). A song that declares this new experience is the beautiful act of God. We can look back and sing Jesus loves me this I know, but not just because the bible says so. I’ve seen it. I know it. God placed a song on my lips which declares that I’ve encountered the living God.
Ps. 40 for instance:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
You put a new song in my mouth declares the psalmist. God gives you something to sing about, and helps you sing it. He reminds you of his presence there in the midst of it all.
Last week we closed worship with It Is Well, and most of us know the story of that hymn. The writer mourned and grieved, and so the song starts almost like a lament. But then he turns and says I have an eternal hope, and I will praise God for that.
Songs of Salvation
When God has taken you from darkness to light, you should celebrate that. Declare that deliverance. Testify to what God has done. If you’ve experienced that deliverance, you may be drawn to different songs. When you’re down in the dumps and not sure if God is there, you may not want to sing Hallelujah. But when you’ve encountered God and he has lifted you out of the mire it seems wrong to not be singing- even if no one around you wants to hear it.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music
Sing, says the prophet Zephaniah (3:14), sing Daughter of Zion. Declare the goodness of God through song. The Lord has proclaimed that the punishment of sin will be taken care, and the enemies of God will be chased off and God’s people will be restored. Sing about it.
The Song of the Lamb
In the book of Revelation, John is given this grandiose vision of heavenly worship. When the Lamb is spotted standing on the throne, the heavens sing a new song. They testify to the mighty power of the Lamb, who was slain, but now lives and reigns. God has won a victory so great that no song ever written will articulate how incredible this is.
This is our forever song. Those other songs may cease, but the song of the Lamb endures forever.
The God who Sings Songs
Sing, Daughter of Zion. Sing. God has drawn near. The mighty God has been victorious God is with you, and he is singing. God will draw near, and will rejoice over his people with songs. God has songs of his own. When the lost ones come home he sings. When son who was dead has come alive, he sings. When we, his sons and daughters receive his grace, live in his love, the Lord our God sings. And he sings for us, over us, around us, in us, through us. We have a God who sings.
Nietzsche wrote “I can only believe in a god who can dance” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). I know, baptists don’t dance, but God does. C. Baxter Kruger wrote a small book called The Parable of the Dancing God, in which he suggests that this is the point of the Prodigal Son parable. God gets undignified because he’s so excited to see his children come home. He does things flamboyantly, and excitedly. He parties. He gets funky. God is not cold and distant. He is not composed and prudent. He lavishly and with exuberance pours out his love to his people, and he sings whilst he does it.
We have songs we look to during lent. Traditionally we sing those specific songs the reflect specific themes. But we have to keep in mind the journey which keeps on going. We move through seasons. Right now we sit and reflect- but just on the horizon- just a little way up the road is the light, is the Kingdom. Lent isn’t just wailing and mourning- it’s a hopeful, purposeful, confident time of reflection. Yes, pause and take stock things. But then remember, God has done something amazing, unbelievable even.
Are you ready to sing about it? God is. He’s ready to sing.
So let’s go back to where we started; what do our songs say about us? Do they articulate our values? Do they articulate our experience? And I want to add, do they articulate where we’re going? Do they proclaim that God is with us, and we are responding? Do they proclaim that we journey with Christ, holding his light up to destroy the darkness around us? Do they boldly sing of the Kingdom of God at hand?
If not, then maybe we need a new song.
*I am indebted for much of this reflection to Walter Brueggemann’s Cadences of Home (Louisville: WJK Press, 1997).