The Quest for Music Miracles
© Copyright, Grantley Morris All rights reserved
Mortal Music’s Pinnacle
Just because a melody sounds ‘Jewish’ is no indication of any similarity to King David’s music. Our knowledge of ancient Jewish music is surprisingly slim. Nevertheless, exciting discoveries are continuing. Let’s briefly examine various approaches to rediscovering David’s music.
The Hebrew text of the Psalms contains accents. It was once thought that these could be interpreted musically. Unfortunately, all attempts have failed and this approach has now been generally abandoned.
However, an analysis of the text has revealed other significant clues. An obvious one is that the Psalms cover a wide range of different emotions. One would expect the associated music to be sufficiently complex to reflect these varied moods.
Hebrew poetry does not have regular strophes. From this, the Jewish Encyclopedia concludes that the original melody must have had considerable ‘freedom and elasticity,’ like Oriental melodies today.
Another clue suggested by a psalm’s structure is illustrated by the hundred and thirty-sixth psalm. This distinctive psalm is written in a manner highly suggestive of call and response singing. Each alternate line is,
‘For His mercy endures forever.’
Theoretically, singers could have responded with such a refrain between the lines of almost any Psalm. In fact, these very words may have been used as a response in the singing of many of them. ‘For His mercy endures forever’ appears in a musical context amazingly often (1 Chronicles 16:41; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 118:1-4; Jeremiah 33:11).
In Psalm 107, ‘For His mercy endures forever’ is immediately followed by, ‘Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,’ as though the psalmist expected ‘the redeemed’ to respond by singing that line (Psalm 107:1-2 – Psalm 118:1-4 is similar).
So perhaps Psalm 136 preserves in written form a musical style in which a number of other Scriptural Psalms were also sung. Supporting evidence is found in Psalm 135:10-12. These verses are almost identical to Psalm 136:18-22, except for the absence of the refrain.
One has simply to read the following verses to realize that other refrains may also have been used:
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord:
He is their help and their shield.
You that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord:
He is their help and their shield‘ (Psalm 115:9-11).
In Hebrew poetry, alternate lines echo the meaning of the previous line. So, even without the insertion of a refrain, the structure of many psalms is ideally suited for call and response singing. We simply don’t know how much of this potential was exploited. However, there are several Scriptural hints that antiphonal singing actually occurred.
After victoriously crossing the sea, ‘Moses and the sons of Israel’ sang to the Lord. Of particular interest to us is the fact that Miriam, leading the women, ‘answered them’ with a chorus (Exodus 15:1-2, 21). In fact, the music may have alternated several times between the two groups.
Hervey suggested the song of Deborah and Barak was ideally suited for this type of rendition, with the first two lines (Judges 5:2) forming an antiphon sung by the opposite sex.
Centuries later, Nehemiah celebrated the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls by forming not one, but two choirs (Nehemiah 12:31,40; see also 12:24). Perhaps this was done to facilitate antiphonal singing.
Some Bibles definitely refer to such singing. For instance, in the New King James, Amplified and Revised Standard Versions, Ezra 3:11 reads, ‘they sang responsively’. Regrettably, the underlying Hebrew, according to some experts, is less explicit than this rendering suggests.
In 1 Chronicles 16 we find that after the singing of a long psalm the people responded with ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Whether the congregation actually sang this response is not known, but the last verses of the psalm in Chronicles ends like Psalm 106, and in the end of Psalm 106 ‘let all the people say, Amen. Praise the Lord’ is actually part of the psalm.
There is extra-Biblical evidence of antiphonal singing in the early church.
Further investigation unearths additional clues about the nature of music in Bible times. One suggestion is that the leaders of temple worship used cymbals to keep time (e.g. Keil’ s commentary on 1 Chronicles 15:19. The Mishna, Tamid 7:3 hints that the cymbal signaled the commencement of a song).
King David’s original music echoing through the tunnel of time has long since faded to stony silence. Yet we have glimpsed at how probing God’s Word can help revive some ever-so-faint strains. But there are further ways of making those sounds more distinct.
It has been claimed there must have been no harmony in Old Testament music. Harmony, goes the argument, is a feature only of music influenced by western civilization. Extensive research in Africa alone has shown this to be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is said that modern Arabs relatively uninfluenced by the west, detest harmony. It has generally been assumed that, at least in this respect, musical tastes in ancient Israel would have been similar. We shall see later that this assumption is highly questionable.
However, another fascinating line of research based on existing music is not so easily dismissed. Marked similarities between the music of Yemenite Jews and the earliest Gregorian chant have been identified. These two traditions had no contact, but presumably grew form the same soil – the sacred Jewish music of Jesus’ time or earlier. The common elements are therefore of immense value in reconstructing ancient Jewish music.
I was stunned to discover a stereo record of music pre-dating the Bible’s psalms. This staggering achievement represents the combined efforts of an Assyriologist, a musicologist and a physicist, with the support of countless other archaeologists, scholars and technical staff.
A clay tablet, well over three thousand years old, was found to contain the lyrics, melody and harmony of a Hurrian cult song. The importance of the find is illustrated by the fact that the writing of harmony directly below the melody was previously thought to have been developed no earlier than the European Middle Ages. In the light of many guesses about ancient music, the mere existence of harmony is quite significant. The musical scale corresponds to the modern major. The tablet provides no indication of tempo, rhythm or musical ornamentation.
The music was sung by modern vocalists to the accompaniment of a lyre made to ancient specifications.
How accurately this startling recording mirrors Levitical and Davidic music cannot at present be determined. At several points scholars were forced to resort to guesswork. Furthermore, the relationship between this song and Israelite music is unknown.
The tablet was found about one hundred and fifty kilometers, as the crow flies, outside the border of David’s Israel. It apparently predates David by about four centuries. The Hurrians have sometimes been identified with the Horites, Hivites and Jebusites. Each of these dwelt with the Israelites until the Babylonian exile (e.g. 1 Kings 9:20-21)
Although we have the lyrics to non-biblical Christian hymns dating back to about AD 170, a Christian hymn dated AD 270 is the earliest I know of found with the melody indicated by Greek vocal notation. It speaks of all creation praising the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As illustrated in Appendix, Note 1.7 in reference to trumpets, archaeology can provide invaluable data concerning the sound and limitations of the musical instruments in the Bible. Each break-through provides another vital piece of the jig-saw.
It is currently possible to extract past conversations from solids, writes Billy Graham associate John Wesley White. He postulates that one day we may have the technology to extract from rocks, sounds produced in biblical times.
In previous eras, audio recordings would have seen equally far-fetched. Who knows how far technology will take us? As incredible as it seems, we may one day have recordings of singers in Solomon’s temple!
Even if we possessed such recordings, however, should we model our music on it? We have already noted that some of the psalm’s tunes might have been secular, perhaps even pagan.
A study of the Psalms’ original musical settings might yield a few useful principles. For example, it could challenge some conservative attitudes if a common interpretation of Shiggaion (Psalm 7 title and Habakkuk 3:1) is confirmed. This technical term could possibly mean the tune was wild and rhythmic or ecstatic.
However, to slavishly imitate Hebrew music seems an unwarranted regression. It has been disputed whether the Israelites even had such musical conventions as the octave and written music. Should we revert to the era when trumpets were capable of only two or three notes; when unamplified music had to compete with the sounds of sacrificial animals?
I revere the Israelite’s divinely inspired writings because God intended His Word for all times and cultures. Scripture cannot be improved. But that does not mean I should regard as infallible those aspects of Hebrew culture God saw fit not to immortalize. Centuries before David, Israel’s neighbors wrote the music alongside the lyrics of sacred songs. Yet God decided not to use such a system when recording the Psalms for posterity. Scripture preserves the enduring principles, not the transitory curiosities, of music.
Were I expected to exalt Hebrew music, it would be inconsistent to stop there. Logic suggests I should also imitate other aspects of their culture, such as clothing.
We feel at liberty to put Hebrew psalms into English, an entirely different language. Are we not also free to put those psalms to different music? If it is right to use a non-Hebrew language to evangelize, it must also be right to put that message to non-Hebrew music.
Yet we should realize that no music has a stronger claim to being a model for Christian musicians than that of the biblical era. If we need not be dominated by the crotchets and quavers of Bible times, we certainly need not be dominated by church musical traditions developed since then. If any Christian in the past were justified in composing music that sounded nothing like that played in Bible times, then contemporary Christians must certainly be free to develop styles which sound nothing like the Christian music of previous generations.
God’s doctrinal revelation to mankind is complete. That does not imply, however, that the Lord has nothing further to show us in the musical realm. We have no need of verbal inspiration of the type the writers of the Bible had, because God has given us their writings. But we do not have their music. If we are as committed to God as His ancient servants were, surely He will inspire us musically as much as He did them.
This ailing world will finally be put out of its misery. We then expect music to undergo significant changes. Realizing this should make us less resistant to changes in Christian music today.
So far, all human music has been less than the ideal. There has always been room for improvement – even when David sang his inspired psalms accompanied by primitive instruments, with a mortal, continually aging voice.
Humanity will not have perfect health in our era, but this has not prevented significant medical developments, like the apparent eradication of small-pox. Similarly, our inability to achieve musical perfection does not make it impossible for us to attain musical heights never before achieved on earth. Rather than Davidic times being the golden era of godly music, our Lord could be saving the best till last, like the wine at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:10).
Not just recent inventions, but every human musical development has occurred in a fallen world (e.g., consider Genesis 4:8, 21) Modern society is decadent, but show me any era in fallen humanity’s history not indelibly sin-stained. Virtually everything associated with music – conducting, musical notation, instruments, and so on, was once a new invention. Further, the originators of the idea were not necessarily godly.
All Christian musicians commandeer long-established inventions. There is therefore no intrinsic reason for out-of-hand rejection of recent advances. The mere passage of time never made anything holy!
Martin Luther, soon after the invention of the printing press, organized a literature blitz not equaled until relatively recent times. Regrettably, Christians have not always been so quick to seize technological advances for the glory of God.
But as musicians, let’s be quick to prayerfully evaluate the latest developments. We need to determine what God expects of us in the light of each musical break-through or new trend.
We have already concluded that God deserves the very best (Chapter 7). Yet another strong incentive to keep abreast of recent developments is our desire to reach the unchurched.
Christian culture seems so removed from the rest of western society that we need to view evangelism as a missionary venture. We are trying to reach what is virtually a foreign culture. This means that someone must undergo the hazardous crossing of a cultural barrier before accurate communication is possible.
We can hardly expect the unregenerate to go to pains to adapt to our jargon and musical tastes. The initiative rests with us (cf 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Naturally, there is always a limit to how far a Christian can adopt the practices of non-Christian society. Discerning the limit is not easy. In this respect we must do our utmost to be charitable towards other Christians, realizing that God gives us different ministries. God’s leading for some, will not be His leading for all.
In Numbers we see the yearning of a man of God for something that could not occur in his era. ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets . . .’ could only be fulfilled in the era of the Spirit (Numbers 11:29; Acts 2:16-17). In several psalms we seem to see another yearning of people of God that could not be fulfilled in their lifetime – the longing for nature’s sounds and movements to mingle with human worship to our common Creator. Though I believe this will find its full fulfillment only in the age to come, there is a sense in which it is more possible now than ever before.
Ironically, because the cancer of humanism and eastern heresy has caused many people to feel a kinship with non-human creation, the following, inspired by my Bible study, does not seem as weird as when I started writing several years ago. Biblical revelation, however, has always taught that we have much in common with sub-human creation. Humanity and everything else on earth is created and sustained by the same God, (Psalm 36:6 b; 104:14; 145:14-16; Isaiah 43:20) was marred by the same original sin (Genesis 3:17; note also Isaiah 24:3-6) and will be restored by the same Savior (Romans 8:18-23). Adam was ordained to tend the garden and name the animals, not to abuse; to have dominion, not to decimate. Every facet of creation displays the glory of the One who fashioned it. Each species is priceless, not because it might one day springboard a scientific advance for the comfort of humanity but because it is the handiwork of the One we love. Whether they be waterfalls or rainbows; insects or poets, all are the work of the divine Artist. We are of more value than sparrows, taught Jesus. But this rebuke to eastern thinking is tempered with a rebuke to money-grubbing westerners: not one falls to the ground without it touching our Father’s heart (Matthew 10:29).
These frequently neglected truths (expounded more fully in Appendix, Note 1.4) paired with biblical insight into the musical possibilities of sub-human sounds and the role nature can play in magnifying its Creator, fuels a yearning to join our musical praise with that of the rest of creation. Achieving this prior to Christ’s return used to seem fanciful. Modern technology, however, has brought that elusive dream closer.
Creation is no less ‘subject to bondage’ than it was in the apostle Paul’s day, (Romans 8:19-23) In fact, it is even more bowed under the cumulative weight of human sin. Nevertheless, the advent of audio recording has introduced exciting ways of incorporating nature’s sounds in our music.
As a group of Christians were worshipping the Lord, the chirping of untamed birds filtered into the building and blended with human praises. Hardly an event unique to our era, except that what should have been a fleeting experience for a few New Zealanders, has been savored by countless thousands of Christians around the world. Those precious moments were captured on audio tape and distributed under the title of ‘Praise the Name of Jesus’.
The electronic mixing and manipulation of nature’s sounds and movements presents almost limitless possibilities. I will give just three examples. Canadian flutist Paul Horn produced an album in which he wedded his music to the delightful sounds of marine animals. Paul Clark recorded a song that incorporated harbor sounds – winds, creaking boards, and so on. In the 1970s film Beautiful People, the movement of desert wildflowers in the wind was synchronized with music. A trifle artificial, perhaps, but modern technology provides us with greater opportunities than ever before, to unite our praises with those of nature.
One technological breakthrough which never seemed to catch on is the ‘Catano.’ This Italian invention, first described in 1892, consisted of a series of wooden compartments, each housing a cat, ranging from kittens (for the high notes) to large tom cats. It was claimed that staccato and chords could be extracted from the levers which pulled the cats’ tails in the appropriate manner.
Americans will be relieved to know that their invention, the ‘Porco-Forte’ predated the Italian one. In 1839, the Musical World described this scientific wonder, which used pigs, rather than cats. If well chosen, they reportedly only need tuning every three years or so.
In the span of a few words, a psalmist would lure our minds from the depths of the earth to mountain heights. Seconds later he’d have us visualizing the sea, as he sought to impress upon us the Lord’s majesty (e.g., Psalm 95:4-5).
Had they been available to him, I wonder how keen David would have been to synchronize digital images of nature with his lyrics, as he sought to magnify the Lord of Creation.
You may recall that the heavenly music heard in 1937 by Mrs. Murphy (Chapter 2) was linked with changing colors. More than ever, modern technology has made such a correlation an earthly possibility.
Electronic breakthroughs have irrevocably changed the scene for Christian musicians. As never before, earth’s best music is available to almost everyone. This is good, to the extent that it motivates us to raise our standards. If it means people can be more effectively ministered to, it is marvelous. Yet it is a tragedy if it causes any of us to feel so out-classed that we fail to pursue our God-given ministry. Even such big names as Andraé Crouch were sorely tempted to quit, feeling they have nothing to contribute. We need to stubbornly resist such temptations. Our individual ministries are precious to the Lord. In His sight, our contributions can never be swamped by a glut of recordings. (See Appendix, Note 0.1.)
Prior to last few decades, deliberately teaching a congregation a song, was more powerful than performed music in engraving a message upon human minds. As they went about their daily work, they could not be followed by a choir. Only their memories could go with them. Now, recordings are almost as portable, and certainly more reliable than, memories. And people can hear recorded music over and over, learning songs without conscious effort. In effect, this has increased the power of performed music. Regrettably, these electronic developments have caused a corresponding increase in competition from secular music.
Do we produce music to make money, or to seriously challenge worldly music in the battle for minds? That catchy jingle from the television commercial and that godless song on the radio constantly threatens to push godly music out of Christian minds.
How much money are we going to demand from our brothers and sisters before permitting them access to a viable alternative to ungodly music? There are no universal rules. We must avoid the deadly tentacles of a judgmental spirit. But it is a personal issue demanding serious consideration.
If my aim is simply to entertain, I am clearly justified in charging as much as I can get. People should pay for luxuries. But I pray your music is closer to being a necessity. You want people to have your recordings, not because it boosts your ego or fills your pocket with temporary gain, but because it boosts your hearers’ spirituality and fills their minds with eternal wealth.
If our music is truly from God, dare we let a desire for monetary return rob people of the blessing? We should be more aware of the spiritual worth of our own music than our potential audience is. If they would genuinely benefit from owning our recording or attending our concert, will God hold us responsible if our prices tempt some people to opt for a cheaper, less edifying, alternative? With a flick of a switch, they have endless access to secular radio music. Parting with hard-earned cash is much more difficult. In localities where music spiritually equal to ours is not regularly aired on the radio, the pressure is immense.
Failure to cover our expenses has an interesting side-benefit: the more our ministry costs us, the greater our motivation to ensure that our ministry is truly from God.
Finance is one of many matters in which it is insufficient to follow precedents set by others. We should seek direct confirmation from our Master.
So modern technology presents Christian musicians with many exciting challenges. The alluring possibility of becoming wealthy through music has never been greater, nor has the possibility of spending vast sums of money in blessing others with music.
We have more options than ever before in selecting musical instruments and harmonizing with electrically captured sounds of nature. The possibility exists of even recording angelic music.
We have seen that heavenly visions are still a present-day reality. Moreover, technology has equipped us with such instruments as sound synthesizers which could probably allow us to mimic authentic celestial music with greater accuracy than ever before. Perhaps God will grant you the joy of ascending in the spirit to heaven and returning with a new song with which to bless the earth.
Nevertheless, all of this fades into trivia, relative to the greatest of all challenges: discerning and achieving the precise musical goals God has personally set you. The possibilities are immense, but whatever you are called to, it will involve the two most thrilling things anyone can ever contribute to: exalting the Lord and meeting humanity’s deepest spiritual needs.
Let’s use modern developments to exalt our Lord, without plummeting into a false dependence upon technology. God is moved not by our sound system, but by the soundness of our heart. Persecution or a financial reverse could strip us of our technology, but not of our spirituality. Disaster could destroy our instruments, but not our inspiration.
Like perhaps all non-Biblical books, there are almost certainly errors within these covers. This book, in particular, has been written by an extremely fallible man, whose ability to hear from the Lord places him one degree above stone deaf. You must not unquestionably accept any sentence I have written, no matter how long the string of supposedly supporting Scriptures. It is your responsibility to confirm the truths and expose the errors (cf Acts 17:11). You must personally search the Scriptures, seek the Savior and submit to them. There is no substitute.
I’m sorry if that disturbs you. I’d dearly love to be your servant, saving you the spiritual and mental effort involved. Unfortunately, to attempt to do so would not only be presumptuous, it would rob you of blessings you deserve.
My aim should be to intensify your pursuit of truth by suggesting new leads, not to curtail your search by arrogantly claiming to have found the answers.
Now it’s time to confess my dark secret: I am utterly unmusical. You might forgive my dearth of musical ability, but the worst is yet to come: I like music less than almost anyone I have ever met. That’s a fact.
It’s one thing not to play a musical instrument, it’s quite another never to play a recording. Whenever music is played on my radio, I switch stations.
Asking me to pen this book – and I had to be asked – bears similarities to asking Hitler to describe the joys of being a Jew.
Before you lynch me, think of the implications of my prejudice and ignorance. If, with a mind that recoils from the subject and a brain that finds writing 90% headache, I can discover what I’ve shared in this book, imagine the wondrous things you should find!
If you are serious about having a music ministry worthy of God, you will diligently search the Scriptures yourself, allowing the Spirit of God to explode new revelations into your mind. As a springboard to further Scriptures, I suggest examining before the Lord every Bible reference given in this book. You will then need to extend your prayerful search to every word of Holy Writ, taking into your being the whole counsel of God.
Bible-believers know that God is forever taking His people from strength to strength (Psalm 84:7; Job 17:9) and from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; note also 2 Peter 3:18). In the midst of a decaying world, ‘the people who know their God will be strong and do exploits’ (Daniel 11:32). The path of the just is as a shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4:18). The darker this world gets, the brighter God’s people will shine (cf Philippians 2:15).
With such truths jumping for joy in minds, it’s hard to imagine the quality of godly music fizzling out as we approach this planet’s greatest hour. Surely we won’t be bereft of the best and be left with drab, inferior music with which to herald our King’s coming. How fitting for mortal music to triumphantly attain its highest glory as the climax of the ages hastens towards us.
Is your Lord calling you to be part of this – to yield yourself to Him so that He can inspire you to hitherto unimagined heights of musical excellence? Let’s shed the deadweights of doubt, conformity and mediocrity, and soar with our Lord to new heights, to the praise of his glory.
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