#16 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Let me hear the sound of joy and feasting“
This verse, on its own, might sound a little strange. Given our technology today, we can hear the sounds of joy and feasting anytime we want! We expect this – and if we can’t hear the sound for some reason – the computer or device or streaming Wifi fails, we get angry and frustrated, instantly! Sadly, this typifies how we are unattuned to the ways of the biblical culture and times, or the even commonality of our human condition before our information age.
The ‘hearing of joy and feasting’ is something very common to our human condition. Every culture – from primitive societies to the high societies of the Victorian age, as well as our own, has its own expressive music. To hear joy and feasting is to have our spirits lifted up – to celebrate and exult! Many of us Baby Boomers in America grew up with the movie version of the musical, The Sound of Music, which expressed the simplicity of life and joy through song, magnificently portrayed and sung by Julie Andrews. And the theme of the movie (based on a true story) was the tension when the music could no longer be heard the same way, when the Nazis rolled into Austria. The simplicity of life and joy through music would be squelched – a sign of the arrival of dark, sorrowful times. I find it tragic, that as this was written and the Islamic jihadist Taliban rolled back into Kabul this week, that one of the first things they did was torture and kill a man widely recognized in Afghanistan as a gifted folk musician whose work expressed the beauty of Afghan culture.
There will be no tolerance of joy and singing.
The true spirit of Christian living typifies this musical, lyrical way of living – a life expressive of worship (doxa) and praise, singing and celebration. In Orthodoxy, there is a liturgical movement that leads us to this state of singing and celebration through the daily office, primarily Vespers and Matins[i]. While each service has its moments and movements, the entire worship follows the psalter during the festal vigil leads us from Psalm 1 at Vespers to a climactic chanting of the last 3 celebratory psalms – 148, 149 and 150 at Matins. Psalm 150 gives us something to hear and listen to:
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. (NIV)
This is what we’re supposed to be doing in life – our very purpose for existence, to join in all creation giving praise to God.[ii] The Matins Service follows Psalm 150 with the ancient hymn called the Great Doxology, which brings the psalmody to fulfillment by expressing the New Testament faith – the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation, and the Paschal Mystery. This leads the Christian Church to the joyful and climactic fulfillment of divine worship, the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy.
Are we There Yet?
This all sounds good. But are we really there? Do we readily, at all times, ‘hear the sound of joy and feasting’ in our hearts and open our lips in praise and thanksgiving to Him? What are we actually listening to anyway? Is our song taking us there or taking us somewhere else,[iii] a place of despondency and loneliness – leading to an inner deafness when one can’t hear the song of spiritual joy anymore.
David wasn’t there. Yet. His heart could not worship God because of his sins. The din and clamor of his sins created too much noise within. Those sins held him in sadness and depression. His heart sagged. Deep in his sorrow, he longed to be able to hear the sound of joy and feasting – the celebration of the Hebrew worship that he knew so well because the very psalter flowed from his heart. Yet, now, in his sin he could not hear, and could not sing. But he longed to.
Hang it Up
We hear this very expression of sorrow and silence in reading these verses from Psalm 136 (7)
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?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
How poignantly this portrays the captivity of the Jewish people.[iv] It was a spiritual captivity, not just a physical one. They ‘hung up their harps’. In our jargon today, to ‘hang it up’ is to quit in despondency. There was no place for joy and singing in their misery. And it was a time of sorrow[v] for the Hebrew people, that, despite the ceaseless warnings of the prophets that remained unheeded, they were overwhelmed by their enemies and exiled to Babylon.
But the song of the Lord was not lost – it remained within, but in a sense, inaccessible. This is perhaps one of the greatest losses which proceed from sin – whether for the Jew before Christ, or the Christian who has sinned, or backslid into the realm of darkness. We know what our life was like, and how our hearts resonated with the rhythm of divine joy. But no more – and if we are prompted to do so (even by the captors) we cannot. And no, you can’t fake it. So also with David, he so longed to hear this sound of joy again in his heart and proclaim it with his mouth. His repentance would heal him, and put the song back in his heart, and open his mouth once again.
We’re given another powerful image of this in the Gospels. When Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son, he describes how the Prodigal Son turns back to His Father, and his Father’s house. And with this return and restoration there is cause for great celebration. It is described this way,
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” (Lk 16: 25f)
So, the elder son heard the ‘sound of music’. But he couldn’t really hear it, or accept it. His heart wasn’t there. Instead, it sent his head spinning into anger, expressed through his words of hatred and unforgiveness for his brother.
Restored in Our Hearing
David is different though, because he is repentant. This makes that song accessible to him again, as it is given to him again by the Lord, as it was for the Prodigal Son. We should also note, from both the Prodigal Son parable and the David’s prayer, that this song is not merely personal but also communal. The Coming of Christ in the flesh was proclaimed by the worship of the Angels in Bethlehem, that humankind could join in the heavenly celebration and worship in a new way (See Lk 2). When we hear of the worship of God in its fullness, we find it in the Book of Revelation, where all of the angels and saints and all creation joins in the full celebration and worship of God in holiness and all purified humility. In scripture prayer may be private, but worship is communal. At our Divine Liturgy, we get a foretaste of this celebration of heaven – and we prepare for it with our prayers of repentance and confession, ‘that we may sing the thrice Holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity.’[vi]
Lawrence Welk, the band leader, used to always end his show with these words, ‘Keep a song in your heart!” Perhaps our priests should share this exhortation with the flock as they come forward after the Liturgy to kiss the cross and receive the blessed bread, and say ‘Keep a song in your heart!’ Perhaps not just the songs of a fallen world, but the song of praise that echoed in the heart of David and thunders in the Church. Ω
[i] This is one of the reasons that I wanted to celebrate Vespers and Matins at least on Sundays in the parishes I served. This crescendo of worship gets us to the place spiritually, in the temple, of being ‘ready’ to worship the Lord in spirit and truth.
[ii] The entirety of the Psalter carries this as its theme. There are countless verses which expand upon it.
[iii] There is probably no better expression of what a group of people is really all about than how it is expressed in its music.
[iv] The Orthodox Church affords this psalm a very special place in the Matins services on the Sundays preceding Lent. When we are in sin, and prior to our penitential exercise, the song of salvation has grown inaudible.
[v] I find it ironic that there is rarely a place for a ‘sad song’ in popular music today, even in churches. It seems that everyone just thinks everything is supposed to be upbeat and happy, happy. But the sad song, like Psalm 137, was inspired by truth because it was brutally honest about where the people were. It was necessary to acknowledge that, and why they were there, before a ‘new song’ could be heard.
[vi] From the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy.