Tomorrow is Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, in honor of his life and work, I thought I’d use the ideas from the “Young People’s Concert-What Does Music Mean” and apply to better understanding scriptural text, Psalm 84.
What does music mean? Leonard Bernstein used to say that music doesn’t mean a thing. Music is just the right combination of notes, arranged in a pattern to evoke particular feelings. Music may be inspired by certain situations and events (historical, personal, or otherwise). But when it comes right down to it, the notes, when they’re placed on the page, mean nothing until they’re placed in relation to other notes. Then, they work together and they might make us feel happy, sad, angry, conflicted, or any other number of emotions. Alone, a note is a note. Combined with other notes, we have harmonies. The harmonies themselves do not tell stories. We provide the stories based off the images and experiences in our lives. The composer may have had one idea when he or she wrote a symphony or an opera but once the piece is out there, floating in the ether, we start to plug our experiences into to their notes. Remember, the notes have no meaning. We hear them, as individuals, and give them meaning. This is the power of music. This is also the joy of scripture.
Music makes us feel. Notes without meaning (tones in isolation), when married to other notes in the right combination, create emotional reactions. For example, what do you feel when you hear this?
(God of Grace and God of Glory)
That’s kind of rousing. It’s one of my favorite hymns. The tune is from Wales. In fact you can almost imagine Welsh miners singing other words, perhaps in a pub, to this song. It gets your blood stirring. You may feel you want to move, stand, and do something. You may feel inspired. There’s sort of a march lying underneath the melody.
How about this one? (288 Were You There When They Crucified My Lord)
You feel something totally different. This is 180 degrees opposite from the first tune. It is slower. It makes you feel sad, lonely, depressed, and maybe even a little hopeless. Perhaps it reminds of a time in your life you might want to forget. The notes are a little plodding. That plodding has always reminding me of the horses that used to take caskets to the grave. The feeling you get when you hear this song is nothing at all like the first. While the first may work like an earworm and stick with you all day, this one, you don’t want these feelings to linger.
Again, I want to remind you how your feelings changed so quickly. The notes, many of them were the same. We changed from a major key (G) to a minor key (C minor) and more than anything that made all the difference in the world. The notes themselves mean nothing; however when we put them together and make that shift from one sharp to three flats, the entire realm of human emotions is up for grabs.
How does the song make us feel? Where does it take us? When it’s all put together, how does it make us feel? This is what music has asked of listeners since the beginning of time.
The Bible asks the same question and then goes one question further. How does this text make you feel? Secondly, what are you going to do with this feeling? In other words, how will you respond to what you feel?
There’s no better place to see this at work and ask these questions than in the Bible’s music book, the Psalms. The Psalms are poems, prayers, and songs. While we don’t have notes in the conventional musical sense, something that can be played on a piano, guitar or other instrument; the words are our notes. Whether they are written in Hebrew, English, or some other translated language, these words are words. In their own right, they do not tell a story on their own. When compiled, the author or writers might have been inspired by certain ideas, events, and people. Yet, as we know with any good song, what spoke to that songwriter (let’s call him David) may not speak to us. We’re not walking in his sandals. David’s life can’t be contained in the words he chooses or even the melody he might have sung. The words stand for themselves because we will hear them as we hear them, not as David felt them. His words will make us feel, not what he feels, but what we feel. What does this Psalm make us feel?
How does Psalm 84 make you feel? It’s unlike some of the guilt ridden Psalms David wrote after his adultery with Bathsheba. This one is decidedly different. There’s almost something of a burden being lifted and ability to talk to God without the sins of the past getting in the way.
It makes me feel at home. I think it should, given that it’s talking about a “dwelling place”. Call it a house, cottage, trailer, camper, or whatever. There is a sense of belonging in this Psalm. I hear this and I feel like I belong. I remember places where I felt I belonged. By that I remember places of unconditional love in places of unconditional belonging; my grandmother’s house, the home I grew up in, and the church where I was baptized. Each of those places was marked by being “truly happy”. How do you feel, hearing those words, “truly happy?” Home, truly, and happy are all placed together in the same Psalm. Individually, their meanings could go in countless directions. Together, they harmonize and create a distinction which is unavoidable. Is the idea of being truly happy in a place we can call home something we’re able to associate with God? Is this what the Psalmist is asking us to feel?
Yes. When I listen and hear Psalm 84, this is what I feel reminded of the presence of God in the places I call home. There’s a famous verse that’s often quoted from Psalm 84. Verse 10 says, “Better is a single day in your courtyards than a thousand days anywhere else.” Most people stop there. However, the verse goes on, “I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house than life comfortably in the tents of the wicked.” This makes me feel justified in being a homebody. I rather not live in a tent that belonged to God or the wicked. Staying home with Jesus and my family is more than alright with me. I don’t feel unsettled or threatened by any of this. I feel God knows me for who I am and is fine with me being me.
Perhaps that’s why I feel so encouraged by the last few verses, “The Lord gives-doesn’t withhold-good things to those who walk with integrity. Lord of heavenly forces, those who trust in you are truly happy.”
I do feel truly happy when I hear Psalm 84. I am taken back to places I’ve called home. I feel good to know that God’s always been in the picture. I feel comforted that God loves me. I feel like God’s not going to make me go camping and that the Lord is fine with me being me. That’s what I feel. It’s what I heard. How about you?
Richard Lowell Bryant