Nearly every day, I get a song stuck in my head. I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s always a worship song or hymn. But that would be a lie. The truth is that I have this odd tendency to free associate from words I hear to songs I remember.
Recently, my wife and I finally had a long-awaited opportunity to meet and get to know our baby granddaughter. The pandemic had kept us apart until the whole family was able to be vaccinated. Almost a year old now, she is the cutest darn toddler (yes, toddler) ever. She loves books—or I should say, she loves to chew on books (literally, not figuratively).
One of her favorites is a picture book called Bus Stops. It’s a simple story about all the stops a bus makes in a day, and who gets off where. And of course, whenever I’m with her and she’s playing with the book, I sing…Bus Stop, a 1966 easy-rock song by the Hollies (you know: Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say, “Please share my umbrella”…). I almost can’t help myself.
It’s one thing to choose to sing a song and then be done with it. But sometimes, it almost seems as if the songs sing us. They’re inside of us, awaiting the right opportunity to burst forth.
It makes me wonder about Jesus and the Psalms, and about the Psalms in general. Were these poems and songs meant to be such an important part of the collective consciousness of God’s people that they would burst forth at the proper time?
. . .
Psalms 42 and 43, as we’ve seen, should probably be taken as two parts of a single psalm. In Psalm 42, the distressed psalmist thinks back to a time of joyous celebration with a throng of worshipers making a procession to the temple; the memory gives him hope that things will change. A similar hope is expressed in Psalm 43:
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God. (43:3-4, NRSV)
Notice the progression. God sends forth his light and truth to guide the psalmist like beacons to his presence, leading him first to Zion, then to the temple, then to the altar, then to God himself. God is the goal. God is the destination. God is the psalmist’s “exceeding joy,” not the temple. That’s not exactly a common way to say it in English; a more literal translation of the Hebrew might be something like, “joy of joys.”
And the psalmist knows that if he is able to come into God’s holy presence and know that joy again, he will sing. He will praise God.
He won’t be able to help it.
A few verses later, the psalmist writes:
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. (42:8)
Music is his prayer, the expression of his soul to the God who defines his very existence. But what does he mean by “his song”? What is God’s song? I don’t know that it’s possible to define it. But I suspect that this would make perfect sense to a songwriter.
. . .
When most of us sing, it’s a temporary activity. The lyrics of a worship song, for example, flash across a screen and we follow along. Whatever the experience of the song, when we’re done, we’re done. Going further, sometimes a song will get stuck in our heads, and we’ll find ourselves singing it on and off throughout the day.
But beyond that, some songs can become invested with deep meaning and significance because of their association with aspects of our lives. For a songwriter, it may be the way a song expresses an experience of heartbreak. For the rest of us, it may be “our song,” the song that symbolizes a romantic relationship, the song we danced to at our wedding. It may be the song our parents sung over us as we drifted off to sleep. It may be the song we listened to over and over as an angry or lonely teenager.
I suspect that for the psalmist there is at best a very fine line between God’s song and the psalmist’s song. As a writer and preacher, for example, I know that there are times in which words pour forth as if they had a mind of their own. Are they God’s words or mine? There’s no clear answer. I can neither claim the words as entirely mine nor entirely God’s. I must let them speak for themselves, while taking responsibility for any way in which I may have misspoken.
I think something similar was true of the psalmist. For our own part, we can read the Psalms and be done with them. Or we can inhabit them. We can sing them over and over until they penetrate our imagination, our being.
And when we do this, even though we begin by singing God’s song, eventually, the song will sing us.