Genesis 4:21 “Jabal’s brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute.” Song of Songs 1:1, “Solomon’s Song of Songs.”
As a fan of the music of the so-called “American Song book,” that is roughly described as popular American music written from 1900 to 1960 I want to look at why evangelical’s have been almost uniformly absent from this great musical tradition of our country. The Songbook is the music we evangelical sing for enjoyment and fund-raising and education and yet none of it was written by us. Why?
There is opposition to popular music in the church from our theological tradition and from our European roots.
For the next several blog I am going to look at the Bible to see if I can detect approval of popular music for God’s people and what the Lord may say about the biblical Songbook. As you might guess, I believe the Lord digs popular music, with all its syncopation, improvisation and relevancy. I start with a couple of key passages.
Exegesis and Application
In Genesis 4, Jubal sets the stage for biblical musicality and thus it is a critical notation in holy writ. The biblical linking of music to agriculture (sheep and cattle raising) (Jabal) and manufacturing (forging) (Tubal-Cain) seems to connect music to the labors of men. Not only are humans to whistle while they work but they are to whistle while they relax. Music is a common divine gift for enjoyment. The Hebrew name “Jubal” may mean “sound,” as in the sound that the ram’s horn makes (Ex. 19:13). In any case, the two instruments noted in vs. 21 are a stringed instrument and a wind instrument meant to cover the musical instrumental waterfront. The verse focuses on those who “play” or “seize” or “handle” or “catch” or “lay hold of” (Hebrew = “tapas”) these musical instruments. This Hebrew verb is used only here for musical instruments but it can mean we are to be makers of music and not listeners only, even if the instruments are rudimentary, primitive or biological (our vocal cords). The Hebrew word employed here is used to “handle” shields, swords, sickles and oars in the Old Testament. Jeremy Begbie points out, “the idea of listening to music purely for its own sake would be unknown in culture of the Ancient Near East. . . . music is fundamentally something done and done in a social context. . . . musical instruments seem to have played a relatively small role in Israel’s culture. This is probably due mainly to the prominence of words in Jewish faith.”
Song of Songs is the most famous love poem in the Bible. A common and therefore, key Hebrew term, for such singing and songs of life’s experiences is “sir.” “sir” is normally used in a worship service or in reference to hymns sung to Yahweh. However, there are numerous examples of the use of “sir” (or “shir”) to refer to common, popular songs of human emotions and sentiment sung not directly to Yahweh. The Hebrew name, “Yahweh,” is not even mentioned in the Song. Furthermore, “sir” is used exclusively in the Old Testament for the lyrics or poetry of music and not for bare instrumental music. More on “sir” in a future blog, but here I want to note the preeminent use of “sir” in the title of the biblical book, Song of Songs. The grammatical structure or repetition – “sir of sir” – in verse 1 of the book indicates the superlative nature of the Song and is a ballad of explicit sexual yearning and consummation of a chaste relationship between husband and wife.
This is a love poem which celebrates the joys of physical touch, the exhilaration of exotic scents, the sweet sound of an intimate voice, the taste of another’s body. Tremper Longman writes that the Song “focuses on the experiences and emotions of intimate male-female relationships. Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote in a letter, “In the Bible we have the Song of Songs, and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there. It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian.” Robert Jenson goes so far to state in his commentary that “according to most modern commentators, the poems must have been written as secular love poems and then appropriated for the canon.” I don’t know about that, but it is clear that the Song is a passionate ode to man-woman love. The book explores human emotion – the thrill and power of love as well as its often attendant pain. The Song affirms human love, intimate relationship, sensuality and sexuality.
This is the Old Testament torch song to be sung to the orchestral arrangement of Nelson Riddle. This is the stuff of the best of the American Songbook. Like the great American popular poet-lyricists of the first half of the 20th century (e.g., Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Larry Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Alan Lerner, Frank Loesser, et. al) the poet(s) of the Song use similes, metaphors, double entendres, evocative and figurative language to express love in an intimate, sensual, erotic passion.
Longman calls the Song “a kind of erotic psalter.” All within the sovereign chastity of Yahweh’s revealed will, the Song describes a love between a man and a woman that is intense, exclusive and faithful, in spite of obstacles. Jenson writes that the Song is “a collection of highly sensual love lyrics” and “provides a theology of human sexuality.” The Song also explores the pain of rejection and opposition. Passionate love between a man and a woman is an “amazing” mystery and the Song affirms this human love as an intimate relationship, with all its sensuality and sexuality. There is the ache of waiting and the exhilaration of consummation, as well as the tension between independence and dependence. While celebrating our mutual sexuality the Song warns us of the dangers, the heartbreak and the loneliness that will accompany the amazing mystery of “the way of a man with a young woman” (Prov. 30:19).
Ira Gershwin couldn’t have said it better.