Exegesis and Application
There are numerous examples of tuneful mundanity in the Old Testament. As I mentioned in a previous blog, a key Hebrew term for such ordinary songs of life’s experiences is “sir.” When “sir” is used it is normally in a worship service or 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 but to each other. A “sir” is generally different than a “lament” in that a “song” is supposed to heighten feelings of joy, delight and merriment. “sir” is used exclusively in the Old Testament for the lyrics or poetry of music and not for bare instrumental music. The most important use of “sir” occurs in the very title of the Song of Solomon (“sir of sirs”), which I have covered in an earlier blog.
Other examples of the use of “shir” for common songs include the following passages:
*Genesis 31:27, Laban’s lament to Jacob about Jacob’s deception as he ran off with Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Laban wanted to send Jacob off with the customary parting of “singing to the music of tambourines and harps.”
*1 Samuel 18:6-7, the famous martial songs sung in celebration of David’s victory over the Philistines (“singing and dancing, with joyful songs”). The Old Testament is full of patriotic songs (Judges 3:27), political coronations (2 Sam. 15:10) and troop processions (2 Sam 6:5).
*2 Samuel 19:35, Barzillai, the 80 year old unbelieving Gildeadite, tells King David, “I am now 80 years old. Can I still hear the voices of men and women singers?” Common ballads (probably sung by professional musicians) were used to brighten Barzillai’s life and give him merriment.
*2 Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah composed sad songs (“laments”) for the people.
*Psalms 137:3, the heathen Babylonians prized the Hebrews for their uplifting tunes and lyrics (“joyous singing”).
*Proverbs 25:20, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs (“sir”) to a heavy heart.” This proverb underscores the lyrics of a song by stating that apt songs can be therapeutic but when sung unseasonably they can be painful and damaging to the spirit. The sensitive person knows when to sing a song (“sir”) and when to sing a lament.
*Eccles. 2:8, Solomon used songs for his relaxation and enjoyment (“I acquired men and women singers, . . the delights of a heart of man.”).
*Ecclesiastes 12:4, the hearing of old men grows faint and they no longer can enjoy music because of their age. Herbert Leupold comments: “’All tones are indistinct’ literally reads in the Hebrew: ‘All the daughters of music are brought low.’ This means: All singing as well as all appreciation of singing is a thing of the past. By a peculiar use of the word ‘daughter’ in phrases denoting character, quality, etc, the combination ‘daughters of music’ means as much as songs, melodious notes or tones.”
*Amos 8:10, the LORD God will change a God-ward song of worship into a song of self-focused lament and despair (“turn your singing into weeping”).
*Zephaniah 2:14, the prophet warns the Assyrians that even bird (“vultures”) songs will screech over the ruins of their destroyed nation (“their songs will echo through the windows”).
The point of this brief exegesis is to show that sentimental ballads and popular “songs” (“sir”) were part and parcel of the daily lives of Old Testament believers. Yahweh used these existing wonderful tunes and lyrics to amuse and brighten the daily existence of His people. Songs of emotion and beauty, acceptance and rejection, virtue and vice, love and hate, patriotism and treason were all part of the musical life of the Israelites. Songs that were noisy or soft, formal or improvisational, maudlin or happy, melancholic or uplifting were all composed and song by the children of Abraham. We Christians in the 21st century should use appropriate popular songs to help us rejoice and celebrate life with all its God-ordained vicissitudes. As Steve Turner has said, popular songs give us the beneficial illusion of “experiencing heartbreak or joy” in the lyrics.