Monday, September 21, 2009

That Old Time Religion

One of the intriguing things about reading the Bible is the very ancientness of it. It's a little glimpse into the life of a vibrant, interesting tribe of people as they lived thousands of years ago. That alone would make it a fascinating read, even without the fact that it is the most influential book in western civilization. I've been thinking about the Book of Psalms lately. Imagine singing psalms in the Second Temple. Some of them would have been contemporary. Some of them had been sung hundreds of years ago in exile in Babylon, and some would have been sung hundreds of years before that in the First Temple. You would have felt connected by song, ceremony, and ritual to your whole community, the living and the dead going back more than a thousand years.

I wonder what those ceremonies were like. Had you been in Jerusalem, say 2200 years ago, what would you have seen and heard in the Temple? We'll never know for sure. What was the music like? How did they dance, play, and sing? What were the rituals, the gestures and actions, the stagecraft, if you will, of faith? The psalms themselves sometimes give us tantalizing little clues.

Psalms 75, 76, and 77 include instructions at the beginning like “To the leader: with stringed instruments,” “according to Jeduthun,” or “Do Not Destroy.” The meaning of the first one is obvious, the other two might be something like saying “to the tune of . . .” My favorite bit of instruction is in Psalm 118. This one has what many scholars consider to be a textual error. It's going along normally when the poetry suddenly stops making sense. Check out verses 26 and 27:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind up the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.

Those last two lines don't make any sense. They are singing the name of the Lord, blessing someone “from the house of the LORD,” that is the Temple, and then, what? What do those two lines mean?

Did you ever read a play? You'll notice that the dialog is interspersed with written stage directions. This is likely the same thing, but in this case a bit of liturgical direction has gotten mixed into the verse. It looks like a transcription error, a biblical boo-boo. Read it this way and you can try to imagine what it must have been like. The choir is singing, blessing the one who comes, probably with a festal sacrifice. They sing that the Lord has given us light. Perhaps one of the priests stokes up the fire at that point. Then the priests would bind the sacrifice to the altar. The song continues:

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.

Which seems an appropriate verse for a sacrifice.

Interesting isn't it? Those two odd lines might just be giving us a glimpse into a ceremony that was centuries old when Jesus was born.

There are a few other psalms that I find particularly intriguing. Psalm 6, which is sung with stringed instruments; “according to The Sheminith,” whatever that was, is a lament and a prayer for healing. The first seven verses recount the psalmists miseries and ask God for help.

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.

Suddenly, everything is different.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.

What happened between those two verses? I wonder if there was some sort of ritual done at this point to indicate God answering the prayer. Something we can only imagine but can never really know. The psalms were not dry literature or poems quietly read, but an integral part of a vibrant religious service.

Can you hear the celebration of Psalm 150?

Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

This was a loud, singing, dancing, fervent musical of a sabbath.

Not all of the psalms were quite this joyful. Psalm 51, for example, clearly comes from the time when the people of Israel were captives in Babylon. The Temple of Solomon had been destroyed. The traditional sacrifices could not be made, the traditional rituals could not be performed.

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a Broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

It ends with a prayer that the Lord will allow the sacred city of Jerusalem to be rebuilt so that He would again “delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.” The people yearned for the rituals of their fathers.

Who can blame them? Imagine singing and dancing in the Temple, the spiritual home of your people, the physical nexus of your covenant with God, when number 100 is the song of the day.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship in the LORD in gladness; come to him in singing.
Know that the LORD is God.

It must have been wonderful.

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