Let All that Breathes Praise the Lord

Exuberant music must have filled temple worship.

Jan_van_Eyck_-_The_Ghent_Altarpiece_-_Singing_Angels_(detail)_-_WGA07642

The angelic choir from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, ca 1430.

If we are to believe the Old Testament psalms, exuberant music must have filled the air during temple worship.

Psalm 33, for example, issues its call to worship with these words:

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.

            Praise befits the upright.

Praise the LORD with the lyre;

            make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;

            play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.(Psalm 33:1-3)

Psalm 150 mentions the array of musical instruments that were used: trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Other psalms (e.g., Psalms 4795108,  150) bear witness that people joined in with singing, shouting, clapping, and dance. What an amazing sound must have arisen from the temple’s courts.

I am particularly struck by the mention of dance, something usually absent from Christian worship today. We must keep in mind that the people did not sit in pews when they came to worship at the temple. They would have stood in the temple courts and walked around during the sacrifices.

As the music mounted, I can well imagine that the people would have spontaneously begun to sway and move with the rhythms. We are even told that King David broke into ecstatic dance as a liturgical procession carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-15).

In fact, I wonder if temple worship did not resemble more what happens in exuberant African-American worship services than in most of the churches I attend where worshippers sit motionless and rigid in hard, wooden pews.  African-American choirs sway and move in rhythm as they lift their voices in song.

A few other Protestant groups have also been noted for their physical movement in worship. It is the reason the Shakers got their name. Outsiders were struck by their practice of rhythmical movement in their worship times.

Today charismatic Christians sometimes revive the practice of dance. I once attended a charismatic Roman Catholic wedding. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom did not race down the aisle as at most weddings I attend. Instead they led the congregation in a joyful dance weaving up and down the church’s three aisles. Most of the congregation stood in bewilderment. A few joined them, including myself. I thought their dance expressed the joy of the ceremony we had just witnessed.

Outside of Christian circles liturgical dance has often formed part of worship. One thinks of the circle dances performed by native Americans or by African tribal cultures.

Were Reformation reforms truly reforms?

During the Reformation church leaders of the Reformed tradition insisted that all practices of worship should have explicit scriptural sanction. It is the reason that Reformed congregations limited all singing in the church to the singing of metrical psalms. When hymn writers like Isaac Watts began to compose fresh, new hymns, many Reformed congregations were scandalized. They saw no place for “human songs” in divine worship.

I find it curious that with their insistence that all worship practices have scriptural warrant that Reformed church leaders never approved of the use of dance in worship. It certainly had scriptural warrant too, if we listen carefully to the psalms.

Probably that was because the Reformed tradition put such a premium on the service of the Word. Worship was centered around the reading of Scripture and its explication through the sermon. It was worship geared to the ear, not the feet. As a result, Reformed worship became very wordy and non-physical.

Though the Reformers may have thought they were purifying worship, in my opinion they were, in fact, impoverishing worship. They left no place for the body and the senses in worship. For me that comes across as a great loss, not an improvement.

I, therefore, welcome the return of exuberant music and dance into Christian worship. By temperament I gravitate to the majestic music of J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Wolfgang Mozart. (Their music, too, can be exuberant. Just listen to the Sanctus in Bach’s B-Minor Mass and you cannot help let your soul soar.)

But I also appreciate the role that rock bands, folk music, and jazz can play in worship today. They too are a way for people to praise the Lord in voices and styles expressive of who they are.

So in a time when many congregations fight battles over worship styles and music, I say, Let exuberance flourish. That is one message of the psalms. Let all who have breath praise the Lord!

Added Note:With all that I have just written about the role music, clapping, and dance played in temple worship, there is also some evidence in the psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament that periods of silence may have been a part of temple worship, too. Whether Psalm 62 is the voice of an individual or a group may be debatable, but Habakkuk 2:20 seems to be a very explicit reference to a role that silence played in the temple service:

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

                        let all the earth keep silence before him!

Worship today may need times for silence just as much as it needs times of joyful exuberance. We can think of silence and exuberance as the yin and yang of Christian worship.

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