Sacred Songs, III: Hidden Harmony
As we explore God’s gift of sacred song in this August sermon series, we turn to the Book of Job, a perplexing story in Hebrew Scriptures.
A man named Job, simply introduced as righteous and beyond fault, is robbed of every blessing and comfort; his fortune withers, family perishes, and his health turns to constant pain with open sores oozing from his flesh.
Friends arrive to counsel him and instead exacerbate his agony by assessing he must have caused it. So much suffering could not befall a man with unblemished moral conduct.
Throughout the story, Job never doubts God’s presence, but in crescendo-building poetic rage, he demands answers from God for these injustices.
God answers Job. Today’s reading, described by scholars as the most sophisticated poetry, with “virtuosic wordplay and sound play” of the original Hebrew, God sets Job aright.
Before we hear God’s reply, please pray with me.
Dear God, Silence in us any voice but yours that we might hear beyond the words and between the lines. Stir within us that we might catch a glimpse of your goodness and will for us today. May our meditations on these words blend in harmony pleasing to your ear and resonate in our lives. We ask this in the name of your word made flesh, our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall inform me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who fixed its measurements—do you know
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
A legend from the 6th BCE claims a man passed by a blacksmith’s shop and was captivated by what he heard coming from within: the rhymical cadence of hammer on metal blending into a harmonious unity.
Let’s put into your mind memories of old western movies with a blacksmith or perhaps a historic villages reenactment.
Determined to find out why, he found the hammers used by the smiths differed in weight and each produced a distinct pitch. The most agreeable musical pitches—pitches that were pleasing to the ear—were formed by hammers whose weights could be compared in the simplest mathematical ratios (1:2, 2:3, and so on).
Later away from the blacksmiths’ shop, Pythagoras found not only that different weights of hammers but also varied lengths of string produced different pitches, such that he could anticipate harmonies or discord
This led to his awareness that harmony is rational, and the harmony of the universe can be expressed in mathematical ratios or proportions apprehended by the mind, with musical sounds mediating these ratios.
Thanks to Pythagoras, for hundreds and hundreds of years, from the 6th century BCE until the time of the Enlightenment, if you sought to study math, you studied music.
Yes, this is the one and the same Pythagoras who gave geometry the theorem for a right triangle of: a2 + b2 = c2.
He also studied the night stars and planets, to discover they moved according to predicable mathematical equations and thus they too resonate, producing a symphony of music.
Patience. Curiosity. Respect for what lies beyond. Exploring with wonder. These attributes, along with humility, opened Pythagoras to grasp how all created beings exist together.
Such is an example of wisdom acquired by tuning your ear to the world around, of suspending your conception of what you think should to be, instead to be startled by what is.
Other forms of wisdom rise from the inquiry of values and moral action among humans.
A body of literature called “wisdom literature” asks the lofty and yet raw questions of the meaning of life, what is the right behavior, usually when normalcy has slipped away.
The Book of Job stands at the pinnacle of such wisdom literature. It bears nothing in common with the writings in the Torah of oracles and laws received by Moses from God at Sinai.
Those collection of books decree to the faithful that a moral life will lead to blessings and tranquility—actions have predictable consequences. The laws and prophets prescribe a cause and effect; obedience and blessing, and sin and punishment.
The Book of Job lays bare the teeming and contradictory nature in which beauty and violence coexist beyond human reason. How can it be that a man who conducted a morally upright existence suffer so greatly?
Job’s author is unknown but may have penned this story as early as the 6th century BCE—somewhat contemporary with Pythagoras—and shares common themes of Greek philosophy’s inquiry into the values and disposition of the human condition.
From the depth of his suffering, while sitting in an ash heap, Job reasons his way from creation’s beginning with order and causality, asking God why and how.
Then after 36 chapters of fist-shaking accusations, out of the whirlwind, Job hears:
“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” to begin the answer by naming Job’s ignorance.
“Where were you, when I laid the earth’s foundations?” to demand Job notice the very substance upon which he sits, and yet does not understand its origin, or destiny.
“Who set the cornerstone when the morning stars began to sing?” The cornerstone as the basis from which all created bodies receive their orbit, dance in alignment, and remain balanced.
Yes singing and harmony have existed from the beginning, ordained by God as an aspect of life, in which we participate, and do not control. We did not make octaves, and intervals, and minor chords.
In further reply to Job, God asks “are you able” to know any of what I have done and who I am moving from celestial beings to the movement of the seas, the roar of lions, and all the mysteries of creation.
Now might be a good time for all of us to settle into The Book of Job, chapters 38–40, and hear God’s voice.
Is this a punishing rebuke? Hardly.
God only asks we notice the nature of all existence.
God’s speech does not bully Job or reprimand him. Rather, God’s rhetoric exposes the limits of Job’s and all human perception.
We can become so anchored in a restricted compass of human knowledge, of which we believed we are at the center, so our egos become as bruised as our bodies when tragedy surprises us.
We can be so caught up in demanding righteous rewards and justice that we fail to see God’s hand and fingerprints throughout the cosmos.
God settles Job back into his place, as part of a grand order that can never be known completely, only curiously explored, and respected.
Right now it feels as though our world has become unmoored from a stable compass. This pandemic demands, for safety’s sake, that we refrain from so many activities that bound us together.
To preach a sermon series on song when we are prohibited from singing as we once did, something ordained and ordered by God, reminds me how unfair this pandemic is and how detached I’ve felt.
Months ago we removed the choir chairs from the chancel and have no plans to return them in 2020. This bare space echoes.
Since the beginning of time, humans have made music. Embedded within the Hebrew culture and the confirmed in early Christian church, the faithful have sung songs of praise and preserved the psalter through melodic chants, with call and responses joining people together.
Making music individually and collectively embeds faith into our bodies, animates us with visceral response as we express our praise to God.
We could rail against the injustice and sing anyway to the demise of one another. As this pandemic rages, research and experience confirms that group singing remains one of the most toxic activities.
Or, we could silence ourselves. Many of us have not sung a measure since March.
Or we can lean-in, just as humans are prone, and experiment.
Turning to a professional singer and a congregation member, who has graced our choir for 20 years, I asked Alyssa Bennet what it is like for someone whose entire life is dedicated in singing to not sing with and for others?
“At first it was horrible” she said. The stay-at-home order compounded the loneliness. Silence robbed her of what defined her life.
Then she described the journey of virtual choirs, duets, trios—finding her place in singing with others through recordings.
Since the acoustics in most home is awful, some singers retreated to their closets. In addition to capturing a voice, intimate details were exposed of what hangs from the closet rods or is piled on the floor.
Once you satisfy these physical requirements, with their attendant humility, the emotional challenges can equally impair the effort.
She confided that even professionals live with self-doubt and recording herself, all alone, exacerbates such feelings.
At the time we spoke, she was working on recording as a member of a quartet for the Jewish holidays. Even though she was singing alone, she could not sing as though this were a solo.
Her group learned that recording each voice independent of one another, even with instrumental, created editing headaches. Trial and error from listening and measuring led them to new insight.
Instead of singing alone, one person, not necessarily the lead, laid his part alongside the instrumental. When Alyssa would record, she could listen to connect.
She said, “Within a quad, there is no room to hide, even missing a fraction of a note or timing disrupts the unity.” She was no longer alone at her recording; she was back to listening deeply to another person’s voice and breath.
They are creating art in a future tense. Recording with a virtual ensemble does not deny the pleasure of the music, it delays the immediacy.
I quote Alyssa, “Then, it is pretty awesome to hear.” During the editing process doubt dissolves into pure pleasure. I heard her voice lift as she described in those technical tasks an unfolding of a holiness. It was still there.
What might seem a solitary practice in reality crafts a community beyond time and place. In my mind, I imagined Alyssa singing with the morning stars whose sound began light years ago and is blended today.
We expect rational, ordered worlds, as Pythagoras thought he’d uncovered. Centuries later, musicologists and mathematicians poked holes in some of his theories.
Job thought if he lived a righteous life, he deserved his fortune and health. And yet, his ordered experience dissolved.
Virtual choirs lift our spirits as we try to raise our song. And yet, we cannot wait to open our hymnals.
We might feel as Job, having lost income and stability. We grieve the illnesses and death.
It is not fair for us to have such suffering when we did not cause this virus. We cannot understand the origin of all tragedy nor protect ourselves from such random ills.
Go ahead, shake your fist at God.
Like Job, the answer we receive may put us back into our place, part of a grand harmony. Then we admit that we do not understand God’s order.
If we were to demand only a world of justice, with rewards measured out based upon our moral conduct, we might forever sit in an ash heap. And yet, Jesus offers us the gift of unmerited grace. His mercy is beyond understanding.
Christ calls us to live the way of the cross, looking into the eyes of the stranger with compassion. Caring for the least of his children as we care for ourselves. This way does not make sense, yet mercy is what brings meaning, and value to all of our lives.
How does the story of Job resolve? Job answers God’s with “I know you can do anything, and no devising is beyond you.”
Then Job’s reverence for God turned him to pray for those companions who doubted him and God restored his life, his fortune, and he raised another family.
God’s mercy is what gives meaning to our lives. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras and the details of the legend contained in Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p 79. Albert L. Blackwell, The Sacred in Music, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), pgs. 49–55.  Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 3: The Writings, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019) pgs. 339–564.