25 September 2010

A Hart that Pants for Worship: A Meditation on Psalm 42

The primary sense of worship is sound.

Don't get me wrong, I have been in churches that dazzled my eyes with stained-glass windows, engaging backdrops, or brightly costumed characters. I have smelled incense and tasted the warm, bitter ordinances of communion. I have felt the prayer rail and the wrinkled leather binding of my Bible.

Worship is truly a sensory experience, but sound is the sense that takes my spirit into God's presence.

I have spent the last five months of private study in the temple of Jerusalem. (And yes, there are many years' more worth of studies to pursue.) Recently, I was led into the Psalms, longing to experience true temple-worship through their insights. I had several weeks of study built up, a list of facts--a table, even (if you have read my histories of the Judaic kings, you know what I'm referring to).

But it wasn't until I was in church last weekend, that I could "hear" the Psalmic temple-worship and finally begin to feel this understanding ennobling my spirit and enlightening me.

We read Psalm 42 as the responsive reading. Psalm 42: it's one of the most popular psalms, and I'm sure I've read it dozens of times. It reminds me of the song we used to sing at Moor Close vespers at Newbold College, "As the deer pants for living water, so my soul longs after you."

But this reading transported me back in time. For a moment, I was standing in the temple courts. Solomon's Temple towered over me, and the bronze pillars, Jakin and Boaz shone. I could hear the sounds of worship, and I naturally took my part.

Worship in the First-Temple Period
It is best to begin with a look a diagram of the temple and its courts.

The temple building was surrounded on three sides by a courtyard. While the temple building was a place for a few priests, the courtyard was much busier, with a giant altar and a giant pool or "sea" as well as many movable altars used during busy times of festival. The Levites had access to the courtyard, along with Jewish men wealthy enough to sacrifice animals.

Outside the inner courtyard was a vast area known in Jesus' day as the "courts." It featured terraces, pools, other offering places (for modest offerings like grain and doves), and there was a colonnade along the outer rim of the courtyard where sellers sold religious wares and teachers set up shop. Women could enter this courtyard, and even--in a narrow, clearly defined section--so could gentiles. These outer courts--by my estimate--could have held over 10,000 worshipers (standing room only) on the busiest festival days. That doesn't include the animals which would have been there for sacrifice and/or sale.

To get the full effect of worship as it would have been celebrated in any given psalm, one must keep these features in mind: the temple, the courtyard, and the courts.

What was worship like in the temple? It was loud, very loud. There are many psalms that record the call to worship from trumpets and cymbals that echoed throughout the City of David. The best source for my imagination is 2 Chronicles 5, which describes the dedication service of the First Temple.
The priests then withdrew from the Holy Place. All the priests who were there had consecrated themselves, regardless of their divisions. All the Levites who were musicians--Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives--stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord.
Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:

"He is good; his love endures forever."

Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God (verses 11-14).

When I read this, I imagine the three places of worship: the temple building, filled with light as priests stumble out covering their eyes; the courtyard, filled with trumpeters, singers, Levites and members of the king's court; and the courts, packed with people from throughout Israel who had come to worship, to experience God's awesome power.

Psalm 42: The Performance
There are three characters in this worship experience--characters we would probably recognize from worship services today: the speaker, the choir and the people.
  • The speaker shares the lesson with the choir and the people. He speaks in the first person, sharing his own personal struggles.
  • The choir amplifies the speaker's message, often building upon observations made by the speaker.
  • The people have been given one verse to chant in response. They will wait for direction from the "director of music," whom I imagine stands atop the gate between the courtyard (where the singers and musicians are) and the courts (where the people are).

You will notice that there are two "sermons" or "testimonies" in the psalm, presented by the speaker.

The speaker begins:
"As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God" (1)
(Note the rhythm of the line, even in English translation, you can't miss it. I would love to hear it in Hebrew.)
The choir responds, building on the speaker's words
"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?" (2)
(This is the most beautiful verse in the psalm to me. I want to hear it repeated again and again. I imagine that music follows this response. If I were one of the singers, I would want to repeat it three times.
It's like a call to worship. People in the courts are taking their places at this time, and as they hear "When can I go and meet with God?" followed by trumpets, they grow very still.)
Sermon 1: the speaker
"My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng" (3-4)
(While this sermon is a meditation on a specific trial of faith, I can't help but see the i
mage in verse three: the worship leader, dancing through the streets, just after the trumpets and cymbals have called from the temple, leading a "multitude" who are dancing and singing all the way to worship.
And what would that singing look like? The famous Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon bring to life a similar worship procession from ancient Athens, capturing the excitement of man and beast, the well-dressed worship-goers, the various offerings. Granted the Elgin Marbles feature a time 600 years after Solomon, but they capture a key facet of ancient worship: the arrival to the temple was every bit as meaningful as the worship around it.
But now the speaker is down-hearted, lost in his struggle with faith. He calls upon memories of worship to sustain him, just as we can call on worship to sustain us today.)
The choir responds:
"Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why are you so disturbed within me?
And the people chime in with their prepared chant:
"Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my savior and my God" (5b)
(I wonder how this chant would have been taught to the people in the courts. I think it might have been a password that was whispered through the streets, which a worshiper uttered to gain admittance to the temple courts. Perhaps Levites filtered throughout the crowd, instructing the people. Perhaps it was part of a local psalter: a given week would be the "put your hope in God" celebration, and worshipers would be prepped ahead of time.)

The first sermon finished, there is a natural break in the psalm for music, for noise, for clapping, for praise.

The speaker continues:
"My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you" (6a)
The choir rejoinders:
"from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon--from Mount Mizar" (6b)
(The response amplifies the memory of the speaker, giving setting to the splendid promises of the psalm. From the temple courts, people could look out across the Kidron Valley and see geographical features in the distance.
The 'land of the Jordan' lay east and below the temple complex, Mount Hermon towered to the north. I'm sure that this stanza took on even greater significance when it was sung in exile as Jews remembered their homeland.)

The speaker returns:
"Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;" (7a)
(I love the word, "roar," is it is used here. Again I hear the sound of worship, the chants outside the temple would have sounded like the roaring of a crowd in a sports stadium today. "Deep calls to deep" echoes the call, song and response of the worshipers in the courtyard and the temple courts.)

The choir answers:
"All your waves and breakers
have swept over me" (7b)

Sermon 2: the speaker calls,
"By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me--
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?"
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
"Where is your God?" (8-10)
(One thing that strikes me about this second sermon is how much of a confession it seems. The speaker is troubled, and he wonders if he has been forgotten by God. It is the people who announce, "Put your hope in God," not the speaker.
It is almost the complete opposite of the way many Christians and ministers wage worship today. The people are considered feckless, faithless, we look to our pastors for answers and encouragement. In the temple worship of Psalm 42, the speaker took on the role of teacher: asking questions, developing problems that the people, through worship, will answer.
It's an interesting angle on worship, one that might prove fruitful in the modern day.)

With the 2nd Sermon finished, the choir and the people move into the closing song:
The choir:
"Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?" (11a)
The people:
"Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God." (11b)
(Music plays from the inner courtyard. The people dismiss. I can imagine that they continue the chant as they exit the courts and move into the street.)

What a sonic vision this is. I still have some questions, that further study may reveal:
  • How long was the worship service described in Psalm 42? One can read it in a matter of a few minutes, after all.
  • Was the psalm the full worship service, or was there more to it? Presumably there would have been sacrifices. There was plenty to do in the temple courts once the chants and songs had subsided, such as the smaller groups of teachers/students that the young Jesus found.
  • What was worship music like? My church in Bethpage uses the lyre (guitar) and cymbal (drums) every Sunday. Is that more "biblical" than a place that uses a keyboard or pipe organ?

1 comment:

Phyllis Burske George said...

Thank you for sharing the insights afforded by your months of study, JD! I love the scene you paint. This inspires me to study more intently some facets of Scripture I have not visited for awhile.