One of the most counter-cultural things that we can do right now is to fix our minds on one idea for an extended period of time. It is too easy to get caught up in the constant cycle of news, information, tweets, and content that bombards us every day, effectively teaching our minds to not focus. This has led us to become an anxious society and it affects Christian and non-Christian alike. This inability to focus impacts Christians in a unique way, though, as those who are called to meditate on God’s word because our minds are being trained to not be able to dwell on one passage of Scripture for long. This is significant considering the Bible calls us to “love the Lord your God with all your…mind” (Luke 10:27), “meditate on God’s law day and night” (Psalm 1:2), and to “renew your mind” (Romans 12:2). If we are to fill our minds with God’s truth and let obedience to that truth shape our daily lives, then we must meditate on it, and to meditate we will need to focus for an extended period of time. One practical way of meditating on God’s truth comes through the aid of music.
Songs in Scripture
Music and songs have a large presence in the Bible. Exodus 15 contains one of the first songs in all of scripture as Moses was praising God and remembering the work He had done. In the book of Psalms there are songs of praise (Psalm 146), songs of ascents (Psalm 120-134), and songs of confession (Psalm 51), many of which were set to music as well. Another well known song, Mary’s Song (the Magnificat in Luke 1), was her reaction to hearing the news that she would give birth to the long-awaited perfect Savior. Why are there so many diverse types of songs throughout Scripture? While there are several reasons, one of the largest reasons is that music helps us meditate on truth.
Two Psalms Set to Music
One of my favorite Psalms set to music is "My Help, My God (Psalm 42)" by Sandra McCracken. When I listen to McCracken’s song I have no choice but to sit with and dwell on the prayer of Psalm 42 for five minutes. Apart from this song I can easily read the 11 verses of Psalm 42 in under a minute, hardly allowing time for the truths to sink into my heart and challenge me. However, when I hear Sandra sing the text of Psalm 42, then continually come back to the refrain of “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him!” my soul and affections are directed upwards to be satisfied in God alone. This song accesses my emotions through the way that the piano and soft background strings hover over the song, almost acting as an audible confirmation of God’s presence during all of life’s trials. The chorus even has a swirling effect that causes me to listen in closer to the verses when they are a bit more subdued. While the text of Psalm 42 stimulates my mind, the music and instruments in this song appeal to my emotions. Often on my worst days I will visit this song and the text of Psalm 42 because of how they give words to my suffering, yet still call me to remember who God is.
One of my other favorite adaptations of a Psalm is Kings Kaleidoscope's version of Psalm 139. While Kings K’s version is not a direct quotation of the text of the Psalm, it does expound on it and pull out truths to help the reality of the Psalm sink deeper into my heart. For example, when I think of how God even knows what I’m thinking before I say it, I cannot help but be amazed by who He is. I’m reminded that “I could run away or hide beneath the sea, but (God) would still hear my prayers”. On top of the lyrical truths, the unique instruments and the creative percussion rhythms access my emotions and ignite my curiosity about God, helping me to simply enjoy the beauty of the world that the Lord has given us. God knows me so much better than I know myself, in ways that I can’t even imagine, and meditating on 139 only helps to stir my affections for the ways that God knows and loves me.
One of the musical albums that has served me most is Hebrews by Psallos. Psallos is a chamber group (small group of people playing numerous instruments, even orchestral ones) that is seeking to use music to draw out the truths of Scripture. Their hope is to eventually set all of the epistles to music. In Hebrews Psallos approaches their musical composition with the text in mind, serving as the perfect aid to helping us meditate on the truths of scripture. They look at the whole book of Hebrews, including the big picture, common themes, and recurring ideas and then use music to emphasize those.
For example, there are five different warnings in the book of Hebrews that each get their own track throughout the album, all of them containing similar musical themes and ideas that are made more dramatic as the album goes along. For example, “The Old” and “The New” tracks that are back-to-back show the contrasts between the old covenant and the new covenant in dramatic fashion, largely due to the contrasting musical elements at play in the two tracks. Or take the track “Ex Paradiso” that is just over four minutes but only walks through 13 verses—I could easily skim through that short section of text, but when I have to sit with it for several minutes then its impact becomes much greater. Listening to the album straight through (it is 94 minutes long, but definitely worth it) has helped me to dwell on the truths of Hebrews, better understand the whole book, and has stirred my affections for Jesus at the same time. They also have released a similar album with Romans, but I have still been diving into Hebrews in this moment and have not wanted to leave.
The Gift of Music
God has given us the gift of music for many reasons—it shows aspects of God’s creativity and beauty, and is simply enjoyable to listen to. I am also so grateful for the ways that it helps me to slow down and understand His Word at a deep heart level. Through listening to adaptations of the Psalms, albums over books of the Bible, or even works tied to the church calendar (for example, the Handel’s Messiah during Advent or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion during Lent) music can help us slow down and meditate on truth. While it is easy to gloss over passages of scripture when we are reading, music forces us to sit with a passage for several minutes, while also accessing our emotions and causing us to think deeper about the text. Music is one of the most helpful partners for the act of meditating on God’s truth.
-By Noah Mennenga