Making a Joyful Noise

by Hugh Farquhar

The Psalm designated in the Lectionary for next Sunday is Psalm 98.

It begins with the words: “Sing to God a new song, for God has done marvellous things.” It proceeds to describe the offering of praise to God through the music that rang through the Temple in Jerusalem. (I can’t help thinking about how difficult it was in the early days of my ministry to get a congregation to sing a new song.)

The employment of music as a medium of praise is basic to Hebrew tradition, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Book of Psalms. The word “psalm” is derived from the Greek word “psalmos’ meaning “song.” The title of the book in Hebrew is “tehillim” meaning “songs of praise.”

In this Psalm, three different types of musical instruments are mentioned as contributing to the cacophony of praise to God: lyres, trumpets, and horns. The lyre was a stringed instrument akin to a guitar, though differently shaped. The trumpets were made of metal, wind instruments much like modern-day trumpets. The horn, called a “Shofar,” was made from an animal’s horn. It was used to call the people to prayer.

Psalm 150 mentions other instruments: psaltery and harp (similar plucked instruments); timbrel (tambourine); cymbals (soft ones and loud ones); and pipes (like flutes). Throughout the Psalms, worshippers are exhorted to “come before God’s presence with singing.” If you couldn’t sing, it was all right, because more commonly the exhortation was to “make a joyful noise,” as it is here in verse 4!

Music has always been a primary means of praising God. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, wrote on the title page of some of his works, “To give all praise to God on high.” His music, and the music of a host of composers across the centuries, has served that purpose well. Music helps us to praise.

But in the poetry of this Psalm, we are not alone in our praising. “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it . . . Let the rivers clap their hands, the hills sing together for joy before God.” (vs.7-8)

One of my earliest memories of a spiritual consciousness as a boy was singing in the beautiful outdoor Chapel at Pinehurst Church Camp: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” (Now, I’m pleased to say, changed to “This Is God’s Wondrous World.”)

Where I attend worship, we often sing the hymn “You Shall Go Out with Joy” which contains the words, “the mountains and the hills will break forth before you, there’ll be shouts of joy, and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands.”

Not to diminish the power of this poetry, but the planets and stars do sing? Science has discovered the music of the heavens made by the electronic vibrations of the planets, moons, rings, and stars. Each planet makes a unique sound that can be detected using specially designed instruments developed by NASA. There is a “music of the spheres.”

These days our garden is filled with chirping birds, for good reason referred to as “songbirds,” each species with their unique sound.

Carol Bechtel, in an article entitled “The Ecological Witness of the Psalms,” asks pertinent questions, “Why are we, as twenty-first-century humans, so slow to recognize creation’s capacity to praise God directly? And what are the theological and ecological consequences?

Sixteen centuries ago, St. Basil talked about the ruthless cruelty of humans that prevented ‘the voice of the earth’ from rising to God in song. Basil’s words remind us that when humans pollute or otherwise fail to be good stewards of the environment, we are—among other things—inhibiting or even silencing creation’s capacity to praise God.

This observation should heighten our sense of both the sin and its consequences. What account can we give to a Creator who asks why forty-two species of birds have disappeared in the last 280 years? It is as if the entire woodwind section were to be expelled from the orchestra.”

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB. and teaches Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.

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