New Songs in Our Mouths


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

August 12, 2018

Texts: Psalm 40; Micah 4:1-10

        There are two parts to any song; there is, of course, the music, but there are also the words. The cantatas of Bach would be lovely but meaningless without the text. And it does not matter whether the lyrics and tune are familiar; the two are bound together for better or worse whether the art songs of Schubert and Schumann or the contemporary worship music in many evangelical churches.

         The Psalms were originally not read as we do from the Psalter but sung as described by the books of Samuel re-garding David attempting to soothe Saul, who was entering into a period of madness caused by jealousy and fear. In the early church the only music was found in the Psalms as des-cribed in the Book of Acts or Paul’s letters describing singing Psalms. Even the cloistered community of Qumran sang Psalms in their worship of God.

         We have no real idea, of course, what ancient music sounded like although some scholars have attempted to reconstruct sounds from pieces of ancient texts from Sumer and Egypt with pictures of the instruments played. The oldest musical instrument we have dates from about 40,000 BCE and is a flute made from the femur of a cave bear by the Neanderthals. So it is clear, like pottery and the visual arts that music has been around a very long, long time.

         Music crosses the boundaries we have constructed between cultures, people, and even nations. Music is a way that we can feel the power of God in our lives. In this morn-ing’s Psalm, Number 40, the Psalmist sings in gratitude to God for having brought him out of the rolling pit, a reference to the sound of rushing waters of the abyss which the Psalmist feared.

         As a result, the Lord has put into the Psalmist’s mouth a new song, a song of praise to the living God distinguishing such praise from that of the false gods, the primordial sea monster gods of Canaanite mythology. The new song put in our mouths by God opens us to the real meaning of faith-fulness.

          The words “new song” gives us an important clue to the meaning of this particular Psalm. As one commentator noted, typically a new song contains an invitation to others, even expanding the boundaries of God’s call beyond Israel. The Second Isaiah proclaims: “Sing to the Lord a new song, praising God from the ends of the earth!”  

          Although these words may not seem revolutionary to us, they were in that time because the new song that was sung broke down boundaries. We think, of course, music breaks down boundaries. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to do? The actions of governments, however, can seek to restrain music. Last week, for instance, the European Union Youth Orchestra, established in 1976, is now being forced to move its principal location from England to Italy because of Brexit.

         What’s the big deal, we may think, on this side of the Atlantic? It is a big deal, for now that British players will not be part of the orchestra, thanks to the Brexit voters, music becomes constricted. How sad for them! The orchestra is concerned of being broken up due to the clamor of the British equivalent of our old white men for the deportation of its members.

         Shift to this side of the Atlantic. The music of new songs has also been constrained. Thanks to the pinhead-in-chief who probably knows less about music than reading books, Canadian musicians have had a terrible time per-forming in the United States. The strong protectors of our northern border have made sure that recording studios in Los Angeles will now need to shift to Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver thanks to their intimidation of band members to the point of holding people for almost 24 hours without even letting them use restroom facilities.

          Not my taste in music, but Kurt Dahl, the Canadian barrister and rock drummer for Led Zeppelin has warned his compatriots in Canada of the narrow mindedness of U.S. immigration policies even when it comes to music. And this also applies to classical musicians who play for U.S. sym-phonies. It’s not just a question of complying with U.S. immigration laws, which they obviously need to do; it’s the harassment they receive at border crossing points such as the Peace Bridge near Niagara Falls. How can we sing to the Lord a new song, praising God from the ends of the earth under these conditions?   

          The Psalm tells us that the new song from our mouths is to proclaim the sovereignty of the Lord above all gods. The other gods today are not the small graven images of Canaanite household gods or the primordial sea monster but the gods of border protection and so-called national security. And we surely cannot forget the “America first” language we hear around us which is little more than a plea for main-taining our wealth.

           The term new song in this Psalm has a twist to it. In place of the customary sacrifices, we are enjoined to bring a self-offering of obedience to the true meaning of the law: to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neigh-bor as ourselves. It is at this point that the Psalmist says to God: “Here I am.”

        As the Psalmist sings, “Sacrifice and grain-offerings you do not desire … burnt offerings and sin offerings you do not ask,” but to do what is pleasing to the Lord.” The prophets insisted that what is pleasing to God is that in the words of the prophet Micah, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

         Just before those words, however, the prophet imagines the new age, an ideal age where we are able to go to the mountain of the Lord where God will lead us into beating our swords into plowshares. The promise of the new song is that nation shall not lift sword against nation and neither shall we learn war anymore.

          That lovely image, however, is threatened by the reality of our national policies that seek to constrict the song we want to sing. Those policies will do nothing more than enrich the coal barons who think of little more than their own profit; they will continue the past oppression of minorities and the poor for the false god of wealth. They will narrow our vision and cloud our minds.

        The Psalms and the prophets are not talking about a time in the hereafter; they are describing God’s promise for our earth today. But that promise cannot be accomplished without our participation in the creation of new songs. We must sing new songs remembering that lyrics and the music together make the song.

          Like many of the Psalms in Book I, this one closes with an affirmation of faithfulness and a plea. The Psalmist here tells God that he has not concealed God’s justice but has spoken of the mercies and faithfulness of God as well. This Psalm contains a tit-for-tat in that now that the Psalmist hs spoken God’s truth, he looks to God for refuge and salvation.

Subliminally, we do much the same thing. We act and hope for God’s mercy. Although it may not be the same kind of mercy that the Psalmist wants, we still hope that our just and faithful actions will find some benefit, even if only for those whom we seek to help.

          People in the ancient world really believed that their gods had direct intervention in their lives. And the Psalmist believed that the Lord would directly intervene in the lives of those faithful to God. We may not hold quite that same belief but our petitions and prayers often carry some remnant of that ancient belief.

          Our new song cannot be hidden in our hearts but needs to go out to all the world. Our new song is a declar-ation that in the end, if we are faithful witnesses and act accordingly to the demands of God’s justice, we will prevail. It is a song of faith that as Theodore Parker, the nineteenth-century American preacher wrote, the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.

          It’s sometimes difficult to see that. There’s no question that many of us feel beset on all sides by forces that work against God’s justice and mercy. But the real test of faith is opening our mouths to sing the new song.

          I have a cartoon in my study. It’s of a heron trying to eat a frog but the frog has clenched the heron’s throat so it cannot be swallowed. The words of the cartoon are “Never give up,” The frog didn’t and neither should we.

          Let us pray: Eternal God, who has called us to sing a new song of justice and mercy, empower us to go forward and enable us to find our assurance in our promise to be with us always. In the name of him who is our constant companion, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.