A New Song

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. (Psalm 96:1)

From ancient times God’s praises have been sung. Arguably some of the oldest verses in the Bible come from the song Moses’ sister Miriam sang to commemorate the defeat of the pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously,” she sang; “the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea." Miriam and the women with her danced and played timbrels, a tambourine-like instrument used on festive occasions. Singing, dancing and musical instruments were integral to worship in Israel even before King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem nearly a thousand years prior to the birth of Christ. King David, Solomon’s father and himself a musician, is credited with elevating liturgical music to a central role in the worship life of the Hebrew people. Tradition grants him authorship of nearly half of the psalms found in the Old Testament, which were chanted or sung during services, often with instrumental accompaniment.

Religious rituals are predicated on repetition and familiarity. Yet a number of the psalms exhort worshippers to “sing to the Lord a new song.” As any church organist will surely tell you, congregations rarely embrace hymns on a Sunday morning unless they are tried and true. (Pop musicians often run into the same difficulty when they attempt to try out new material on audiences that come expecting to hear their old hits.) Whatever one’s religious affiliation, the watchword is almost invariably the same: “Give me that old-time religion” – and that extends to more than just the songs. We take comfort in the fact that the hymns, prayers and rituals have been around forever, and that the stories we tell and retell about encounters with the Almighty all took place long ago. Why sing a new song to the Lord unless the Lord himself were up to something new? For many people, this would be a highly unsettling prospect, because it means that God is no longer operating at a safe distance from our current circumstances.

Not long after the destruction of the pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to get his marching orders from this fearsome deity who had brought the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt. They were so terrified they wouldn’t even look at Moses when he came back down, because his face still shone from his encounter with the Lord God Almighty. Would we act any differently if confronted by someone whose face glowed in the dark? How would we react if someone we knew returned from the dead? It doesn’t even have to be the parting of the Red Sea, which Steven Spielberg called the greatest movie special effect of all time, never mind the real thing (assuming it ever happened). It can be something as simple as turning water into wine, which -- if it really happened -- would be enough to shake our foundations. Even those of us who believe in miracles as an article of faith tend to believe they happened a long time ago. We do not necessarily wish to be confronted with evidence to the contrary.

“Our age is retrospective,” Emerson complained in the opening paragraph of his first book, Nature. “It builds the sepulchers of the fathers.” He continued in this vein: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have…a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs.” One might conclude, as the guardians of the faith would have it, that there are no new revelations to be had. But I don’t think that is the case. The real problem is that a new revelation would require us to learn a new song, and we frankly prefer the golden oldies.

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