Grace Presbyterian Church
September 8, 2019, Pentecost 13C
Make Themselves Heard
The book of 2 Chronicles (or its partner book 1 Chronicles for that matter) doesn’t show up in Sunday morning services that often. This book only appears once in the Revised Common lectionary, for example (and it’s not this passage), and 1 Chronicles doesn’t show up at all. Even if one were inclined to recount one of the stories included in either of these books, one would be more likely to find and use that story from the books 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings, since the Chronicles books are in essence recapitulations of the accounts found in those books. For example, the event of which today’s reading is a part, the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, is also recounted in 1 Kings 8. One might almost wonder why the two books were preserved in canon at all.
However, the Chronicler (that’s the clever name that biblical scholarship has given to the unknown author of these two books) sees these events with a different eye, from a different historical perspective. Among other things, the Chronicler seems to have a fondness for the ritual and ceremony that surrounds major events in Israel’s history, a fondness which provokes him (or her, you never know) to include details and touches that escaped the eye of the authors of Samuel and/or Kings. It is this eye that provokes the inclusion of this short passage that constitutes today’s reading, one not found in the 1 Kings parallel reading. It’s a passage that carries a lot of weight (or should) for anyone who cares about the practice of music in the worship and ritual of the church.
A little context: as noted before, this episode takes place during the dedication of what is most commonly known as Solomon’s Temple. Indeed it was built under Solomon’s reign, and that king himself offered the dedicatory prayers that constitute most of the reading that follows this excerpt. This is the Temple that would go to ruin when the eventually split kingdoms of Judah and Israel were conquered and led into exile; it was the Temple that was rebuilt after the return from exile that would be prominent in the stories we find in the New Testament.
But this is Solomon’s Temple, the one that King David had so longed to build only to be put off by God, who declared that it would not David but David’s son who would build it. The first chapters of this book (also the earlier chapters of 1 Kings) are taken up with the preparations for building the Temple, including description of the furnishings that would be placed in the Temple; finally in chapter 5 we get to the dedication of the Temple. The chapter begins with an account of what must have been a moving moment for the people of Israel: the placememt of the Ark of the Covenant itself, the very vessel that had contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the source of the Law itself. At long last, after its many years of wandering with the Israelites and being kept in a tent, the Ark was taking its place in what was meant to be the holiest site in Israel, as King David had envisioned.
The 1 Kings account details this event, in which all the priests and Levites and elders of Israel were all gathered to bring the Ark into the Temple, and it even includes the fascinating scene in which a cloud, representing the glory of the Lord filling the holy place, billows up and fills the Temple, an obvious echo of what happened when Moses first erected the Tabernacle for the Ark as directed by God in Exodus 40. But the Kings account leaves out something that the Chronicler doesn’t miss, and that is what happened right before that cloud billowed up.
The Kings author left out the music. The Chronicler didn’t.
At this point the Chronicler veers from the Kings account to record what he (or she) saw as a vital portion of the dedication ritual. After the Ark had been placed and all those who had borne it withdrew from it, another assemblage did its work. In this case an assembly of what the Chronicler calls “liturgical singers” took their position to the east of the altar and sang, with the accompaniment of one hundred and twenty trumpeters, along with cymbals, harps, and lyres. Personally I can’t imagine trying to sing and be heard over one hundred and twenty trumpeters, but at least this was apparently outside instead of in a confined space.
It was the duty of these singers and trumpeters, as the Chronicler notes, to “make themselves heard.” No sweat for the trumpeters, but that sounds like a mighty large job for the singers. Nonetheless they were charged with the task of making themselves heard in singing a particular hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, part of which is recorded in verse 13:
For he is good,
For his steadfast love endures forever.
It’s a pretty simple refrain, and one that is heard more than once in scripture, including earlier in this book. It also appears with frequency in the Psalms; you might remember it from last week’s responsive reading from Psalm 118, in which “his steadfast love endures forever” briefly becomes a repeating refrain. This phrase actually happens forty-one times in Hebrew scripture, including as a repeated refrain in Psalm 136. It occurs earlier in 1 Chronicles as this same sung refrain at the dedication of different holy sites built while in waiting for the Temple; it comes up again in the book of Ezra, as the foundation is laid for the rebuilding of the Temple after the return from exile; it even pops up in the book of the gloomy prophet Jeremiah.
God’s “steadfast love” also shows up in that Song of Moses that was last week’s reading from Exodus, and even makes an appearance in the text of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. In other words, the choir is singing something that has been known as a key signature of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people from the earliest parts of their history.
The choir sings, the trumpeters play, presumably the players of the harps, cymbals, and lyres also play…and in the Chronicler’s telling this is when “the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud” meaning nothing less than that “the glory of the Lord filled the house of God,” so profusely that the priests had to back off from their priestly duties for a bit.
Choirs get a bad reputation sometimes. The history of music in the Christian church records a few occasions in which the choir was perhaps a little disruptive or detached from their duties in the service of worship. One of the funniest things I ever had to read during my music history studies all those years ago was of an incident recorded at the cathedral of Cambrai, in France, some time during the fifteenth century, I believe. One of the priests recorded a complaint about the choir (which might have included boy sopranos as well as men at the time) being particularly disruptive during one service to the point of throwing chicken bones back and forth at one another across the divided choir chancel of the cathedral, presumably while the bishop was giving his homily. Certainly that’s an extreme instance of bad behavior, but there is always the danger when any person or group of people is set apart for a particular activity in worship. You don’t think that preachers have succumbed to pride and vanity across the church’s history? Sure they have. Preachers can succumb to it, choirs can succumb to it, organists can succumb to it. Heck, ushers can succumb to it.
But that danger doesn’t stop preachers from being called to preach, and it doesn’t mean that choirs should not be formed and prepared to sing forth God’s praises as part of worship. Despite the tired arguments of a few heavily pedantic types over the centuries, and even the fearful banishments of choral song in worship even by otherwise intelligent figures such as John Calvin himself, the song of the choir can and does perform a good and worthy function in Christian worship.
Another point to ponder: we read, a few weeks ago in the prophet Isaiah, a stinging denunciation of the worship and rituals of Isaiah’s audience, a close parallel of the more famous passage in Amos 5:21 in which God says through the prophet that “I hate, I despise your festivals, and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” This displeasure, you’ll remember, had to do with the failure of the church to live up to its call to care for the poor, the oppressed, the “widow and orphan,” and all those disfavored by the world but favored by God. It does remain true that no Christmas Lessons and Carols service or Easter cantata can make up for the failure of the church to live in obedience to God’s call upon it, which may come as a shock to churches out there that pour untold resources into their music programs while ignoring the world around them. But, when the church is “living right,” so to speak, the music of the church – including the music of the choir – can be and is pleasing to God.
Notice that this scene from the Chronicler takes place very early in Solomon’s reign. The kingdom of Israel is still united. This is still the Solomon who, when given the opportunity to choose what God might bestow upon him, asked for wisdom to lead his people. This Solomon hasn’t yet gone off the rails of obscene riches and extravagant living and seven hundred wives tempting him to go after false idols.
In short, Israel and its king are still living at least somewhat close to God’s instruction to them, in a way that is pleasing to God. In that context, the musical offering of this large choir and orchestra of trumpets, singing of God’s “steadfast love,” was also pleasing to God. Likewise, when the church remains faithful to God’s call to serve and to love, holding fast to God’s mission for us in the world as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, our worship, including our musical worship, is also pleasing to God. God may not fill up the church with a cloud of the glory of the Lord every time the choir sings, but God can be pleased with the musical offering so given.
One last caveat: the music of the choir is never a substitute for the song of the church as a whole. You will eventually notice that the hymns and songs of the congregation will actually get two Sundays worth of attention compared to this one Sunday given to the choir and its role in worship. In fact, one of the most valuable roles of any choir is to lend support and even a little education to the singing of the congregation, which you’ll see this choir do on occasion by introducing a hymn or song we’ve not sung before in a way that helps teach it to everybody. In that sense the choir truly takes the role of leading in worship as surely as any preacher or liturgist does.
Now the public service announcement: the choir began its rehearsal schedule this morning, meeting at 9:45 to prepare music for worship for today and for Sundays to come. It’s open to all. It doesn’t even require a separate night of the week for you to get out and come. And as the Chronicler reminds you, it is (when we’re doing church right) pleasing to God.
So, for the song of the choir, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #550, Give Praise to the Lord (Psalm 149); #—, The Priestly Choir Came Forward; #385, All People That on Earth Do Dwell