I think of Psalm 98 most often when listening to children singing: “Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!…make a joyful noise to the LORD…” (Psalm 98:1, 4).
There comes a certain age when the notes and tone and the right mouth shapes will matter (I mean—Julie Andrews made her stage debut at age 12…). But give me a kindergartener at Christmastime any day to show us all how “Joy to the World” is really meant to be sung.
Full lungs. Shoulders back. Big smile. Uninhibited sound.
When we say the word “noise” in our world today, most often we’re referring to something indistinct or something we wish would stop. We turn down noisy TVs. We tell the dog to stop making so much noise. This makes sense, especially after learning the word “noise” comes from the Latin roots for “disgust” and “injury.”
So how can we hold both joy and noise together in one space? Why are these the words used by the author of Psalm 98 to describe music?
Music plays three major roles throughout the Bible. It functions as art, as medicine, and as a community activity. Each of these spaces comes with its own cacophony of sound, and each can carry a world of joy and sorrow.
Music as Art
In the Greek tradition, the word “music” encompasses the belief that all art is inspired by the Muses. Music in the English language is protean by definition, meaning it’s an ever-changing vessel for emotions and memories.
As humans, we turn to music to evoke specific feelings. We trust a composer of any genre to take us on a journey (maybe this is why the Greek word for art means “to prepare”). When I was little, John Williams’ “Imperial March” told me the bad guy was coming—and that I should think he’s the bad guy. The Forrest Gump theme captures the whimsy and wonder we feel as Forrest’s life story unfolds. And Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” will always bring out the lover and dreamer in me.
Music can cross the border between thought and feeling into expression. And this is why it’s such an important part of the worship experience across so many religious traditions.
I was the little girl who loved getting to church early so I could listen to the organ prelude. My parents were both trained singers, which often meant that our family could sing three-part harmonies to Sunday morning hymns. And my dad has made a tradition of playing the baritone melody to “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” on Easter Sundays.
I have personally experienced how God turns the chaotic noise of our lives into meaning and melody through the promise of Jesus. What begins as an individual note quickly swells into something bigger, and this is where true artistry comes in. As the ultimate Artist, Creator, and Savior, He reminds us through music about unity and empathy and open hands.
Music as Medicine
I would be remiss in discussing the Psalms if I didn’t bring up David. You know, the shepherd-turned-musician-turned-warrior from the Old Testament. The one we turned into a tiny asparagus in Veggie Tales, but in reality, was a capable teenager when he faced the giant Goliath. The unlikely king of Israel who messed up a lot, but always chose praise in the end.
That was sort of David’s life pattern. A constant string of meter shifts and key changes. His very life had a sense of musicality to it—ups and downs, crescendos and downswings. That’s part of what makes him such a relatable character. And the book of Psalms is a perfect map of David’s internal dialogue with God.
In the book of Psalms, the word “but” appears 179 times. It functions most often as a tone shift from David’s emotional upheavals to his delight in God instead.
“But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:3). “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’” (Psalm 31:14). “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me” (Psalm 40:17).
David had a lot of valid fear and anxiety in his life. But music repeatedly functioned as the redirection he needed. When the negative voices in his head got too loud, David’s music served as medicine for his soul. The book of Psalms is a record of the harp music and lyrics he wrote repeatedly during the highest highs and lowest lows of his daily walk with God.
And through David’s words today, I am reminded that praise is not exclusively for the perfect moments. In fact, even Jesus praised His Father’s wisdom when He had hurt in His heart (Luke 22:42).
Music as Community
As a singer, I’ve learned harmony is about relationship. You can’t hit the right notes in a chord without listening to the other people around you.
The part of singing with my women’s chorus I love most is that I don’t have time to think about being beautiful. Breath support doesn’t work when you’re sucking in your stomach. It’s more about listening and unity. You have to look beyond yourself to make good music. If I’m only focusing on my own sound, I’m never going to match the vowel shape and consonant breaks of my neighbor.
Healthy community requires the same of us. Building authentic connections with others also means listening long enough to really know what is going on in another person’s life—the exact pitch of their joys and sorrows.
In Psalm 98, the author is referring to a shouting crowd that greets soldiers home after a victorious battle. In other parts of Scripture, music is used around community meals or in celebration of a new relationship. Mary sings when she finds out she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Today, I love going to live musical theater performances or big concerts because of the rise and fall of the crowd.
Communal music is like that children’s choir singing on Christmas morning, praising the arrival of Hope in the infant Christ. It is perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Children don’t care what they sound like or what other people think, as long as someone is there to listen to them sing.
God is constantly making something beautiful out of our hurt and loneliness. He calls us daily to fall in love with other people. And that call doesn’t end with a question mark or leave room for uncertainty.
May we all listen, sing, and love like the children Jesus gathered in His arms.