Music and Hermeneutics

From time to time, when I’ve lectured on how to read the Bible, I’ve used art-music as one example thereof. When we listen to a simple folk song, we hear the same melody over and over again, but this is not how composers write “high” music. Let me amplify.

A composer will put out a theme (melody) clearly and forthrightly. You can hear it without diffculty. And, from time to time that melody will come back, and without diffculty you will hear it again. But what you probably won’t hear, unless you are trained to listen to music, is that the melody is being used in more ways. It may be broken down, and parts of it used in various ways in the overall piece. It may be played in the bass line, or in an alto line, underneath a more prominent second melody or theme. You’ll hear the new melody, and not notice that the old melody is being used underneath. The melody may be stretched out into slower notes (augmented), or played twice as fast (diminished). It may be used like a round (canon; ricercar; fugue), coming in over and over again on top of itself. It may be inverted (switching high and low notes), or played cancrizans (backwards). (A good listener can hear an inversion, but it takes a really good one to notice when the melody runs backwards.) The melody may be taken from a minor key to a major one, or vice versa. A composer will introduce one theme, and then another, and then play them at the same time.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which starts with the famous four note theme (motif) “da-da-da-DAHHH,” actually uses that four-note motif and its inherent possibilities as the foundation for virtually everything in all four movements. We don’t notice it, however, until someone points it out to us, and shows us how it happens. And that’s okay. The symphony can be enjoyed either “naively” or “maturely.”

Now, the Bible is certainly written this way. We have, for instance, the theme of God’s giving Adam a garden to dress and guard, and then Adam sins and is expelled. This theme comes up again, clearly, several times in the Old Testament: at the golden calf, with King Saul, with King David, etc. The theme reaches its great climax with Jesus, who is expelled for us. But the theme is also stretched out (augmented) as the story of Israel from Joshua to the Exile, and from the Restoration to AD 70. Moreover, there are places in the Bible where another theme is prominent, but we can see this original theme also playing along.

The study of these recurring themes goes under the general name “typology.”

When I present this information, I usually get asked by someone understandably suspicious: Are you saying you have to be a musician to understand the Bible? There are three answers to that question.

Answer No. 1: No, because the basic facts of redemption and obedience are clear to any Christian reader of the Bible. Yet, it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out (Prov. 25:2).

Answer No. 2: No, but it helps, because seeing the deeper things in the Bible, some of them at least, is like hearing music in a mature way.

Answer No. 3: Yes, because God indicates that His people are to be musicians.

Let’s ask: Does it help to be an athlete to understand the Bible? No. Does it help to be an engineer to understand the Bible. No. At least not in any obvious way.

But: Does it help to be a musician to understand the Bible? Yes, because the Bible indicates that this is so.

First, music is the God-appointed way of worshipping Him with His own words. The psalms are to be set to music and sung, and in fact a great deal of Western art music developed out of the complex ways in which psalms were set by art musicians. More than that, however, we find in the Masoretic Hebrew text of the Old Testament a whole system of pitch marks, which indicate the chanting lines for the text as it existed when the Masoretic text was produced. A French musical scholar named Haik-Vantoura has offered a decoding of these pitches, but whether she is right or not in her suggested system, there is no doubt but that the text was originally chanted in worship. Sung worship is typical of all pre-modern worship all over the world.

Second, the Spirit is given to help us understand the Word, and the Spirit is the Glorifier. He is the Breath, the sounding forth of the Word. Whenever words are said out loud, they are said musically. Your speech goes up and down, is loud and soft, is punctuated rhymically by consonants and emphasis, assumes various tones (timbres; such as rough, kind, whiny, etc.). In short, all speech is quasi-musical. The Spirit inspires music, and He is the Music of God, who is Author, Word, Music. Thus, being musical and learning about music should add to our ability to grasp the text.

Third, we find that the priests and Levites were established as the teachers of the Word in Israel; but they were also set up as the musicians in the Temple. By linking these two things, God was saying that a teacher of the Word would be wise also to be a musician. (Levites were also guards, and some familiarity with what that means is also good for a teacher/elder in the Church.)

Thus, we see that God programmed music into the minds and hearts of those set apart to interpret the Bible, and into the minds and hearts of all those in Israel who would encounter the text more generally.

In sum, if we want to train people in understanding the Bible more fully, it is good to train them in musical understanding. Music should be part of the educational preparation of anyone engaged in Biblical study and hermeneutics.

Why isn’t this done today? Because of the influence of Western rationalism, especially through the “science ideal” of the Enlightenment. Poetry, which used to be sung, is sung no longer. Many people don’t realize that even post-Renaissance poetry should be read out loud; it should be heard, if not actually sung. (I have a lot of hope for what may develop out of rap music, despite its sorry beginnings; it’s moving toward a restoration of the original form of poetry.) We read silently. We no longer sing or whistle while we work. Philosophy, which is contemplative rather than active and liturgical, has influenced theology and Bible study way too much.

Thus, we don’t live in a social and ecclesiastical context that would enable us to read and understand the Bible as well as we might. Restoring music to our lives will help.