Sing: shir (verb) (Strong’s 7891)
Sounds like: sheer
In the novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote about the horrors of working as a galley slave, and how song carried the prisoners through the depths of despair: “For when there is no more hope, song remains”.
We often think of singing in great joy during our favourite festivals and family celebrations, but rarely do we think of singing in our sorrow.
Singing in Sorrow
Josiah, King of Judah, was a good and righteous king. It is believed he was born around 648 BCE and died in battle in 609 BCE against Pharaoh Necho II of the Egyptians. His death was a great blow to the people of Judah. The women and men of Judah, including the prophet Jeremiah, sang in their grief over their lost King:
2 Chronicles 35:25
Then Jeremiah lamented over Josiah, and to this day all the singing men [ha-sharim] and the singing women [wey-ha-sharowt] lament over Josiah. They established them as a statute for Israel, and indeed they are written in the Book of Laments.
The whole Book of Laments (or Lamentations) is made up of five poetic song (the first four are acrostic) mourning the destructions of Jerusalem and the exile of her people. This isn’t just a funeral dirge lamenting the loss of one person; it laments the loss of their land, their culture and their freedom. A similar song is found in Psalm 137. It is a song of defeat as the Hebrew exiles are lead out of Zion and into Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors requested a song,
and our tormentors demanded songs of joy:
“Sing us a song of Zion.” [Shiru lanu mi’sheer Zion]
How can we sing a song of YHWH [ek n’shir et shir YHWH] in a foreign land?
It must have been difficult to sing of YHWH’s lovingkindness (chesed) and His devotion at the time of their defeat and exile. But as Victor Hugo indicated, when all hope seems gone, music may feel like the only thing left to express our deepest feelings:
For the choirmaster. A Psalm of David:
How long, O YHWH? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I wrestle in my soul, with sorrow in my heart each day?
How long will my enemy dominate me?
See me and respond, O YHWH my God.
Give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death, lest my enemy say,
“I have overcome him,” and my foes rejoice when I fall.
But I have trusted in Your loving devotion [chasd’ka];
my heart will rejoice in Your Salvation [bi’yeshua’teka].
I will sing to YHWH [a’shira l’YHWH], for He has been good to me.
Singing because of YHWH’s chesed
Wherever, and whenever, we gather and sing to YHWH, we should not instinctually put our happy faces on, sining on auto-pilot. We need to sing for a reason! Over and over the Bible tells us that people want to sing praises to God because of His lovingkindness and devotion:
But I will sing [ashir] of Your strength
and proclaim Your loving devotion [chas’deka] in the morning.
For You are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble.
To You, O my strength, I make music,
for You, O God, are my fortress, my God of loving devotion [chas’di].
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing [ashira] and make music.
Awake, O glory! Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn. I will praise You, O Lord, among the nations;
I will make music among the nations.
For Your loving devotion [chas’deka] reaches to the heavens,
Your faithfulness to the clouds.
A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.
I will sing [ashira] of YHWH’s loving devotion [chas’de] forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim Your faithfulness to all generations.
For I have said, “Loving devotion [chesed] is built up forever;
in the heavens You establish Your faithfulness.”
You said, “I have made a covenant with My chosen one,
I have sworn to David My servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever
and build up your throne for all generations.’”
Sing a New Song
But it’s not just the same old songs we should sing. We need to sing to Him with the attentiveness and enthusiasm of singing a brand new song.
Praise YHWH with the harp; make music to Him with ten strings.
Sing to Him a new song [Shiru low shir chadash]; play skillfully with a shout of joy.
For the word of YHWH is upright, and all His work is done in truth.
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of His loving devotion [chesed].
Sing to YHWH a new song; [Shiru YHWH shir chadash]
Sing to YHWH [Shiru YHWH], all the earth.
Sing to YHWH [Shiru YHWH], praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
Sing to YHWH a new song [Shiru YHWH shir chadash],
His praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who dwell there.
Let the desert and its cities raise their voices; let the villages of Kedar cry aloud.
Let the people of Sela shout for joy; let them cry out from the mountaintops.
Let them give glory to YHWH and declare His praise in the islands.
YHWH will go forth like a warrior; He will stir up His zeal like a soldier.
He will shout; yes, He will roar. He will prevail against His enemies.
This new song of victory is a song of hope for the Hebrew people. Time after time the Hebrew people get crushed by countless enemies through the ages. In Isaiah’s time there was constant threat of an Assyrian invasion, so the promise of YHWH roaring and prevailing against enemies is a promise of better days to come.
Ponder the Voices
Considered one of the earliest songs in the Bible, the song of Deborah and Barak is thought to be as old as the 12th Century BCE. After a great victory over the Canaanites the judge Deborah sings a duet with the commander of the army, Barak. The song is an epic tale, answering the who, and the where, and the why of the war. In the middle of the song we hear these words:
You who ride white donkeys,
who sit on saddle blankets, and you who travel the road,
ponder the voices of the singers at the watering places.
There they shall recount the righteous acts of YHWH,
the righteous deeds of His warriors in Israel.
We need to hear these songs that are being sung. We need to ponder the voices that sing from the past. Deborah and Barak’s song ends with these beautiful words:
So may all your enemies perish, O YHWH,
But may those who love You shine like the sun at its brightest.
We can be the sunlight in this dark world. But to be effective light we need a spark. Reading the Scriptures is a spark to help us understand the ups and downs of the people of Israel by listening to their voices. They’re not so different from you and me, and they have so much to tell us.
The Tanakh is full of heart-felt songs, beyond Deborah and Barak’s… Miriam sang a song of victory after their Egyptian oppressors drowned in the Red Sea; David sang a song of deliverance from his enemy, Saul; Hannah sang a song of thankfulness when her son, Samuel, was born; Yeshua’s mother, Miriam, sang a song of pure joy when she realized she was carrying the Messiah in her womb; Zechariah sang a song of praise proclaiming that his son, John, would announce the coming of the Messiah. We need to ponder these voices, hear what they had to say, and then sing our own songs of praise to our God.
One thing I have asked of YHWH, this is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of YHWH all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of YHWH and seek Him in His temple.
For in the day of trouble He will hide me in His shelter;
He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be held high above my enemies around me.
At His tabernacle I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing [ashira] and make music to YHWH.
From mourning to joy there should be music in every branch of your life. Music helps us define our emotions, it gives expression when just a word won’t do. If you love YHWH you can’t help but sing praises in response to His lovingkindness and whole-hearted devotion.
Let Creation Sing, for YHWH promised Salvation!
The kindness of God all points to His most beautiful, self-sacrificing, Covenant promise… the promise of a Messiah; the promise of Salvation. Yeshau Ha’ Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah) was hung on the cross to take upon himself the brokenness of this world. His death saved us all. Days before His sacrifice he entered into Jerusalem upon a young donkey that, until that time, no one had ever rode upon:
As He [Jesus] rode along, the people spread their cloaks on the road. And as He approached the descent from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully in a loud voice for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!”
“I tell you,” He answered, “if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”
There is no stopping the praising of YHWH. If we don’t do it, nature will.
The pastures are clothed with flocks, and the valleys are decked with grain.
They shout in triumph; indeed, they sing!
You will indeed go out with joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
This season, whatever you celebrate, be it Chanukkah or Christmas, both or neither, try singing songs to YHWH like they are new songs. Sing them as if every word rings true and every note counts. For by the grace of God you are redeemed. Go out with joy and be led forth in peace!
Next week: Dove
ps. If you’re now in the mood to sing praises to God, in Hebrew, with the Messianic Jewish Alliance of Israel, go here.