Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, the outreach and resource arm of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
Favorite Music Scriptures
When we talk about church music there are some go-to passages that we advocates for congregational singing love to quote and reference. Of course, the Book of Psalms is bound to come up. “Let everything that has breath,” am I right? One of my personal favorites is in Matthew 26 when Jesus “sang a hymn” with his disciples. Want to be like Jesus? Sing. But there is another mention of singing in the Bible that is relatively well-known but not quoted very often. That passage occasionally comes to mind and almost always shakes me to my core.
I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
(Amos 5:21-23, Common English Bible)
Wait, so you’re telling me that God can dislike my awesome songs of praise? God can…gulp…hate my amazing Easter service extravaganza that we rehearsed for months and spent half our yearly budget on? Well, Amos isn’t talking about me and my church. It’s the Old Testament, which we all know doesn’t really apply to us today, right? Right?!
To better understand this passage, we need to get some context. I’m going to be referencing two commentaries available online: the first is by Dennis Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, which gives good background on the prophet and his context; the second is by theologian Marcus Borg, who gives some personal testimony about Amos’ influence on his own spiritual journey and then synthesizes Amos’ teachings for Americans today.
AMOS THE PROPHET
So, who was Amos and why was he so upset at Israel? Olson tells us,
“Amos worked full-time for much of his life as ‘a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees’ (Amos 1:1; 7:14) in the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah. One day God called this rancher and arborist to leave his vocation in order to become God’s mouthpiece and prophet to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos came as an outsider with strong warnings of God’s imminent judgment upon the king, the politically powerful, the wealthy and well-connected, and the religious establishment… Amos spoke at a time when Israel seemed to be flourishing. The economy was prospering, at least for some. The king maintained law and order, however skewed to the rich and powerful. Worship attendance at the king’s houses of worship was high.”
The description of Israel, in many ways, feels familiar. While we are in a global pandemic, things for some are going better than ever. Even though hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, lost their livelihoods, or are just struggling to make it day to day, the stock market is at an all-time high. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low making it easy, for some, to afford bigger and better houses. According to this article from Investopedia, “in 1962 the wealthiest 1% had net worths equal to approximately 125 times that of the average American household. Their net worths were shown to be approximately 225 times the net worth of the average household in 2009.” The gap today is even larger, and if you really want to dig into the injustices of our current economic situation, read this article from Forbes in 2020 on the racial wealth gap in America.
Of course, economic injustice is just one particular lens, but Amos is particularly pointed about that subject throughout his prophecy, so I think we should pay attention to it. In his commentary, Borg writes,
“Amos is not a solitary voice in the Bible. It is the voice of the exodus story of liberation from bondage to Pharaoh, of the laws in the Old Testament about land and debt, of Jesus’s passion for the Kingdom of God on earth. And of Paul’s proclamation of the lordship of Jesus over against the lordship of Caesar: a new creation, a way of being and living in this world brought about through life in Christ that is radically different from the lordship of Caesar, the lordship of domination.”
OUR SONG TO GOD’S EARS
So how do we know if God hates or delights in our song each week? The inner critic in me (and the part of me who grew up Reformed with a thorough understanding of the whole total depravity thing) is terrified by this question. I wish I could just ignore Amos and carry on. But I can’t…he’s pesky. The question will likely haunt me for the rest of my life, and I think that’s a good thing. After planning worship and singing heartfelt praise, it reminds me to check in.
- Do the ideals I’m singing about line up with the way I’m living?
- Am I on a journey towards the Goodness I proclaim God is, or am I wandering somewhere else?
- Am I working towards the Kingdom of justice and peace?
When questioning whether God took delight in the worship I led or took part in, it’s easy to present myself with a dichotomy of yes/no. So, with gratefulness I turn to the wonderful Resurrection narrative of the walk to Emmaus. Jesus wasn’t upset that his disciples didn’t recognize him, nor did he lose his patience that they weren’t doing something more productive. Rather, he joined them on the path and continued to teach them until he dined with them and their eyes were opened.
God does not expect perfection from us, our country, the church, or the world. At the end of his commentary, Borg writes “Like every nation, every society, our future depends upon our present and how we shape our life together here and now.” Like the road to Emmaus, God is walking with us on this journey and expects us to continue learning from the Teacher: Learning how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, Learning how to heal the sick, Learning how to share resurrection and life, Learning until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.