Music is a part of worship of God not because it sounds good in our ears or makes worship livelier, but because words alone are insufficient to describe the weight of the glory of God.
I enjoy Handle’s ‘Messiah’. But when I was listening to it at the 10:00 PM Christmas Eve service at SJD Houston, it occurred to me that a few sentences that would take a contemporary song writer to finish singing in, may be, 60 seconds took Handle’s genius 15 minutes to complete. The same sentences are repeated over and over again. Repetitions generally distract my mind. My critical mind was asking, “Why so many repetitions????”. Then a switch in my mind flipped, and I think, my appreciative mind started working and I again asked, “Why so many repetitions!!!!”.
It is the exploration of these questions that caused me to I state in one of my earlier blogs entries that I wanted to enumerate and (try to) capture in words the experience of worship of Jesus Christ at at SJD. So here is my attempt at capturing in words what I so vividly remember to be my experience of the weight of Glory of God as exemplified in the singing of the SJD choir. What makes my attempt monstrously difficult for me is that I am musically illiterate in my mind, ear and vocabulary. So my attempt to write this is I believe, like a blind man trying to describe a painting to folks that can see.
In my wonderment of why there should have been so many repetition in Handle’ Messiah, I observed the song intently. I noticed that in the song, the word ‘glory’ was repeated many times, perhaps too many times than usual. And every time, the word ‘glory’ was sung, it wasn’t just sung normally, it was often accompanied with, what I would call, ‘musical flourishes/inflexion???’ (sorry limited musical vocabulary). It seemed as though Handle seemed to give special emphasis to the phrase ‘glory of the Lord’, and especially to the word ‘glory’, by having it repeated many times.
A good Christian friend of mine by name Jim said in one of his Bible study classes that when we say the word ‘glory’ we don’t fully grasp the ‘heaviness’ of the word implied in describing the incredible weight of the glory of God. I believe that when Handle used the word ‘glory,’ he realized its deficiency in depicting the immense weight of the glory of God. Yes, language is deficient when it tries to describe God. God substantially and sufficiently communicates His Truths to human beings through propositional language. But when human beings try to describe the weight of the glory of God just through propositional statements, it simply does not suffice. If language had been all sufficient, Paul wouldn’t have had to resort to unutterable groan in his prayers.
I think it is precisely because of this limitations of language that God wants human beings to worship Him not just with words, but with ‘harps and chambals’. So that the music would add more weight to the words and there by human expression of worship would get closer in trying to justifiably describe the ‘weight of God’s glory’. On a side note, it is unfortunate that some contemporary Christians (and Christian song writers) think that we worship God with (good) music because it sounds good in our ears and makes worship a ‘lively’ thing to do. No, I don’t believe that, I think, we worship God with (great) music because the heaviness of God’s glory cannot be worthily described in words alone, something more of human musical/art expression is needed to (try to) describe the weight of God’s glory. I think Handle Messiah precisely understood this Truth.
In the Messiah, when the word ‘glory’ was sung, Handle often seemed to give the word ‘glory’ a simple musical tune, he gives it a longer musical inflexion (sorry, limited musical vocabulary) so that the word is not just uttered in ½ a second it would normally take it to be uttered, but is sung for 7 or 8 seconds. Then he feels that this isn’t enough to depict the weight of God’s glory, so he adds some inflexion to the underlying tune which makes it difficult for the singer to sing, after all ‘glory’ is a ‘heavy’ word that ought not be lightly sung. Even then, he is not satisfied, so he makes the singer sing g-l-o-r-y and then he again makes the singer repeat again G—L—O—R—Y, adding more weight.
Then, there are places where the phrase ‘glory of the Lord’ occurs. Here he makes the tune and the song to double back on itself (limited musical vocabulary) so that the phrase ‘glory of the Lord’ is sung over and over again. I think there is a point where the phrase is repeated nearly ten times. Because singing it just once, does not sufficiently express the weight that the word deserves. But even after the repetitions, Handle Messiah, rightly, isn’t content, the weight of glory is too heavy, he tunes the repetitions such that the musical ‘four parts’ crescendo occurs exactly when the words ‘glory of the Lord’ is sung.
It appears to me that Handle Messiah appears to have orchestrated the whole of the song to make all the singer and the musicians to GIVE THEIR BEST when the phrase ‘glory of the Lord’ is sung. It only seems right that the word ‘glory of the Lord’ needs to be sung with the BEST of human abilities to (try to) worthily describe the weight of the God’s glory. And perhaps even then the description would be like that of a blind man describing a painting to a man with sight, but at least it wouldn’t be like a man with sight describing a painting to a man who is blind. For when it comes to matters of God, it is prudent to act blind and speak with ‘fear and trembling’ (as led by the Holy Spirit) rather than assume clear sight and speak folly.
Then I also noticed that similar repetitions happened with a few other phrases as well ‘Behold the Lord’ for one, which is repeated with reverence and awe. In another song ‘Oh, Come let us adore Him’ which is repeated thrice with increasing volume that builds up to a crescendo. Once I understood the reason for the repetitions, I couldn’t help getting overwhelmed with repetitious expressions of the weight of the glory of God. I can understand now why Handel’s Messiah, as time consuming as it is, is truly a timeless piece. It cares not for time, it cares only for the ‘ordinate’ expression of God’s glory, and in the process transcends time. How infinitesimal the quantity of ‘time’ is when compared with the quantity of the ‘weight’ of God’s glory.
My renewed understanding of the need for repetitions and long flourishes and four-part musical crescendos helped me appreciate, immensely enjoy and really be awed at the experience of singing the weight of the glory of the Lord, that by the time we were done with all of the singing and the service was complete, I wanted to do it all over again. I wanted to hear all of the songs sung by the SJD Choir once more so that I would get lost in the gorgeous expression of the overwhelming weight of God’s glory. I couldn’t accept the fact that I had to wait for another whole year before I could get to experience this ‘weighty worship’ again. I told myself that I was not going to wait until the next year, I wanted to re-live the experience of the ‘singing the weight of glory’ by writing about it and (trying to) capture it in words, as mediocre and insufficient as my attempt may be.
Psalm 115:1 Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, But to Your name give glory