Reading the Bible the Way It’s Written

Songs and Letters

Psalm 148, A song for public worship
Psalm 42, A song for private prayer
Song of Solomon 4:1-12, A love song
Judges 5:1-21, A victory song
Psalm 39:1-13, A blues song
Isaiah 5:1-7, A country song
Psalm 122:1-9, A hiking song
Philippians 2:6-11, and the earliest recorded Christian hymn

Ezra 4:8-22, Bureaucratic letters between government officials
2 Samuel 11:14-25, A secret letter from a king to a general
Acts 15:13-29, The first official church letter
Jude 1:1-25, A general letter one from a church father to the Church at large
Colossians 1:1-2, 4:7-18, A letter from a church father to a specific church
3 John 1:1-14, A personal letter

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Psalm 148, A song for public worship (2/9/16)

Happy Chinese New Year! It’s a great time for a few reminders. PLEASE don’t believe everything you read on the Internet – not about celebrity deaths (a current huge hoax), and not about the Bible, either! If you find my comments helpful, that’s great, but you MUST read the scripture for yourself! Don’t take my word or anybody else’s word about God’s word – read it for yourself. Please pray for me and all your fellow-readers around the world as we study together. And most important of all, love God, love your neighbor.

The “scripture” reading below is a hymn from The Foundling Hospital Collection, 1796, that was used in the 1966 United Methodist Book of Hymns as Hymn 42. This hymn paraphrases, in poetry, a Hebrew song for public worship that’s also written as poetry, Psalm 148; some parts of the hymn are actually more translation than paraphrase. The Bible includes a huge number of songs, but unfortunately they can be hard to recognize because they are almost always translated as prose. Check out your own hymnal. It probably has subheads or an index that tells you the scripture references for many of the hymns. Then cross-check against your Bible to see whether a particular hymn is a translation, paraphrase, or reference to the scripture.

Psalm 42, A song for private prayer (2/10/16)

Here’s another “scripture reading” from a hymnal. Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady were two poets who in 1696 produced the New Version of the Psalms of David; apparently this one was altered by Henry F. Lyte in the 1800's. This rendering of Psalm 42 into English poetry was used as Hymn 255 in the 1966 United Methodist hymnal.

Fellow-reader Jane E. wrote to say that the first verse of yesterday’s hymn was very close to the translation in her parents’ 1939 Bible, with the second verse reflecting, but not repeating, the rest of the psalm. She wondered if there’s a term for that. There are several types of translation that can lead to Bibles in English, e.g., literal, which renders more-or-less word for word; and dynamic equivalence, which renders more-or-less idea for idea. Yesterday’s and today’s hymns seem to me to be midway between literal and a dynamic translations, which is excellent considering the difficulties of moving poetry from one language to another. Anyway, Psalm 42 is clearly a song for private prayer, even if we do sing it as a group in worship.

Song of Solomon 4:1-12, A love song (2/11/16)

Let’s think for a minute about modern American love songs. Do “kisses sweeter than wine” give you a hangover? Does “moon dust in your hair of gold” mean that you need a shampoo? And do I really want to be with someone who is “the wind beneath my wings”? Not unless I’m a bird.

Each of these lyricists is using an image to evoke some emotion associated with love – some aspect of that elation that we feel when we see our special loved one, the most attractive person we know. The Song of Solomon is such a love song. It calls out images that are the most beautiful that the singer can imagine to describe his beloved’s flowing hair, even white teeth, full red lips, excellent posture, and fresh breath. If you personally think that his images are odd, cut the man some slack; he’s besotted.

Judges 5:1-21, A victory song (2/12/16)

With apologies to Her Majesty and all her subjects, the music that plays in my head when I read the Song of Deborah is Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans.” The historical account of Deborah’s battle, which you’ll find in Judges 4, tells us that the Canaanites had 900 iron chariots, the local equivalent of tanks. It doesn’t tell us the total size of the enemy army, but against the chariots, the men of Israel were armed with the local equivalent of squirrel guns. Deborah, a judge and prophetess, and her general, Barak, led an army of 10,000 against the Canaanites. The Canaanites turned and fled, and the Israelites soundly defeated them and their general, Sisera. The Song of Deborah is jubilant and rowdy, alternately praising God and sneering at the tribes who chose not to fight.

Psalm 39:1-13, A blues song (2/15/16)

I called this song a “blues song” because it’s sad, and blues songs generally have some sort of sad story. Somewhat to my surprise, the psalm has more in common with American blues than I thought. The blues, for example, often has “a single line repeated four times,” according to Wikipedia. Look at the first two verses: basically they say, I won’t speak, I won’t speak, I didn’t speak, I didn’t speak. The blues is repetitive and trance-like, and even in translation, this psalm has that sort of feeling. Even when you’re sad, the Bible speaks to you and for you.

Isaiah 5:1-7, A country song (2/16/16)

You know the joke. If you play a country & western song backwards, you get your truck back, your dog back, and your lover back. HAHahaha! C&W seems to specialize in songs about loss and grief, and my personal “best example” was written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum and recorded by Kenny Rogers: Who would have thought that Isaiah – the courtier, the polished poet, the prophet Isaiah – would write a C&W song? This time it’s God who thinks that his bride, Israel, picked a fine time to leave him. This time, says the prophet, the hurtin’ won’t heal, and Judah is on its way to exile.

Psalm 122:1-9, A hiking song (2/17/16)

Three times a year all Jewish men had to go to Jerusalem for the feasts of Passover, weeks, and tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:16). It was a long, dusty walk, and they didn’t have radios or smartphones. They talked or sang as they walked along, and the songs that they sang as they neared Jerusalem and started to climb were called “songs of going up,” usually translated as degrees or ascents, although sometimes you see “worship” or “gradual.” Psalms 120 through 134 are all songs of ascents.

Philippians 2:6-11, and the earliest recorded Christian hymn (2/18/16)

Although there is essentially universal agreement that the psalms of the Old Testament are songs, and that just about anything else called a song in the Old Testament was a song, we can’t say the same for the New Testament. NT songs are few at most and possibly non-existent, depending on who’s talking. There is widespread – but by no means universal – agreement that Paul quoted a very early Christian hymn in his letter to the Philippians. Some who don’t think it’s a hymn are willing to accept it as poetry, and clearly the translators of the International Standard Version thought it was a poem or song. When we looked at this passage a couple years ago, fellow-reader Dick P. suggested setting it to the hymn tune “Old 113th,” which you may know from “I’ll Praise my Maker While I’ve Breath” or “Let All on Earth Their Voices Raise.”

Ezra 4:8-22, Bureaucratic letters between government officials (2/19/16)

We all know that there are several letters, often called epistles, in the New Testament. A number of other letters are scattered throughout the Bible, and we read a couple of them today. There’s a follow-up letter to these in Ezra 5, and a follow-up letter to that one in Ch. 6. Then Ch. 7 contains a letter on a new topic! So it turns out that Paul wasn’t the only great letter writer recorded in the Bible.

2 Samuel 11:14-25, A secret letter from a king to a general (2/22/16)

It seems that no week can go by these days without headlines about some government official’s email or memo that they hoped would never see the light of day. This is not new. David wrote a letter to his general, Joab, telling Joab to make sure that Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, would be killed in battle. You just know that David meant for Joab to burn the letter after reading it! But here it is, making headlines several thousand years later. Moral of the story: don’t commit murder, and don’t write letters. No, wait. The only moral of this story is not to commit murder.

Acts 15:13-29, The first official church letter (2/23/16)

The first recorded Church Council was the Council of Jerusalem, held about 50 A.D. A question about Gentile conversions had come before the church leaders in Jerusalem (see Acts 15:1-6). After a lengthy debate (see vs. 7), Peter got up and spoke to the assembly (vss. 7-11). By that time the crowd – probably exhausted – was ready to listen to Paul and Barnabas, who very likely spoke at great length, considering the material that they had to cover (vs. 12). James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem and the brother of the Lord, told the group what he had decided (vs. 19). They wrote James’s decision into one of the earliest recorded church letters that we have.

Jude 1:1-25, A general letter one from a church father to the Church at large (2/24/16)

The “general epistles” of the New Testament are letters written to the Church at large, designed to be copied and circulated among more than one congregation. This letter is from Jude, who calls himself “the brother of James.” We know from Galatians 1:19 and Mark 6:3 and James and Jude were both brothers of Jesus; however, Jude calls himself only a “slave” of Jesus Christ. Anyway, Jude was planning to write a letter about salvation, but then he heard some bad news. A heresy called “Gnosticism,” or “secret knowledge,” was leading some people to believe that God is so forgiving that it’s okay to sin. Jude was appalled. Of course God is forgiving, but God’s mercy should lead us to righteousness, not sinfulness! Jude reminds his readers of the terrible things that have happened to sinful people in the past, and he finishes his letter with one of the most beautiful doxologies in the Bible.

Colossians 1:1-2, 4:7-18, A letter from a church father to a specific church (2/25/16)

Jude’s letter was to the whole Church, but Paul writes to a specific church, the one at Colossae. I hope you’ve noticed that all the letters we’ve seen follow about the same format: who it’s from and to right at the beginning, the body of the letter, and possibly some greetings at the end. Colossians is a long letter. The first couple of verses say who the letter is from (Paul and Timothy) and to (the church at Colossae). Paul always includes a little blessing before he gets to the body of his letters. You know how when you come home from somewhere, or maybe when you get off the phone, you say to your family, “So-and-so says ‘hi’”? Paul and Timothy tell all their friends in Colossae that Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas say, “hi!” Then Paul asks them to say “hi” to several other people. This Sunday, be sure to greet all your friends, and especially any strangers that you see.

3 John 1:1-14, A personal letter (2/26/16)

You already know that 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon are all letters from Paul to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. 3 John is easy to miss as a personal letter, because it’s called “3 John” and not “Gaius.” I love this letter for the tenderness of John’s affection and the kindness he recommends to Gaius and to us all.

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Songs and Letters

Copyright 2016, 2017 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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