The Power of a Song I
Passage: Psalm 51, Psalm 100
He said I’ll love you til I die. She said you’ll forget in time
But as the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.
What is the power of a song? About six months ago I listened to a podcast on a songwriter I had never heard of but who had apparently defined a generation of country music. His name is Bobby Braddock and he wrote the Tammy Wynette songs “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Golden Ring” among many others. And he wrote one of the most devastating songs in music history, George Jone’s iconic “He stopped loving her today.”a
That podcast got me thinking about the power songs have. Music and songs are truly amazing things. They have such power to move us, to make us feel things. I have a running playlist that I listen to before and during races because it gets my body in an emotional place to run. There are songs that get my hyped up to work or to write when I’m feeling tired or uninspired. When I was in high school I had songs I’d listen to before football games or wrestling matches to focus my mind to get ready to compete. Worship songs have an ability to take my spirit to another place. Songs can make me feel nostalgic for my childhood and songs can make me hopeful about my future. Songs have this unique power to make us feel things and alter our emotions in a very short period of time.
Have you ever been to a wedding reception when Sweet Caroline comes on? Or Don’t Stop Believin? Did you go to a Nationals game when they played Free Fallin’ during each game? And see tens of thousands of people find their falsetto? Songs have an ability to raise our collective mood, to make us feel joy, nostalgia, and happiness.
Have you ever been to a wedding reception when a slow, romantic song comes on? Like the Way You Look Tonight or Wonderful Tonight or I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You? And the mood of the room immediately changes. And immediately every person there is drawn away from the collective experience, away from group conversations or group dancing and each person is immediately focused on their significant other. All because a song came on.
Over the summer we are going to look at the power that songs have, the power they hold. We are going to look at that by looking at the songbook of the Bible, the Psalms. The book of Psalms is filled with one hundred and fifty songs that run the gamut of human experience and what it is to be a person of faith. There are songs of praise and triumph. There are songs of tragedy and lamentation. There are songs that extol the faithfulness of God and glory in what it is for Israel to be God’s people. There are songs of that cry out to God to remember his promise to Israel and act on their behalf. There are songs that praise those who life a faithful life. There are songs of deep confession over sin and wrongdoing. The Psalms are real, they’re felt, they’re born of the connection of faith and life.
There are a few Psalms that are particularly well known. They are Psalms that bring us joy and comfort. There’s Psalm 23 that speaks to the Lord’s provision. There’s Psalm 150 that we are going to look at next week that’s an explosion of praise and worship. And there’s Psalm 100 that we’re going to look at in a moment. It’s short and sweet, just enough to be deep and powerful yet memorizable and potentially Tweet-able. These are the Sweet Caroline’s and Don’t Stop Believing’s, the I Want To Hold Your Hand’s, and Jailhouse Rock’s of the Psalter. The more and more you hear these songs, the more joy is brought to you by hearing them again.
Let’s take a look at Psalm 100.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
This is a Psalm that I think can speak to all of us, hopefully most days and most times. This is a Psalm that no matter where we are, even if we aren’t feeling it, we can agree with. But most of the time we’re probably feeling it. This Psalm is all about worship. This is a Psalm that calls the community, that calls the gathered people to worship. It initiates the worship of God and articulates a theology of worship.
As we read the Psalm you can almost see the movement of the people from the outer Temple courts deeper into the Temple where the presence of God resided. Shout for joy the the Lord all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. The people are called and gathered to worship. Why do we worship? Why do we come before God with gladness? Because the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. That is why the Israelites would have gathered at the Temple and its why we gather here today. God has made us, God is our shepherd.
The Psalm continues, enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. They are moving further and further into the Temple, physically drawing closer to God. As we worship, as we move through worship, we too gather closer and closer to God. We draw near to our creator. We are gathered in by our shepherd. This is what happens in worship as we are nurtured and healed by the very presence of God. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
What is interesting about this Psalm is the way it talks about entering God’s presence and the specific phrasing it employs are similar to how you would talk about entering the presence of a King. Or an Emperor. If you were to go before a king you would be told all the accomplishments of that ruler. Here you stand before Caesar Augustus, ruler of the known world, son of God, defeated of the Gauls, Saxons, Carthaginians, and Barbarians. Caesar is Lord. That is what you would hear as you walked further into the presence of the Emperor.
As singers of this Psalm enter the Temple they are hearing about the deeds of their God. They are hearing their God is Lord. And they are implicitly called to serve this God as their leader, as their king, as their ruler. Similarly when we come to worship we learn to follow God, we learn to follow Jesus as our ruler, as our leader, as our king. We are made to love serving Jesus more than we love serving the ruling powers of this world. We are recruited, head hunted as it were, to join a new kingdom. And to bear that kingdom unto the world.
This is a great Psalm and it has a lot to teach us. It’s no wonder people love to read, recite, and memorize this Psalm. It’s a Psalm for everyday, it’s a Psalm for all seasons. It’s like Don’t Stop Believin’ or I wanna Hold Your Hand. Whenever it comes on it just makes us feel some joy.
There’s another type of Psalm, though. And many in this type are not as famous, not as often read, not really memorized. There are plenty of Psalms that fall into a very sad category. An angry category. Whereas Psalm 100 is all about worship, there are many Psalms that are calling out to God to act, saying where are you God, saying defend us God. There are Psalms that talk about the cruel reality of living in a fallen world. There are Psalms of deep confession. These are the depressing Psalms.
One of those Psalms is Psalm 51. I’m gonna read it in it’s entirety then we’ll talk about the backstory.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
This Psalm is dark, deep, and depressing. It’s written by someone in deep pain who needs to be forgiven. This Psalm was written by King David as he wrestled with the gravity of his sin after taking another man’s wife as a sexual partner. The story goes that when the Israelite army had gone to war, even though David should have been with them as the role of the king was to lead the army in battle, David stayed in his palace. And one night he saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof. So he sent for her and had his way with her. The result of which was she became pregnant. Bathsheba was married to one of David’s high ranking military leaders and if he came back from the war and found his wife with child he would be, well, irate. So David sent for Bathsheba’s husband and recalled him to the palace. David told him to go stay at his house, thinking that some shore leave might create some plausible deniability. But Bathsheba’s husband refuses. While my soldiers are away from their homes I will not sleep in mine he says. But David has an idea. He might have his honor while he’s sober, David thinks, but let’s see if others urges don’t take over if we get him drunk. So David gets him drunk but still he won’t go and sleep with his wife. When Bathsheba’s husband leaves the capital having not spent time with his wife, David is still in trouble. So he orders one of his other captains to plan a mission that is sure to get Bathsheba’s husband killed. And that is precisely what happens.
David is then confronted by the prophet Nathan who tells David a parable that mirrors his situation. Nathan presents a scenario about a man that has all he could ever want but still takes what little another person has. And then Nathan asks David what should be done with this man. David pronounces harsh punishment on the man who would dare to take everything someone else has even in his abundance. Nathan tells David that he is the man and David falls to his knees in confession.
Having been confronted and convicted of his great sin, David pens this Psalm about needing a new heart. About needing a new spirit. About needing to be healed by God. About his own guilt.
This Psalm is gut wrenching. This Psalm is relentless. This Psalm is definitely not for everyday. No one gets super excited when the first line of this Psalm is read. This Psalm isn’t Don’t Stop Believin’ or Sweet Caroline or I Wanna Hold Your Hand. This Psalm is something else. But don’t for one minute think its any less beautiful.
He stopped lovin her today. They placed a wreath upon his door. Soon they’ll carry him away, but he stopped lovin’ her today.
I want to go back to that podcast and to Bobby Braddock. Bobby Braddock penned some of the saddest songs of all time. He Stopped Loving Her Today is perhaps the best one he wrote and its probably George Jones best song. Braddock wrote it as the great love affair of his life was ending, ending dramatically I might add. George Jones found the song as his marriage to Tammy Wynette was dramatically falling apart. Braddock was at one of the lowest points of his life and gives this deeply sad and depressing song to George Jones who is at one of the lowest points of his life.
If you’ve never heard the song, its worth a listen. It’s got a clever gimmick within it. I’d sing it for you but I think I’ve sung enough already. Spoiler alert if you’ve never heard the song, but the reason it is that this man is finally able to stop loving the love of his life is that he’s dead. He has killed himself to escape the torture of loving a woman who will never love him again.
The song is over the top in the way that only a country song can be. But its deeply powerful because of how specific it is. Whether or not you know what Braddock was going through when he wrote it or what Jones was going through when he recorded it, the song feels real. It feels lived in. And it gets you. If you’ve ever loved someone who didn’t love you, you know. Sure the song is over the top in only the way country music can be, but the feeling is there. And that feeling gets you. This song has depth and meaning and power because it is so deeply specific and that specificity is born out of real life, out of lived experience.
But I want to keep talking about this song and what happened to me as I listened to that podcast.
George Jones died in April of 2013. They had a memorial service for him at the Grand Ole Opry, because of course they did. Years after Jones’ life had spiraled out of control following his divorce from Tammy Wynette he met Nancy Sepulvado who became his wife and the real love of his life. At the memorial country legends talked about how Nancy saved George’s life and how George would have died decades ago had it not been for Nancy. Then, at the very end of the proceedings, Alan Jackson strode out onstage, took off his cowboy hat, looked right at Nancy Jones and launched into “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And in that moment the meaning of the song was transformed. In that moment the song wasn’t about a man who killed himself to escape the painful feelings of unrequited loved. For that moment the song was about the all time, til death do us part kind of love. And it was about the love George Jones had for Nancy Jones that could only be parted by death.
As I sat in my car listening to that podcast, to Alan Jackson singing and the host Malcom Gladwell talk, I thought about my grandad. I thought about how he loved my granny for over fifty years. And even when she died he never stopped loving her. How he lived on for his family, for his grown children and his grandchildren, but it was clear that without her he’d never be as happy as he’d been with her. I thought about how he died, while sleeping in his favorite chair, and how he stopped loving her that day. And the depth, the beauty, the fullness of it all brought me to tears.
I’ve listened to that podcast five or six times. And it still brings me to tears.
Part of what we are going to do this summer is look at those sad Psalms. The dark Psalms. The depressing Psalms. Because they are painfully specific. Like King David’s Psalm 51 they are born out of the pain of lived experience. And it is those Psalms, maybe even more than the happy ones, that can touch us and move us and transform us.
The Psalms run the gamut of human experience. So we are going to look at all manner of Psalms as they touch us, as they move us, and as they transform us. Let us see ourselves in the Psalms, in the songs of our faith, in the songs of Scripture. And seeing ourselves within the Psalms, let us be healed and transformed as part of God’s people led and loved by our God. Let us pray.