Turn it Up
By Mina Iskander
“There is no doubt that the sounds of music, at the Lord’s command or with His permission, have unleashed great forces.” St Gregory of Nyssa.
I may not realise it or want to admit it, but music affects me. A song with a fast beat makes me drive a little faster, whilst a slow song makes me feel sad, or even cry if no one is looking. And that song from “The Good Guys” ad is just irritating.
St Gregory of Nyssa calls music a “fabulous material” and reminds us of the biblical evidence for its power. “We read that by means of David’s tuneful harp the demon was expelled from Saul. The divine reading attests that the walls of Jericho at once collapsed at the din of trumpets.” He concludes, “There is no doubt that the sounds of music, at the Lord’s command or with His permission, have unleashed great forces.” These great forces can be constructive or destructive. Which do I continually choose? Which lives in my iTunes library? Which is emanating from my headphones?
Music is one of God’s creations for humanity to enjoy. God created every tool that we use in order to produce, listen to and ultimately enjoy music. An infant, before they are even capable of speaking or seeing clearly, squeals with delight when they hear their favourite song. Music therefore cannot be inherently bad. The simplest evidence for this is the fact it plays such a central role in Orthodox worship!
Some claim, however, that since God created music then all music is suitable for my ears. That is like saying that because God created humanity, all human actions are suitable for me. I must therefore ask myself, am I enjoying music in the manner that God intended? In the words of St Gregory, are the “forces” being unleashed by the music I listen to destructive or constructive?
In 2 Samuel 6:5, we see how David and the people of Israel used music to celebrate the return of the Ark of the Covenant: “Then David and all the house of Israel played music before the LORD on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.”
Origen the scholar links this passage to the promise of Jesus that: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them” (Matt 18:19). He explains that the well-tuned instruments “have in them that harmony of tones which is of such power that if only two people bring before the Father in heaven any request with that symphony which is found in divine and spiritual music, the Father grants it to them—which is most remarkable.” How constructive a force this is! If two people are united in prayer and song, their prayer will be answered! Imagine a united couple, family, group of friends, and indeed a whole church!
As a church we often pray together using the psalms, which were originally written as songs. The psalms are themselves littered with references to singing and music. Perhaps one of the most frequent words we see in the psalms is “selah”. Biblical scholars debate the exact meaning of the word, but most agree it is akin to “pause”. St Gregory of Nyssa writes beautifully about these pauses.
He explains that it “is a pause that occurs suddenly in the midst of the singing of a psalm in order to receive an additional thought that is being introduced from God.” How constructive this is! Is the music I am listening to interrupted by additional thoughts from God? Or is He far from it, perhaps waiting and hoping that the next song may be more suitable?
We need to turn our music up. Our desire for music is God given and thus should not be stifled, but rather should be redirected to Him. Let’s turn it away from violence, dysfunctional relationships, sexual immorality, immodesty, and materialism and turn it up to the love of God. Turn that music up!
PS – Apologies if that Good Guys song is stuck in your head. Replace it with something more constructive.