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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hymn Stories to the Biblical Songs

How are songs written? How do these things happen? Is there a magic spell that comes on someone, or just do angels deliver words and music? What is this thing called “inspiration” from which some of the great songs are born? 
Some songs were written through new insights of the Scripture, like Thomas Chisholm’s “Great is Thy Faithfulness, ” as he was reading Lamentations 3:22-23.  Sometimes when we hear words, God illuminates them and new meaning seems to jump out at us. It is like hearing them for the first time. Sometimes just emphasizing different words does this. Take for example I Kings 19 when Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel and is hiding in a cave at Horeb.  Twice God asks him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” More than just to repeat a question, it might be that God was emphasizing different words each time he asked. For example: Read the statement emphasizing this way: “Why are you here, Elijah?” “Why are you here, Elijah?” or even, “Why are you here, Elijah?”  Such happenings provide new understanding and help us gain new insights into what God might have been trying to say to the prophet.  New insights and understandings are often the seed bed for new songs and texts.

Another source for understanding how a song is written can come from the circumstances surrounding its composition. Most everyone is familiar with the moving story how the great hymn, “It is well with my soul” by Horatio Spafford was written, from tragedy to faith in the midst of suffering and grief. And there are many more stories behind so many great songs, in fact there are entire books just on these stories.

Understanding can help us with a new and deeper appreciation for even the biblical songs in Scripture. Although David didn’t write them all, many of the psalms tell how or why they were written:

Psalm 18
For the director of music. Of David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 30
A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.

Psalm 34
Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.

Psalm 51
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Psalm 52
For the director of music. A maskil of David. When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: "David has gone to the house of Ahimelech."

Psalm 54
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. Amaskil of David. When the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, "Is not David hiding among us?"
Psalm 56
For the director of music. To the tune of "A Dove on Distant Oaks." Of David. A miktam . When the Philistines had seized him in Gath.

Psalm 57
For the director of music. To the tune of "Do Not Destroy." Of David. A miktam . When he had fled from Saul into the cave.

Psalm 59
For the director of music. To the tune of "Do Not Destroy." Of David. A miktam . When Saul had sent men to watch David's house in order to kill him.

Psalm 60
For the director of music. To the tune of "The Lily of the Covenant." A miktam of David. For teaching. When he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.

Psalm 63
A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.

Psalm 70
For the director of music. Of David. A petition.

Psalm 102
A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the LORD.

Psalm 142
A maskil of David. When he was in the cave. A prayer.

Although we do not know the circumstances surrounding all of the psalms that David composed, we do have these that preface the reason or circumstances for their writing. Most of these were written related to David fleeing for his life from Saul (18, 52, 54, 57, 59, 63, 142), some were from celebrations (30, 60), while still others are prayers of confession and petition (51, 70). Only one psalm was not written by David that give the background, and is listed as “A prayer of an afflicted man” (102).

However, of the many here that are interesting to ponder, perhaps one of the most interesting is the comment before Psalm 34, “when he pretended to be insane...” What’s that about? What kind of song is written when you are faking insanity? The encounter is found in I Samuel 21.  Put yourself in David’s sandals. David is in front of the King of Gath [Goliath’s hometown] trying to run away from Saul, when he realizes that he has jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. He begins allow saliva to run down his face and beard and begins to scribble on the walls, pretending to be insane. Fearing insane people, the King kicks David out from his presence. What was David’s response? Did he say, “Look how clever I was, I sure fooled that Philistine!” No, look at verses 6-8:
    6 This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
           he saved him out of all his troubles.
     7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
           and he delivers them.
     8 Taste and see that the LORD is good;
           blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
When you understand that David felt that he was literally at the end of his rope, Saul was out to kill him, and that this all this King could think of was getting rid of “David the giant-killer,” you can understand how discouraged and broken he felt. It makes verse 18 come alive:
    18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
           and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
No wonder that he says in verse 8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”!

This is a tremendous story and we can be moved as we understand how David came to write the words of the Psalm, but if that is as far as it goes, we are missing another lesson in learning how to apply Scripture to our lives. Look at Romans 15:4, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”                                   
These passages can become the basis for our prayers when we find ourselves in impossible situations or in circumstances beyond our ability to comprehend. Consider paraphrasing Scripture in prayer when you face such difficulties:
    Father, I will praise You at all times            [verse 1]
       and I will magnify Your name!                 [verse 3]
    I call out to you and ask that You
      deliver me from my fears.                         [verse 4]
    Thank You, that You surround me
      with Your presence and protection.          [verse 7]
    Thank You, that You hear my cries
       for help.                                                 [verse 15]
    Thank You, that You are near to me
     when broken hearted and discouraged.     [verse 18]
    I trust You for Your provision and
      deliverance.                                             [verse 22]
The Psalms have been an encouragement to many, but understanding the background can add depth to the meaning and help us as we apply Scripture to our own lives. Let’s step in a little deeper and understand the context and content and apply the Word of God to our everyday lives.

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