Originally published without copyright restrictions, as Naked Paradox, Biblical Insights for the Heart and Mind, by Trinity Methodist Theological College 2006 for discussion groups. 


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Watch the Music of the Spheres

David Bell

saturn9829aherit.jpgMaking music is fundamental to human culture. Dancing, drawing, singing, and playing musical instruments are activities from time immemorial. They are quite extraordinary things to do. From our earliest ancestors to the present day we have always done them, irrespective of race or place.

The Bible has some interesting things to say about music. In Genesis 4:21, Jubal is identified as the father of all those who play upon lyre and the flute. But, by the time of Amos, there is a stern warning against the rich people of Judah who “invent new instruments of music like David”. They were wasting money on luxuries while their relatives in the northern kingdom of Israel faced conquest by war, and there was cruelty, and starvation.

In general the Hebrew people enjoyed making music. They played the horn or shophar, cymbals, viol, trumpets, drums, and the forerunner of the zither. And of course there was singing. From pastoral shepherd songs to fiery war songs, like the Sword Song of Ezekiel 21:8-17.

This carried into the New Testament times. One of the most moving verses in the Gospels is Mark 14:26. “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives.” Even unto betrayal and death, the power of music animates the human soul. The hymn they sang was the Hallel or as we might call it, the hallelujahs. That is, Psalms 113-8 which were sung as an integral part of the family celebrations of Passover.

If, however, we went back to the time of Amos, very approximately around 750 BCE, not only were new instruments being invented but a new concept of music was starting to stir. The invention of a written grammatical language, an early form of Hebrew, had stimulated all sorts of other ideas. Was it possible to transmit musical ideas in the same way, a musical notation, just like an alphabet for words?

I personally think what happened next was a miracle. That’s why it has become mixed up with myth and legend. In fact it was the legendary Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE who linked up astronomy and mathematics to music. In his universe absolutely everything was connected by geometry, by numbers and ratios.

Imagine a string vibrating, as on a big double bass. It would sound a deep note. Now hold down the string exactly half way along and gently pluck. The new note is exactly an octave above, a special sound, a unique sound. They are a unity!

Pythagoras discovered all sorts of relations between sounds and where you divide the string. All the notes of the scale were held together by numbers. While this is true, it isn’t the miracle I’m thinking about. This idea must have come in a flash, been a revelation from God. Pythagoras said that each of the planets in the night sky must be playing a very special music. (The word planet means ‘wandering star’. ) He associated this music with their number ratios, their specific individual geometries, as the planets rolled around their orbits.

However, here was a music that could not be heard or comprehended by human ears: it was the music of God and for God. He gave it a special name which has survived for 2,600 years. Pythagoras called this unsounded, unheard music, the music of the spheres.

Yes, I think this was revelation. I think of various composers and musicians who seem to prove it so. There was Beethoven, for example. His hearing had deteriorated so much by the completion of the famous fifth symphony, it was almost impossible for him to hear what the music sounded like. By the ninth symphony he lived in a silent world. And yet ringing clear and true and strong are the irrepressible voices singing out the revelation of the “Ode to Joy!” The sublime mastery of the last quartets are equally a testimony to a music that had come from beyond this world. Beethoven called it the dance of God in his head. But every note was worked and reworked until it conveyed absolute inevitability.

Mozart often felt that he never “composed”, but rather that music was simply given to him in an instant. Haydn, whose musical genius was widely appreciated in 18th century Europe was asked how he achieved such a prodigious output. “Well, you see, I get up early and as soon as I have dressed I go down on my knees and pray God and the blessed Virgin that I may have another successful day.” The contemporary English composer John Tavener’s music is often the result of extraordinary visions and meditations on Mary, Mother of God. The great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt likewise uses chants from ancient Greek Orthodox liturgies to create intense soundscapes.

Igor Stravinsky also believed firmly in the power of prayer. He saw himself as a channel for God to work through. His powerful “The Rite of Spring” is generally regarded as marking the transition from 19th to 20th century music. He wrote, “I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.”

Of course many more composers could be added to this list of believers, but that is not the point. Rather, they are all of a mind to say that the music was not of their own making. It was gifted to them. But in that instant of gifting if we could but be onlookers, we would hear nothing. We would hear nothing but the silence of the music of the spheres. Yet that would convey everything. In an instant, everything came that the composers needed. It is like Anton Bruckner’s pronouncement on his 8th symphony. The last 16 bars are an astonishing culmination, an insight that admits no explanation other than what he himself wrote: “God revealed it to me”, and that is where the matter must lie. No other declaration is possible in the silence after the music dies away.

No Music in Church?

Not everyone likes singing in church. But we would be the poorer if there was no music to enrich our worship. Why do you think congregational singing is less important today? What can be done in a practical way to enliven our worship by extending the music. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” — according to Elvis Costello. Recall Luke 15:25, the parable of the two brothers. The elder brother “was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.” What was his reaction to it? Was that the final word?

Astrology in the Bible

Perhaps the most famous music about the night sky is Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”. It blends the Pythagorean ideals of the music of the spheres with astrology and mythology. The rich musical tone poems concentrate on the qualities of the god of each planet. Mars is the bringer of war, Jupiter is jollity and grandeur, Venus the goddess of love, and so on. The Bible too has its astrologies. The most famous is Matthew 2:2. Astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is he who was born to be the king of the Jews. For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

What is revelation

What is revelation? It is certainly a misunderstood word today. But in Biblical times it was quite clear. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Prophetic revelation is primarily an event in the life of God. This is the outstanding difference between prophetic revelation and all other types of inspiration as reported by many mystics and poets. To the prophet it is not a psychic event but first of all a transcendent act, something that happens to God. The actual reality of revelation takes place outside the consciousness of the prophet. He experiences revelation, so to speak, as an ecstasy of God, who comes out of his imperceptible distance to reveal his will to man.” What do you believe?