And Jesus sang

April 8, 2011
A Psalms scroll.

After all this time I thought I knew Jesus really well. Then just last week—preparing to preach at a congregational celebration of word and music—I discovered something unsettling about him. If my concordance is telling the truth, then he never played an instrument, never led his followers in song, never hummed a refrain or sang himself to sleep. After all these years, this is like learning that he never skipped a stone on water or warmed his hands at a fire. How is it possible to be fully human without ever making music?

But it seems to be true. Jesus said some things about people who enjoyed the sounds of trumpets and flutes, but the references were not positive. He told a story about an elder brother coming home from a hard day's work to hear music and dancing inside his father's house, but those sounds did not make the brother happy. I know some Christians have decided to ban musical instruments from worship on these grounds—but surely there are other ways to interpret the evidence.

1) Maybe the Gospel writers did not think singing was important for establishing the identity of the messiah. They certainly did not think laughing was important, because Jesus never laughs in the Gospels either. Maybe the evangelists just wrote down the things they thought were pertinent to making their case—the birth, the teachings, the death, the resurrection—and left out the things they judged incidental, like the fact that Jesus made the best hummus in the Galilee or was a wizard at the harmonica.

2) Maybe there was nothing to sing about while Jesus walked this earth, with the Romans occupying his homeland and his countrymen at each other's throats about how to get rid of them—with the poor getting poorer while the rich got richer and taxes going through the roof. Maybe only the most clueless, out-of-touch people he knew sat around playing instruments and singing songs while they stuffed themselves so they could not hear the people camped outside their doors hoping for a chance to go through their kitchen garbage. Maybe Jesus could not sing while things like that were going on, so he fasted from music the same way other people fasted from food—to stay in touch with those who had nothing to sing about the way things were.

3) Or maybe the Gospel writers thought everyone knew the tunes to some of the most famous things Jesus said—like the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer or his last words from the cross. When I first learned my way through Luke, my teacher told me that the Magnificat was sung in the early church, along with the Song of Simeon. Why not the Lord's Prayer? Maybe the music just vanished after everyone who knew it died, so that only the words remained for those who came later. Music speaks to our soft parts, and soft parts are as vulnerable as flesh, as grass, as the lilies of the field. Maybe that is what happened to Jesus' music. It went back to where it came from until he comes again, singing us back into the presence of God.

After I had searched sing, song, music, play and the names of at least six ancient musical instruments, I tried hymn and struck the jackpot. According to both Matthew and Mark, it is possible that Jesus sang at least once. On the first night of Passover, after he had shared his last supper with his friends, they did one last thing together before they headed out into the night. "When they had sung the hymn," both evangelists say, "they went out to the Mount of Olives" (Matt. 26:30, Mark 14:26).

How had I missed that verse? How many Maundy Thursday suppers had I sat through without ever asking what that hymn was or why we were not singing it, in our dogged attempt to remember everything Jesus had done that night? It only took a minute with a study Bible to discover the answer and confirm it with a rabbi: if Jesus and his friends were singing a hymn after supper, there is every reason to believe it was the Hallel—Psalms 113 through 118—sung during evening prayers on the first night of Passover from Jesus' day to our own.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. (Ps. 116:15–16)

I know there are others ahead of me on this, but this is the first time I have heard Jesus sing—the Lord to whom I pray praying to the Lord. Now the words will never lie quietly on the page again. If this essay reaches you in time, find that hymn so you can sing it with him on Maundy Thursday. Jesus may only have sung once, but when he did, the Word Made Flesh became Music as well.


The Hymn at the Last Supper

One of the most moving traditions I experience in worship comes in reference to this line of scripture. In my home congregation, and in many other American Baptist congregations I have either attended or served, it is a tradition to close communion services (for us, communion is often only observed on the first Sunday of the month) by singing the first verse of the hymn "Blest Be the Tie That Binds", and the singing is generally introduced with words such as, "We read in the scriptures that on that night, after they had finished their meal but before they went out to the Mount of Olives, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn. Let us do likewise." Some of these congregations invite the entire congregation to join hands as they sing, reflecting physically and in the words of the song the image of unity and communion that we observe at the table.

I never did think, though, to investigate what psalms were the ones likely being referenced. Thank you for providing my Maundy Thursday reflections (and all of my communion reflections from now on) with this rich and deep insight!

I, too, grew up in the

I, too, grew up in the Baptist tradition, and to this day can hear my beloved Daddy, the pastor, speaking those words inviting the congregation to sing as the disciples did after the Lord's Supper. To me the singing of "Blest Be the Tie" was as much a part of the worship experience as the consumption of the components themselves.

Did Jesus Sing?

Thanks, Barbara, for showing me, once again, how we can always discover new things by a careful reading of the scriptures. I, too, had never paid any attention to the detail about singing at the Last Supper. Thanks, too, for the information on the singing of the psalms.

When in Our Music...

There is a wonderful hymn by Fred Pratt Green written in 1972 called "When in Our Music God Is Glorified" which includes the stanza:

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight,

This line makes tears well up every time I sing it. Unfortunately for many traditions it's not suitable for singing during Lent due to the Alleluia refrain.

"The Last Song" from Kate Campbell's album "Wandering Strange"

After the supper was over and the table had been cleared away
When the last bottle was empty, there was nothing much left to say
Jesus started humming an old tune, everybody fell right in
They sang the last song, the last song

Matthew started singing the low part, John grabbed the high harmony
Their voices filled up the night air all the way to Gethsemane
Judas walked some distance behind them like he had forgotten the words
They sang the last song, the last song

Just before they got to the garden
Just before they all fell asleep
Just before Barabbas was pardoned
And Jesus was nailed to a tree

I reckon it was some kind of soul song, maybe kind of sad and slow
All about how we get weary, all about holding on
Only Jesus knew what was coming, still he never said a thing
He sang the last song, the last song

He could have made a toast to the good times and only the best for his friends
He could have stayed up late reminiscing about the long strange trip it had been
But he went just like a lamb to the slaughter knowing it was part of the plan
And sang the last song, the last song

The Last Song

Thanks, Satch, for sharing Kate's song . . . I found myself instantly humming this when reading this blog post. Who could ever imagine that Jesus would not love music!

This was the text for my

This was the text for my homily last week when I spoke on sacrifice. Wish I had made this connection.

they went out

Like one of the other responders, I too have for decades associated the text with the end of the Communion liturgy. I am so moved by realizing that we too may go out to the world that awaits us with a song to sustain us.

Jesus singing

The impact of Jesus and the disciples singing after the Passover supper and before going to the Mt. of Olives really hit this year during our Lenten study. It occured to our group that they sang from the Hallel section of the Psalms - filled with longing, hope and trust in God.
So as a group we chanted Psalm 118 - a first for us. Our eyes and hearts were opened in a fuller way. Thanks Barbara for highlighting his in your usual artful manner.

The Last Song

In the Baptist Church in which I came to faith, their faithful response to that line of scripture was also to sing. In our case it was "Blest Be the Tie That Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love."
So, I knew about the line, but I was never set to wondering what Jesus and that Seder-stuffed band might have sung in reality. Thanks for helping us dig a little deeper.

Did Jesus dance?

Did the One who kept the party going at Cana not know how to celebrate? He came to make our joy full. Did Jesus dance the hora with the celebrants at Cana? Why not?

Jesus' singing during the Triduum

So what do you think about Jesus' quotes from Psalm 22 ("My God, my God") and Psalm 31:5 ("Into your hands I commit my spirit.") from the cross? Might they also have been sung--or could we have told the difference between chant and speech?

Certainly, the lines resonate with the Psalm cycles in daily prayer and the use of Psalm 31:5 as a familiar "good-night prayer" by a faithful Jew. How wonderful to think of Jesus' passion as one long prayer-song wrapping around Jesus' offering of himself to us and to God like the swirls of incense from the altar. Think Psalm 141:2: "Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." What an act of devotion, intimacy, and trust!

A singing God

Thank you, Barbara. Many times in our services we also sang 'Bless Be The Tie That Binds' following the Lords Supper. Another passage that has become one of my favorite about singing is from Zephaniah 3:17:

"The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing"

~Bob Lewis~

The songs of Jesus

Thanks, Barbara. I enjoy it when fresh insights to scripture erupt.

However, someone above put the finger on it when asking if we could tell the difference between singing and chanting. It is most likely, I think, that when Jesus spoke to the large crowds he chanted. It was a way of projecting the voice. It was also the way of the synagogue service. And the reference to whether the Lord's Prayer was sung is intriguing. As Joachim Jeremias pointed out, the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic is rhyming poetry, or at least alliterative. And two of the sources for the Lord's Prayer are the"Eighteen Benedictions" and "Kaddish," still sung in the synagogue.

I imagine the disciples gathered around a campfire on the way to Jerusalem for the Passover, singing the Hallel psalms.

It is also very clear that Jesus enjoyed telling jokes to make a point (How about the camel in the soup, or "Why worry about tomorrow? We've got enough trouble today?") Or, speaking of camels, that pun about the camel (in Aramaic it sounds like rope) going through the eye of a needle?

David Beebe

Jesus singing

Thanks, Barbara.  I have been a musician all my life and have never even thought about it.  Now my Maundy Thursday service and other opportunities will be enriched.  It also deepens my appreciation of Jesus' humanity as well as his unlimited spirit.  What a gift you've shared!  Judy in Michigan

Jesus sang a song that night....and danced?

Thanks Barbara and other commentors.  Do you know the apocryphal Acts of John?
it includes the text of the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples after the Last Supper at which time Jesus directs the disciples to form a ring around him and join in a circle dance.   

94 Now before he was taken by the lawless Jews, who also were governed by (had their law from) the lawless serpent, he gathered all of us together and said: Before I am delivered up unto them let us sing an hymn to the Father, and so go forth to that which lieth before us. He bade us therefore make as it were a ring, holding one another's hands, and himself standing in the midst he said: Answer Amen unto me. He began, then, to sing an hymn and to say:

Glory be to thee, Father.

And we, going about in a ring, answered him: Amen.

Glory be to thee, Word: Glory be to thee, Grace. Amen.

Glory be to thee, Spirit: Glory be to thee, Holy One:

Glory be to thy glory. Amen.

We praise thee, O Father; we give thanks to thee, O Light, wherein darkness

dwelleth not. Amen.

95 Now whereas (or wherefore) we give thanks, I say:

I would be saved, and I would save. Amen.

I would be loosed, and I would loose. Amen.

I would be wounded, and I would wound. Amen.

I would be born, and I would bear. Amen.

I would eat, and I would be eaten. Amen.

I would hear, and I would be heard. Amen.

I would be thought, being wholly thought. Amen.

I would be washed, and I would wash. Amen.

Grace danceth. I would pipe; dance ye all. Amen.

I would mourn: lament ye all. Amen.

The number Eight (lit. one ogdoad) singeth praise with us. Amen.

The number Twelve danceth on high. Amen.

The Whole on high hath part in our dancing. Amen.

Whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. Amen.

I would flee, and I would stay. Amen.

I would adorn, and I would be adorned. Amen.

I would be united, and I would unite. Amen.

A house I have not, and I have houses. Amen.

A place I have not, and I have places. Amen.

A temple I have not, and I have temples. Amen.

A lamp am I to thee that beholdest me. Amen.

A mirror am I to thee that perceivest me. Amen.

A door am I to thee that knockest at me. Amen.

A way am I to thee a wayfarer. .

96 Now answer thou (or as thou respondest) unto my dancing. Behold thyself in me who speak, and seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries.

Thou that dancest, perceive what I do, for thine is this passion of the manhood, which I am about to suffer. For thou couldest not at all have understood what thou sufferest if I had not been sent unto thee, as the word of the Father. Thou that sawest what I suffer sawest me as suffering, and seeing it thou didst not abide but wert wholly moved, moved to make wise. Thou hast me as a bed, rest upon me. Who I am, thou shalt know when I depart. What now I am seen to be, that I am not. Thou shalt see when thou comest. If thou hadst known how to suffer, thou wouldest have been able not to suffer. Learn thou to suffer, and thou shalt be able not to suffer. What thou knowest not, I myself will teach thee. Thy God am I, not the God of the traitor. I would keep tune with holy souls. In me know thou the word of wisdom. Again with me say thou: Glory be to thee, Father; glory to thee, Word; glory to thee, Holy Ghost. And if thou wouldst know concerning me, what I was, know that with a word did I deceive all things and I was no whit deceived. I have leaped: but do thou understand the whole, and having understood it, say: Glory be to thee, Father. Amen.

97 Thus, my beloved, having danced with us the Lord went forth.