Singing in Minor Keys

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Judah has fallen—several times! In a succession of invasions, the Babylonians, as instruments of God’s judgment, have taken the royal city. They have removed most of the inhabitants and taken them into captivity. Only the poorest are left behind (2 Kings 25:12). But what is worse is the total destruction and dismantling of the city and the temple as described in 2 Kings 24 and 25. Solomon’s glorious expression of worship is reduced to a pile of pebbles and its riches are either destroyed or carried away.

In passages like Psalm 137 we discover the depth of the despair all this caused in the Hebrews. The were devastated. But to add insult to injury the captives were commanded by their captors to sing songs! How could they be expected to sing under these circumstances?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’” (137:1-4).

Recently someone posted a segment of a television program on FACEBOOK where the origins of the negro spirituals was explained. Africans, forcibly removed from their homeland, and crammed into ships to be transported as slaves in the new world, were known for their songs. The music was based on just a few of the black notes (minor keys) that we find on a piano. John Newton, who had been the captain of a slave ship before his conversion, used these same minor keys, no doubt because he had heard the songs of his “passengers” so many times, to write the music to perhaps the greatest hymn of all time, Amazing Grace.

For the Hebrews, now in captivity far from home, singing was out of the question. But the African slaves had the right idea. Even in the worst of circumstances, we can sing even though the notes might be written in a minor key.

Paul, writing from prison in Rome, penned these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). The command is based, not on some desperate attempt to “keep a stiff upper lip” as the British would say. but on the promises of God. Paul continues: “…The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…I can do anything through him who gives me strength” (4:4b-7, 13).

The Lord is present. He hears our lament. He promises peace of heart in the midst of whatever circumstances. Out of that peace of heart comes the ability to sing, to rejoice even though the notes might be minor ones. And from the Lord comes the strength to go through whatever happens in life.


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