The speech of angels

Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite. —Thomas Carlyle

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. —Victor Hugo

MessiahMusic is a vocabulary of emotional expression; it bridges the chasm of incomprehensibility left by language. Or, more simply, music has soul. As I write this, I am listening to the music of Agustín Barrios, a masterful Paraguayan guitarist who lived from 1885–1944. His music, like all great music, touches some hidden place in my heart in a way that words and ideas cannot.

Doc Watson, the famous bluegrass guitarist, has almost nothing in common with Barrios beyond the fact that they are masters of the same musical instrument. They use two wholly different musical vocabularies, but Doc Watson’s music, too, makes a powerful, emotional connection with his audiences.

I once sang with a choir that performed sacred music of the Renaissance period in Latin, the original language of the church. Generally, there were no Latin scholars in our audiences. One of the pieces we sang was Christe, Adoramus te (Jesus, We Adore You), written by Claudio Monteverdi in 1610. The words are not much different than those you’d hear in any modern church service:

Jesus, Savior, to your name we pray.
We adore you and bless you, who,
by your holy cross and passion has redeemed us sinners.
Lord, we pray, look on us in mercy.

The chords and rhythms were strange to modern ears, the lyrics made no sense, and yet our audiences were moved, sometimes to tears, by the heart and soul that came through so clearly in Monteverdi’s intricate harmonies—a reaction that Galileo, a Monteverdi contemporary, may well have shared when he heard this same music performed in the cathedrals of Italy. Music is like a time capsule—the composer preserves a feeling in the musical score, and the listener experiences all of those emotions afresh with every performance.

Not everyone gets music, of course, and our personal musical tastes vary considerably. But generally speaking, most of us enjoy music, at least to the point of humming along with the car radio.

Among the animals, things are quite different. For some reason, our cousins the apes never managed to evolve musically to the degree that we humans have. Birds and humpback whales sing songs as part of identification or mating rituals, but their songs are always repetitive, with no effort at innovations involving harmony, rhythm, or variations on a theme. What there is of animal music is fairly boring.

Why do we enjoy listening to music? Why do we enjoy beating on drums and strumming the guitar? Why do kids download songs by the millions? Why are the airwaves filled with jazz, country-western, rock, rap, classical, new age and every other musical taste imaginable? It’s there when we’re on hold, when we’re in the elevator, when we’re buying bananas at Safeway and underwear at Target, it’s in the dentist’s office, it’s in the movies we watch, whether the characters are a mile below the surface of the ocean or a million miles out in space. Where did this obsession with music come from?

Revelation 5:8–14 describes a scene in Heaven where Jesus is being praised and worshipped by the angels, those heavenly servants of God. A huge mob of angels gathers around the throne of God where they spontaneously create a new song and sing it to Jesus. Here is how John describes what he saw, and heard:

Then I looked again, and I heard the singing of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:

The Lamb is worthy—the Lamb who was killed.
He is worthy to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and blessing. —Revelation 5:11,12, NLT (The Apostle John speaking)

Wherever a group of angels gathers in the presence of God, they seem to burst into praise and singing. Angels are beings created by God, as we are. So, if we can believe these accounts of heaven, whatever musical abilities the angels may have are not due to some evolutionary quirk, but were given to them by God himself.

Which suggests that God digs music. And that humans, like the angels, dig music because we were made in the image of God. In one sense, music is a taste of heaven. It’s a language that is uniquely suited to praise and worship, because adoration, love and joy are primarily emotional experiences, which words cannot do justice to.

When I’m cruising down the highway at 75 miles per hour singing along with ZZ-Top, I’m almost in heaven. But if music is primarily a language of praise to God, we miss the whole point if we immerse ourselves in every sort of musical experience, yet fail to use it as a language of worship and prayer to the one who created us, the one who makes music possible.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to the Most High.
It is good to proclaim your unfailing love in the morning,
your faithfulness in the evening,
accompanied by the harp and lute and the harmony of the lyre.
You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me!
I sing for joy because of what you have done. —Psalm 92:1–4, NLT

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  1. I’ve found that most of my truly profound worship experiences have involved music.

    Then again, I’m a choral singer. *g* For a few years in college, when I wasn’t attending worship services much, singing sacred music with my early-music ensemble *was* my form of prayer, even when that early music was written out of a religious tradition that isn’t mine.

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