The Community Band of Zion
by Blair RamseyPsalm 46, NRSVUE
One summer, our youth group took a trip to Puerto Rico to take part in relief efforts after a couple seasons of devastating hurricanes for the country. Outside of our work days, we ate an egregious amount of rice and beans and spent plenty of time plotting the only kind of trouble a bunch of teenagers at a church camp-with other churches present, might. We traveled in fifteen-passenger vans, and without an aux cord, whatever was on the radio at the time became the playlist of the trip. If you’ve ever listened to a radio, you know that if you listen long enough you’ll hear the same six songs cycled over and over again. So very early into this trip, we began to anticipate what the set list would be for the car ride to our mission sites. I’m still not certain what the name of the song is to this day, but one song became known as the “chicken wing” song- I’m sure because whatever arm-flapping dance moves were happening in the back of the car looked like some variation of the chicken dance. I’ve only heard this song a handful of times in the last eight years, but when I do, I’m transported back to a fifteen passenger van with a stereo on the dash on a Puerto Rican highway.
When I hear the first measure of “Gloria Parti” on the organ, I am placed in a balcony at my grandparents’ white-steepled church, “excuse-me-ing” my way in between people to exit the pew. Then, scurrying down the tan carpet with my three cousins and sister to make it to the front of the church before the Children’s Sermon starts. I heard this song at Binkley Baptist in Chapel Hill once, and it caught me so off guard to hear in a place other than First Baptist Morganton, that I couldn’t help but smile.
We hear songs and choose to listen to songs to feel a certain way. They provide us with comfort, a smile, a laugh, or maybe even a really hard memory. They let us rest in the safety of a specific memory of whatever was happening that day we heard it.
Today’s scripture comes from a book in the bible full of songs. Psalms derives from the Greek word, Psalmoi, meaning songs played to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. Similar to songs we sing today, psalms follow rules of poetry that might bring you back to a high school English classroom. Rhythm, repetition, parallelism, and imagery are all literary devices and stylistic choices that an author uses to convey a certain message. They might sound awkward or fragmented when we speak them out loud, but that’s normal. I mean, try speaking the chorus of the Earth, Wind, and Fire song “September.” Weird, right? These psalms are written like this because these songs are meant to be sung.
Psalm 46 is a song that was written to provide comfort to the city of Jerusalem, also called the City of Zion, which means ‘holy place’. The authors, the Sons of Korah, asked God to be a source of strength, safety, and refuge for their city that has witnessed destruction. Maybe this was on the playlist that the people of Zion chose to listen to when they couldn’t sleep at night or were having a bad day. I’d like to think they chose to listen to this song to be reminded of and comforted by God’s stronghold.
The psalmist describes God as a protector and an anchor, a source of safety against the rage and randomness of nature. “Though the earth gives way, the mountains fall into the sea, the waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging, There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. God is within her, she will not fall.” God is within her, God is within the city, and the city will not fall. God inhabits the city that has just been destroyed, and for this reason, it will not crumble against earthly powers.
The verse that stands out to me, and the one that is often used out of context is this one, “God is within her. She will not fall.” The NIV translation is the one I’ve most frequently seen strewn across mugs and cuff bracelets, planner covers, bullet journal designs, and my mom even spotted it on a beach towel at Holden Beach this past week. The verse is meant to provide protection and assurance and safety and hope. This interpretation, using the pronoun ‘her’, is often used to make a person, particularly a woman, feel strong and fierce and determined and steady. It’s a phrase that offers mental protection and assurance to do a hard thing. God is within HER, she will not fall. With God as her armor, she can get a 90 on her anatomy test, win the conference finals of her soccer game, have a hard conversation with her partner, get into her dream college.
The trouble I find with this interpretation is that the author is not writing about an individual at all. The author is writing about a city, and God’s presence and strength in the place. “Her”, in the psalm, is a city. And “God is within her” refers to God inhabiting the city, the city that has just been destroyed. When we let “her” refer to the city, as it was intended to be understood, instead of a person, the focus of the psalm pivots from singularity to plurality, the individual to communal, solitary to collective.
“A Mighty Fortress is our God” was written by Martin Luther and inspired by this psalm. For some of you, this is the song associated with a forest green church carpet, a Homecoming lunch, or a slightly flat piano (that you secretly hope never gets fixed.) Fortress is not a word you hear everyday in 2022, but it was relevant in Jerusalem in 500 BCE. Fortresses were strong walls built around a protected place to prevent enemies from entering. In this hymn, Luther uses the imagery of a wall built around a city as a metaphor for God’s protection around God’s people. The psalmist used an image that people were familiar with, so they are able to understand on a personal level, what safety feels like. A screened porch, a Ring doorbell, sitting on the couch next to someone you love, your Goldendoodle whose only weapon of attack is kisses?
The second verse of the song has a line, “did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing?” We are reminded here that our own strength, our individual strength, is severely limited. I don’t think Martin Luther is discounting human agency. He’s not saying we have no control over our actions. Rather, we should not be naive enough to think that our own strength can carry us through some really hard times. God is within her. God is within her, the community (motion around the room). She will not fall.
The authors of Psalm 46, the Sons of Korah, are descendants of a priestly family with an interesting history. In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Numbers, Korah was a Levite and a cousin of Moses. His job and responsibility was to carry objects in the Tabernacle from place to place. Korah thought he was too good for this task and wanted the priesthood instead. He rebelled and challenged the right of Moses and Aaron to rule. This was seen as rising up against God, who had appointed Korah to work in the tabernacle, and appointed Moses as a leader and Aaron as a high priest. When Korah rebelled, Moses said to him directly, “is it too small a thing for you” that God has appointed you for this task, to bring you closer to Him, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord?” Moses is mad because Korah is looking for something that is right underneath his nose (how to serve God.) And doesn’t recognize what he is already doing (carrying items from the tabernacle) is serving God, because he dismisses it as insignificant. The Hebrew Bible tells us Korah’s pridefulness led to his death. I don’t think of God as a cosmic punisher or avenger, but I do think that God was upset that Korah thought he was above God’s call for his life.
We are told later in the book of Numbers, in chapter 26, that Korah’s sons were spared. We don’t really know why- maybe they were too young, maybe they were with their friends, or maybe they didn’t want anything to do with their Dad. What is notable to me is the ending of this story. When Korah’s sons grew up, they became great musicians in the tabernacle, playing the lyre or flute or maybe the harp or trumpet. It wasn’t a too small thing for them.
The authors of Psalm 46, the Sons of Korah, saw their father confide in his own strength, and witnessed this personal and communal loss. They lost their father, but the city also lost the presence and contribution of a key member- whose job was to carry items in the tabernacle. To quote George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life, “Strange isn’t it, how each man’s touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, it leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?” When Korah died, did the tabernacle have a back up? Was there extra clutter in the narthex for years?
Obviously the Sons of Korah didn’t know how the verse would be used out of context over two thousand years later. But, when writing the psalm, having witnessed their dad’s fatal pridefulness, they understood the significance of not solely confiding in one’s own strength. They carried this experience with them, and part of their story came through in song, in Psalm 46. God is within her (motion around the room.) She will not fall. They became musicians, and through this, brought life, brought God, into the midst of the city. They too understood God to be in the strength of the city, not resting on the strength of an individual.
Another example of story coming through in song is the inspiration behind Ben Rector’s new album, “The Joy of Music.” Sporting an album cover with the artist laying on a piano next to a Sesame Street character, it’s hard to scroll past on your phone without doing a double take.
For Ben Rector, after releasing seven albums, the art of making music had become laborious. It was hard for him to enjoy it the same way it was when it was a hobby. There were Billboard charts to top and concert tickets to sell. He felt stuck climbing a never-ending ladder where he would never reach the top. He lost the joy of making music. As he set out to create a new album, he wanted to rediscover the gift and joy of making music. He wanted to get lost in his imagination and remember what that pureness felt like.
Listening to the album for the first time, you might find that the lyrics don’t rhyme and are a bit strange… “Ken Griffey Jr. was a giant, before parents got divorced and I learned there was gravity” and “I got a daughter now, and have no idea what I’m doing..” When you listen to these lyrics closer, and on repeat like I do, you can notice that his raw and real life experiences come through in song. The birth of his daughter made him rethink his career-climbing and status-centered image. His parents’ divorce opened his eyes to the gravity of the world, which pulls us in directions, towards and away from people, we don’t know why. Much like the Psalms verse used out of context, when one of these lyrics is drawn from the song like a slip of paper out of a hat, the fullness of the song’s meaning is lost. We’re left wondering why Ben Rector is rambling about gravity. We’re left wondering why the Sons of Korah care about God being within the city.
I am a high school teacher, and during class exchange, I play a “song of the day” on repeat. This is usually a good idea, unless I pick a song like “Happy” by Pharell Williams and by sixth period I literally never want to hear the song again in my entire life. One day, the song was “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars. I stood outside the door, greeting the students, trying to get a read on the temperature of the class. It was the period right after lunch, how that usually works in a high school is your kids either come back ready to nap, or are on one leaving me wondering what happened at lunch. It seemed like a nap day, and as students entered the classroom and settled into their seats, and near silence filled the air, I began to wonder if they even knew this song, which came out when many of them were two years old. Right before the second chorus, I started to hear a collective hum fall across the room and I inched a few steps closer to the inside of the classroom. For the next thirty seconds, each in their own worlds, my students hummed along to this song. Not getting up from their desk, getting off their phones, or speaking a word to their classmates. But all together, hummed as the melody moved from a G chord to D chord in the last line of the chorus. I looked up, met many of their gazes, and the moment ended. Isn’t that always how it goes.
When I was in Europe this summer, one of my favorite things to do was to go watch the sunset. The first night I was there, I got a really cheap gyro and walked to the top of a hill, near some old bunkers, on the outskirts of Barcelona. There were fifty or so other people there, filing in as the sun started to dip below the horizon. Someone had brought their guitar and someone had a violin. Amidst the white noise of the hilltop and city, I heard the violin being tuned, then belly laugh among a group of friends, and then a I-VI-IV-V chord progression on the guitar. It is possible these people could have brought their instruments up to the top of the hill for their personal enjoyment, but I’d like to think part of them brought the instrument for music to be shared. Sure, a fellow twenty-something could’ve brought his six-string to the top of the mountain to play Peaceful Easy Feeling on his own. But, it was almost like the strum of the six-string amidst the muffled conversation, humming, and distant car horns fit seamlessly into the symphony of the night.
Maybe the Sons of Korah were trying to tell us that God’s kingdom is like a community band.
Like the symphony of chatter and the guitar strum and street noise on a hill outside Barcelona.
The chorus put together by the quiet drone of Bruno Mars across my classroom.
The shag of the organ and ruffled socks and shimmy-ing out of a pew at my grandparents’ church.
I feel like the Sons of Korah could have been the leaders of this band. Sons of Korah already has a 80s-rocker feel to it, doesn’t it? By writing about God’s strength revealed in community, not just in individuals, the Sons of Korah proclaimed their truth in song, and it became a chorus of the city, a fortress the city could cling to. I imagine them telling the city of Jerusalem something like, “Bring your instrument, bring yourself, we’ll figure out the rest. Oh, and leave your solo at the door.”