God’s Music

Scott Aniol

opened bible book on grey surface

God has given us the psalms to form our hearts, which in turn lead us on the path to true blessedness. As James Sire argues, it is heart orientation that “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”1James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd edition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 141. The inner image of the world formed within us—sometimes called our moral imagination or worldview—interprets reality and thus affects how we evaluate and respond to what we encounter. It is what motivates and moves us to act in certain ways within the various circumstances of life. This is why the Bible commands, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov 4:23). As David Naugle suggests,

From a scriptural point of view, therefore, the heart is responsible for how a man or woman sees the world. Indeed, what goes into the heart from the outside world eventually shapes its fundamental dispositions and determines what comes out of it as the springs of life. Consequently, the heart establishes the basic presuppositions of life and, because of its life-determining influence, must always be carefully guarded.2David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 272.

Evangelicals today love to talk about Christian worldview, what will guide us to live according to Scripture. But the common evangelical discussion of worldview focuses primarily or even exclusively on what we think. Thinking is important; doctrine is important. But to focus exclusively on the mind misses what Psalm 1 is setting up as the fundamental purpose of the psalms: they don’t primarily inform our minds, like the Prophets do, or our wills, like the Law does—the psalms form the innate inclinations at our core, what James Sire calls the “fundamental orientation of the heart.”3Sire, Naming the Elephant, 14.

This is important since our imagination is the way we interpret facts and is thus the way we make sense of God’s world. George MacDonald explains:

To inquire into what God has made is the main function of the imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts, seeks for higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only region of discovery.4George MacDonald, The Imagination, and Other Essays (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1883), 2.

Our perception and interpretation of the world around us depends upon our imagination of the good life. Leland Ryken helpfully explains how imagination affects how we view truth and what we do with truth:

It is a fallacy to think that one’s worldview consists only of ideas. It is a world picture as well as a set of ideas. It includes images that may govern behavior even more than ideas do. At the level of ideas, for example, a person may know the goal of life is not to amass physical possessions. But if his mind is filled with images of fancy cars and expensive clothes and big houses, his behavior will likely follow a materialistic path. A person might say that God created the world, but if his mind is filled with images of evolutionary processes, he will start to think like an evolutionist. Someone may know that he should eat moderately, but his appetites override that knowledge when his mind is filled with images of luscious food. The imagination is a leading ingredient in the way people view reality. They live under its sway, whether they realize it or not.5Leland Ryken, “The Bible as Literature Part 4: ‘With Many Such Parables’: The Imagination as a Means of Grace,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 587 (1990): 393.

This is why the psalms use tools of the imagination to communicate truth. They contain literary forms that utilize various poetic devices, not just to decorate truth or make it more interesting, but in order to rightly shape our imagination of truth. As Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Indeed, the panoply of genres in the Bible is nothing less than the imagination in full literary display.”6Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 278. This reality reveals the essential importance of the imagination in the presentation of truth:

The point is not simply that the Bible allows for the imagination as a form of communication. It is rather that the biblical writers and Jesus found it impossible to communicate the truth of God without using the resources of the imagination. The Bible does more than sanction the arts. It shows how indispensable they are.7Ryken, “The Bible as Literature Part 4,” 392–93.

The truly blessed person, according to Psalm 1, will shape his imagination by the Torah. Our image of the good life will be shaped by God’s image of the good life. And notice that the psalmist doesn’t just describe blessedness to us in strict, propositional, doctrinal terms; he uses an image to shape our imagination of what that would be like. True blessedness is like a tree planted by an abundant source of nourishment so that it easily produces beautiful, rich, juicy, delicious fruit and never withers for lack of sustenance. He’s describing blessedness in a way that shapes our imaginations, not just our intellects.

That’s what is meant by the term “meditates” in verse 2—“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night.” The Hebrew word literally means to “vocalize,” and so it has the idea of murmuring about something; sometimes this word is translated “to muse” on something. What do we do when we muse on something? We allow it to roll around in our mind, we contemplate it from every angle. But even those ways of describing it are insufficient, because meditating is more than just something we do with our mind, it’s something we do with our heart. To meditate on something—to muse on something—is to allow it to form and shape our heart, our map of the world, our image of the good life. This is why this Hebrew word is also sometimes translated “to imagine.” Lefabvre is right when he notes, “The Psalms require a different kind of ‘heart motion’ as we sing them—meditation rather than declaration.”8Lefebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus, 98.

What this means is that meditation is more than just studying Scripture; it’s more than just thinking about doctrine. Meditation is writing the Word of God “on the tablet of your heart” (Prov 3:3, 7:3; Jer 17:1, 31:33; Heb 10:16). Meditation is slow formation. It is letting “the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). And what’s particularly instructive about that reference from Colossians 3:16 is what comes next; how do we allow the Word of Christ to dwell richly within us? How do we meditate on God’s Word? How to we muse on the Torah? By singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Again, this kind of image-forming meditation on the Torah is a function of our hearts—our imaginations, and that requires not just doctrinal statements, not just the Mosaic Torah, it requires forms of imagination—it requires songs, the Davidic Torah. We muse on the Torah when the Torah takes on the form of music.

And this is exactly what the book of Psalms is for us. As the Five Books of Moses are the Torah for the mind, so the Five Books of Psalms are the Torah for the heart; God intends for this collection of psalms to form and shape our image of what it means to be blessed, our image of what it means to flourish as we meditate on these songs, as we muse on the music of God-inspired psalms.

References

References
1 James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd edition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 141.
2 David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 272.
3 Sire, Naming the Elephant, 14.
4 George MacDonald, The Imagination, and Other Essays (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1883), 2.
5 Leland Ryken, “The Bible as Literature Part 4: ‘With Many Such Parables’: The Imagination as a Means of Grace,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 587 (1990): 393.
6 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 278.
7 Ryken, “The Bible as Literature Part 4,” 392–93.
8 Lefebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus, 98.
Author opened bible book on grey surface

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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