God’s Artistic Impulse
As the Old Testament book of Zephaniah draws to a close, it concludes the prophet’s message with seven verses that express joy in God’s faithfulness to His people (3:14-20). And included in these verses is a an image that may be startling to some: “The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (vs. 17, italics supplied).1
The idea that God actually sings—performs music of any form—may suggest a pause for reflection!
There are, of course, numerous instances in the Old Testament in which God’s people are encouraged to sing of God’s glory: “Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises” (Ps. 98:4); “Sing to the Lord, for He has done excellent things” (Isa. 12:5). “Sing to the Lord! Praise the Lord! For He has delivered the life of the poor from the hand of evildoers” (Jer. 20:13).
And Christians in the New Testament conveyed their worship through music. “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). Paul exhorted the members of the Ephesian church to “be filled with the Spirit, . . . singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18, 19). He encouraged those of the Colossian church to be “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
Thus, throughout the history of God’s people in Scripture, the aesthetic impulse has played an integral part in the human response of worship to God. But could it also be that God expresses His joy in song as well? How literally should the passage in Zephaniah be taken? Does God truly sing? If so, is it a still, small humming or a basso profundo of universal proportions? Or, somehow, both? This may bring a whole new dimension to the concept of “special music”!
Or is this idea of God breaking into spontaneous song nothing more than an anthropomorphic trope, employed to articulate an otherwise ineffable characteristic of the nature of God?
For centuries, God’s people have worshiped Him for His power, love, compassion, and justice. But to these attributes should also be added a sense of the artistic—a sense of beauty. “The overwhelming impression gained from Scripture, the sole document on which the Christian faith is established,” writes JoAnn Davidson, “is that of the aesthetic nature of God flooding His revealed Word and created world.”2
God’s sense of the aesthetic—His unfathomable creativity—can certainly be observed in nature. Even to the casual observer, it takes little effort to notice the warming radiance of a sunrise, the taste and texture of an apple, the graceful spiral of a snail shell, the fragrance of a freshening rain, the trilling of a meadowlark’s song. Often is heard an exclamation from someone admiring “God’s handiwork” or “the Creator’s palette” or “the music of the Divine.” This is usually a way of showing appreciation for the beauty of nature but seldom a true recognition of God’s aesthetic nature. But truly, God is quite literally an artist.
“When the world was created,” writes poet Luci Shaw, “it might have seemed to be enough to have it work. To include beauty seems unnecessary for a mechanistic universe. We have been given a sense of the beautiful which can be regarded as gratuitous. Which it is—a gift of pure grace.”3
So if God places such value on artistic, multi-sensory expression in nature, then it should not be surprising to learn of His exultant song in Zephaniah.
Leo Van Dolson writes: “Zephaniah pictures [God] singing a happy song about the results [of judgment]. . . . If faithful, we will be there to hear the greatest solo ever sung. Imagine, if you can, what a spectacular and impressive singing voice the Creator of Lucifer must have. Lucifer’s voice was so wonderful that he ‘Led the heavenly choir.’ He was the one who ‘raised the first note’ (The Story of Redemption, p. 25). His voice must have had the range and tone of the greatest pipe organs. But how much sweeter and melodious must be the voice of God!”4
This fondness of God for celebration through His own participation in the creation of music is at least implied in other places in Scripture. In Jesus’ heartwarming story of the prodigal son, the father is overjoyed to see his younger son return home. Many have pointed out that it is the father—not the son—who is the central figure in this parable. Jesus, who knows His heavenly Father more intimately than any other being in the universe could, tells this parable to illustrate the father’s love.
And the father’s reaction to the prodigal’s return is a spontaneous impulse to celebrate. In responding to the elder brother’s complaint that no such effort has been made on his own behalf, even though he had avoided his younger brother’s failure and dissipation, the father says, “‘It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found’” (Luke 15:32, italics supplied). This suggests that the father—the symbol for the heavenly Father—does not passively sit by and merely observe the celebration of others. He plays an active role in it.
And to the extent that art plays a role in celebratory worship, it is an effort to relate in a personal and significant way with God. Some have observed that the artistic impulse in the human experience is, in fact, a search for the divine. In her book-length poem, Aurora Leigh, 19th-century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning addresses this idea elegantly:
“What is art
But life upon the larger scale, the higher.
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the infinite?”5
In a marginal note, the Andrews Study Bible offers a possible alternative interpretation of Zephaniah 3:17. Rather than singing, it says, “We could also read the phrase as ‘He will be quiet in His love.’ Though it is a stunning thought to consider, the text likely portrays a God so thrilled with the people that He has saved that He is in quiet contemplation as He savors His love for them.”6
This verse shows God experiencing a singular “moment” of joy, which conveys itself either in music—or in profound reflection. In either case, it is clear in Zephaniah’s description of God—as it is in the sublime story of the prodigal son—that the heavenly Father has feelings, too. And through His immeasurable love, He expresses the “intense significance of all things.”
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this editorial are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Http://www.perspectivedigest.org/article/106/archives/18-3/toward-a-theology-of-beauty?search=Davidson. Accessed May 17, 2014.
3. Luci Shaw, “Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” in Leland Ryken, ed., The Christian Imagination (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Shaw Books, 2002) p. 89.
4. Leo R. Van Dolson, Joel, Micah, and Zephaniah: A Call to Revival (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1991), p. 118.
5. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 144, 145.
6. Andrews Study Bible (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2010), p. 1207.