A few weeks ago, I attended an event at my alma mater, Purdue University. Emerging from our parked car that evening, I took in familiar sights and sounds of campus; impulsively, I began to sing the second stanza and chorus of our fight song, Hail Purdue, as my children smirked:
When in after years we’re turning
Alma mater, back to you,
May our hearts with love be yearning
For the scenes of old Purdue.
Back among you pathways winding
Let us seek what lies before,
Fondest hopes and aims e’re finding,
While we sing of days of yore.
Hail, hail to old Purdue!
All hail to our old gold and black.
Hail, hail to old Purdue!
Our friendship may she never lack.
Ever grateful, ever true,
Thus we raise our song anew
Of the days we’ve spent with you,
All hail our own Purdue!
Though I forget most of the details that were taught in the classes I took as an undergraduate, that song still evokes in me a sense of loyal friendship, of identity, of connection with the Purdue family, of warm memories with teachers and students, of respect for (most of) what I learned, and of aspirations the university instilled in us. Remarkably, even particular classes and teachings from those days come to life in my mind as I sing. Songs are powerful.
The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 was to play a similar role in the life of the community of God’s people; the difference being that the weight of eternity was attached. Deuteronomy is Moses’ final sermon to the people before they crossed the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. It is the Great Commission of the Old Testament. It was also a covenant renewal ceremony. God claimed his people afresh, and they claimed him as their God (26:17-18). The song, penned at close of the ceremony, was to be written and taught to the people. It would live in their mouths and would evocatively remind Israel of God’s covenant with them, and their calling to be his own. To the extent a university fight song inspires continued friendship from its alumni, it only copies the idea from Deuteronomy 32.
Of course, Deuteronomy as a whole spells out many detailed laws. The priests were to regularly teach the law in the communities (33:8-10) and at major feasts (31:11). The leadership would adjudicate cases among the people based on the law (16:18). The king was to write a copy of it for himself with his own hand (17:18-19). Parents were to teach the same law to their children (6:6-7). But imagine how easy it would be for the common person to forget the particulars when they could not each own a copy of the law! And so, the Lord gave a song to be easily memorized that would bear witness against Israel (31:19) and would live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring (31:21). Like a university fight song does not reteach all that was learned in the classroom, this song would not rehearse the particulars of all Deuteronomy’s laws. Rather, it would daily call the children of Israel to remember their identity and renew their relationship with God. That would, in turn, drive them back to the specifics of God’s word.
The content of the song in Deuteronomy 32 rehearses the contours of life for the people of God. It highlights the people’s personal relationship with the Lord. It summons people to hear God’s teaching (v. 1-3). It contrasts God and man (v. 4-6). It recounts what God has done to save his people (v. 7-14). It warns against complacency and rebellion in the face of prosperity (v. 15-18). It describes God’s disposition towards rebels and his judgment against sinners (v. 19-27). It features his sovereignty in bringing justice on all of his opponents who will not repent—be they the sons of Israel or any other (v. 28-33). It teaches that God will avenge his enemies and save his own, but only after they see that there is salvation in none other (v. 34-38). Finally, it reminds us that God’s grace is the only way by which God’s people are saved (v. 39-44).
At the conclusion of the song, Moses tells God’s people to remember his words because, “It is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (32:47). The song takes these words of life and writes them experientially on the hearts of people in a way that code does not. The result would be life.
You may have seen this video featuring the power of music and memory in the life of Alzheimer’s patient Henry Drayer. Researchers documented the power of music therapy in his life. Henry had so succumbed to the disease that he was hardly able to give “yes” or “no” answers to basic questions. The documentary’s commenting neurologist, Oliver Sacks, notes that before the therapy, Henry was “inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive, and almost unalive.” After listening to the music of his youth, Henry lit up and was not only able to follow the music, but he was able to talk about related topics at some length after the music stopped. Sacks observes, “The philosopher Kant once called music ‘the quickening art’ and Henry is being quickened; he is being brought to life…So in some sense, Henry has been restored to himself. He has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music.” Speaking of the research Sacks concludes “I think this may be very, very important in helping to animate and organize and bring a sense of identity back to people who are ‘out of it’ otherwise. Music will bring them back ‘into it,’ into their own personhood and their own memories, autobiographies.”
When dying of cancer, my grandmother reached a point when she was not able to communicate orally. Except for one time when she joined in the singing of the Twenty-third Psalm. Many others have shared similar testimonies with me of their disabled loved ones singing similarly. For the people of God, even when we’ve forgotten who we are, the Lord who is our strength and our song is not forgotten through the odes he has given.
Music may make our hearts with love be yearning for the scenes of our alma mater. It may make Alzheimer’s patients awaken mentally. But the Song of Moses was given as a tool to quicken the people of Israel as they fulfilled their commission over the generations. It would take people who were spiritually “out of it” and bring them back “into it” by the power of God. It would cause them to remember who they were and to reacquire their identity by turning to the Lord over and over again. As the nation was established in the land, the Song of Moses would be replaced for corporate worship with the divinely inspired Psalms which build on the themes in the Song of Moses, but they would serve the same purpose in all of their simplicity and complexity.
The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of Colossians 3:15-17 serve the same purpose in the hearts of God’s people. As we sing to each other, the word of Christ dwells in us richly. It shapes us. Our hearts are thus governed by the peace of Christ, and we are drawn to loyalty to him. What we are singing today should woo us to love God and the particulars of his word. And what we are singing today will likely be what we sing when we’ve forgotten everything else. Is what you’re singing today worth it?