Noise of God, God of Noise
by Dave Skipper
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The voice is the most immediate, most raw, most readily accessible sound and noise source that we have. It is of course also the most personal and unique instrument, enabling a release of energy, emotion, and expression that is arguably unparalleled by any other instrument yet devised or fashioned.
It therefore seems appropriate to get the ball rolling in this series on the Ultimate Noisician by focussing on a chapter from the Bible’s book of Psalms that introduces some of the noise-laden dimensions of the Voice of God. The topic of this article is Psalm 29, but first of all I will give a bit of general background info on psalms.
Context and literary style: Psalms
Many of the psalms (songs) in the Bible were penned by Israel’s greatest king of old. King David lived approximately 3,000 years ago and was and is famed for his songwriting, musicianship, and successful military exploits. Above all, he is referred to in the Bible as a man after God’s heart. Despite some serious moral failings on occasion, his overriding desire and focus of his life was to love and obey God, and to do what was right and just as king.
Sometimes the psalms allude to various key points in ancient history: the creation of the world, the great worldwide flood in the time of Noah, the dramatic Egyptian plagues and subsequent exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt, the subsequent journeying of the Israelites to the promised land via the parting of the Red Sea and the years of wilderness wandering. And then some psalms are recorded with direct historical context regarding the circumstances in which they were written.
The psalms are inherently poetic by nature. They draw heavily on imagery from the natural world, sometimes by way of literal examples of specific truths, or at other times with metaphors or symbols of non-physical truths.
One example of the latter approach is anthropomorphism, when God is described with human features that he doesn’t actually possess. In the Jewish understanding of God as pure uncreated spirit, this literary device is used to help us imagine and understand better how God interacts with his creation, and is not to be confused with other ancient religions which assumed a continuity of being between created matter and the gods.
Jewish poetic structural devices are rife in the psalms, notably parallelisms (pairs of lines which correspond to or counterpoint each other in form or grammar or concept) and chiasms (a kind of symmetrical structure in which the counterpart often develops or contrasts or adds a twist to the first part), as well as the usage of numbers (by way of repetition or other patterning) which have strong symbolic meanings throughout Scripture.
I approach the psalms as God-breathed and therefore absolutely true, but due to their literary style this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily literally true throughout. Truth is more profound and nuanced in its scope than a strictly literalist approach.
The last general point to make about the psalms is that they are ultimately Christocentric. What does that mean? It means that the underlying meaning of the psalms (as of the whole Bible) is about Jesus Christ. It means that their primary function is to teach about and point to who Jesus is and what he did when he came to earth. The psalms are part of the Old Testament (the large proportion of the Bible that was written before Jesus), yet the New Testament writers (the remaining part of the Bible that was written by Jesus’ contemporaries) continually expound how the Old Testament writings are all looking forward to Jesus.
In fact Jesus himself makes this point most explicitly:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
(from the Bible – Luke 24:27)
So, without further ado here is Psalm 29 ready for consideration:
A psalm of David.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name;
worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes
with flashes of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord is enthroned as King for ever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.
The psalm naturally divides into three parts:
- Summons: an exhortation or directive to worship God (verses 1-2)
- Storm: an evocative description of God’s voice (verses 3-9)
- Summary: an explicit declaration of God’s status (verses 10-11)
In passages such as this the Bible refers both explicitly and implicitly to different sounds and noises, as well to the effects that these noises have.
- “The God of glory thunders”
Thunder. A sudden splitting of the sky. Ripping, rumbling, roaring, riveting. Creatures quickly cower and quiver.
Thunder. Without question among the most awesome and dramatic sounds of our world. Even adults can feel the fear, questioning their safety and even their very lives in those irrational moments in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm. The flashes of lightning and torrents of rain add to the drama, but the clincher is the sound. Deep ominous rumbles in the distance bring their sense of foreboding, impending violence. Close up, the piercing crackles burst any bubbles of indifference or denial. When endured and appraised objectively, an astonishing array of noise textures reveal themselves, each peal dynamic and fresh, no two peals the same.
Is it any wonder that since ancient times mankind has associated thunder with the voices of the gods? Fierce deities and capricious gods venting their wrath on the puny peoples of earth or overflowing the shards of their divine battles over us all. Beyond explanation, and before science could unravel the mysteries of weather systems and the atmosphere.
Is it any wonder that pagan religions thrived in which the gods must be courted and appeased to avert their weathery judgments? These gods, primitive and local, must be beseeched through ritual, urging them to bestow their unpredictable benevolence on the crops and creatures of the land.
Such apparently ubiquitous forms of religion were by no means unknown to David the psalmist. Is Psalm 29 just another example of such pre-scientific, superstitious forms of understanding the elements?
No. Something else is going on here, something very different altogether.
The God of the ancient Jews – the Hebrews, the Israelites, the people of God – was never conceived of or perceived as a local deity, battling with rivals in the heavens. Rather, he was always revealed and worshipped as The One True God, Maker of heaven and earth, over and above all other gods who were really no gods at all. This message is repeated and confirmed again and again and again throughout the Old Testament.
Nor was this God volatile and unpredictable, angry without cause and waiting to release his wrath irrationally on all and sundry in his path. Rather, he was known and revered and loved for his compassion and mercy and patience across the generations, communicating his heart and his will, entering into personal relationship with his people.
No, the God of Psalm 29 is of another kind, another order altogether to any of the gods of any rival religions.
If this is all so, then just how was David’s understanding of God’s nature as expressed in his thunderous voice different to the pagans views of their gods’ thunderous voices? We can see this very clearly in the picture of God that David paints throughout the whole psalm. I will discuss this in more detail in the next article in this series (Voice of Noise 2/4).
The initial obvious questions that the phrase “the God of glory thunders” raise are these:
- Does God have an audible voice?
- Does the psalmist David believe that thunder is the very voice of God?
- Is David talking about a specific instance of God speaking in a thunderstorm?
- Is David talking generally about how God’s voice is heard in all thunderstorms?
- Or is the psalm pure poetic metaphor, and if so why does David decide on thunder as a metaphor for God’s voice?
The short answer is that the final question fits the bill, as the psalms are clearly meant to be read as imagery-laden poetry. However, as I have said before and will doubtless say again many more times: truth in all its profundity and subtlety is too multilayered, and its diverse forms too intertwined, to be constricted into simple either/or categories of delineation (for example literal versus metaphorical).
Some comments on the above questions:
- God doesn’t have a physical voicebox, so an audible voice as we have cannot be a default aspect of his makeup. He does, however, speak audibly at various times in the Bible’s historical accounts, and indeed there is nothing stopping him from harnessing and utilising his own created order to communicate in this way if and when he chooses to do so. These instances are overall the exception rather than the norm though.
- I think that David would say that thunder points to the character of God and so is a potent and vivid expression or reminder of God’s voice, and that thunder isn’t God’s actual voice that we hear.
- As I will explain in the subsequent article Voice of Noise 3/4, David may have had in mind the Great Flood of Noah’s day when penning this psalm, but it is also likely that he was inspired to write this psalm after meditating on God’s character and actions during or following an especially heavy thunderstorm in his everyday life.
Note that David doesn’t say that God’s voice is like thunder, and nor does he say that thunder is God’s voice. Instead he uses the verb: God thunders. In my view, he understands the deeper reality that God’s voice is ultimate and primary; in other words the true and original thundering in all its characteristics belongs to God alone. Thus we can say that thunder is like God’s voice. I believe that is the correct way round. This dovetails with the concept foundational to my perspective that all of creation reveals the nature of God. The psalmist isn’t merely finding a handy analogy to describe God. He knows that God’s divine nature and attributes are inescapably bound up in all he has made.
Modern science is double-edged. On the one hand we continue to discover and to understand ever-more wonderful details of the world around us and how it works. I am looking forward, time-permitting, to investigating some of the research and studies made on the physics and acoustics of thunder and meteorology. On the other hand, a blinkered over-reliance on the scientific method as the arbiter of all truth has stunted our ability to explore and embrace the wonder and mystery of the supernatural, and ultimately has led to the easy dismissal of God and the Bible to the realm of fantasy and delusion. I call that regress and not progress. I believe that God made science and science reveals God.
- “The voice of the Lord…”
God redefines the meaning of abstract and abstraction. Better put, God by his acts defines abstraction in the first place, and we just try to play catch-up.
God’s voice is not purely abstract in the sense that we normally understand abstraction because his voice has inherent and undetachable meaning. But his voice is not strictly representational either, a case made so effectively by this psalm in which no words of God are ever mentioned. Psalm 29 deals exclusively with the timbre and powerful effects of God’s voice, not with any word content. His voice communicates and expresses concrete truths and realities, but in the context of this psalm it does so implicitly rather than explicitly.
Put another way:
- art needn’t be representational (one-to-one correlation, concept more important than symbol);
- art cannot be truly abstract (devoid of content, divorced from all context);
- art is inherently reflective (revelatory of its creator, rich and nuanced in its scope).
Art reflects the artist whilst at the same time it is given its own intrinsic value. Value is always imputed to art, whether mildly or strongly, positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously. Its new context derives from – but is not equivalent to – the originating context. Art emphatically is not required to be representational, but art nevertheless invariably represents. It represents the artist, even the hidden, secret, anonymous, long-forgotten artist.
As art, so noise music. As noise music, so noise. As noise, so natural sounds.
In other words, God’s voice is art.
Art that speaks across boundaries, across cultures, across the ages. Art that speaks to all human hearts.
Art that is at once both beautiful and raw, at turns comforting and terrifying.
There’s a twist here though. The Bible claims to be the written Word of God: inspired (originating in the mind of God yet gifted to us through very real human writing), inerrant (without error), infallible (unfailingly true). Which means that this psalm itself is composed of God’s words. So even though no words of God are directly quoted in Psalm 29 as being spoken by his voice in the storm, the very description and content of the psalm itself in a very real way is a case in point of what he says.
This latter point simply serves to highlight again that God’s voice is not abstract even when we exclusively zoom in on his voice’s non-vocabularic essence (namely its sonic qualities and its effects).
What we find in this psalm is that God’s voice is very active and that is has significant, attention-grabbing effects.
There is no escaping the implicit noisiness of this psalm in the destructive forces of the elements. Trees snap and mountains shake from flood, earthquake, and tempest, each event adding its own unique type of noise in the process.
God’s voice is not itself the sound of water, shaking etc, but those are some of his “noise tools” or “noise gear”. And they are not anything like man-made equipment, for he directly causes the very molecules and materials to move, to vibrate, to sound, to exist!
The effect of the noise of God’s voice of thunder is to create further noise as his voice directly causes other things to happen. These additional noises therefore find their immediate source in the action or effect in itself, while their ultimate source is God himself in the exercise of his sovereign control over his creation and through the direct effect of his voice. The flow is like this:
(ultimate) noise source
= new (immediate) noise source
So, for example:
thunder: rumbling, crackling, roaring
creaking, splintering, snapping, crashing
thunder: rumbling, crackling, roaring
mountains leaping, deserts shaking
crumbling, smashing, vibrating
Thus the noise is cumulative: the sound of the noise of God’s voice triggers more layers and detail of noise the longer it lasts. I will look a little more closely at the characteristics of and relationships between these noise sounds and effects in the article Voice of Noise 3/4.
Note that this psalm is not intended to be a scientifically accurate description of a storm: the thunder that defines thunderstorms does not itself cause earthquakes and floods! The subject of this psalm is God’s voice, not the meteorological phenomenon of thunder.
- “And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’”
Here we have the only spoken word in the whole psalm, and intriguingly it is not from the voice of God (which is mentioned multiple times in the psalm). The location of this word is also notable as being in God’s temple.
The temple is one of the key themes of the Bible. I will discuss it a little more in one section of the next article, and then I will be revisiting it in more detail in future studies when relevant. The basic point is that God’s temple is the place where he dwells and meets with his people. It is therefore a supremely holy (pure and set apart) place.
If the psalmist is referring to God’s temple and presence in the fullest sense, then it is best understood as encompassing all those who have direct access into God’s holy presence – the hosts of angelic beings along with all the saints (that is, all of God’s people through the ages who have been forgiven, redeemed, purified, and thus brought into God’s family and dwelling-place). This would be millions upon millions upon millions of voices crying out as one. Now that would be an almighty chorus of noise!
And the word cried out: “GLORY!”
It’s the ultimate word of praise, of recognition, of wonder, of humility, of severity, of joy, all mixed together. It is one of the words that most fully defines and encapsulates the nature of God in all his God-ness, as far as a simple word can ever sum up the infinititude God’s magnificence. It can only be cried it in total worship and surrender to the God it describes, it leaves no room whatsoever for any residual pride or self-sufficiency.
One word, and therefore the cry is comprehensible and decipherable and accessible.
Myriad voices, and so the cry is deafening in its density, its intensity, its roar.
Such a glorious noise somehow microcosmically demonstrates in its unified utterance the majestic force and profound meaning of the word itself. “GLORY!!!”
Next time you hear the thunder ripping up the sky, remember that it is responding to the command of the God who is sovereign over the whole universe. Remember that the sound of thunder is but a glimpse, a pale reflection of the voice of God. We may never hear the voice of God audibly, but its power and its effects can shake us to the core and strip us of all our selfish pride.
Remember too that God created noise and he loves the sounds he has made. If you are a noisician, be inspired by the noise of God and be inspired by the voice of God. Don’t hold back from exploring noise to its fullest potential. And remember that noise always reflect its maker.
In the next article in this series (Voice of Noise 2/4) I will look in more detail at the attributes of God that Psalm 29 highlights, and I will ponder how noise itself reveals these characteristics of God. This is exciting for me as a noisician as it gives clues as to how human noise-making can also point to God and give glory to him.
Then, a closer look at the structure of Psalm 29 yields many more interesting insights that enhance the relevancy of this psalm to noise-making processes. This will be the topic of the following article in this series (Voice of Noise 3/4).
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
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