There’s an ancient Egyptian story about a bored Pharaoh who called a prophet into his court to entertain him. In order for that prophet to compellingly prove that he was hearing something divine, his words were expected to be “a poetic and well-polished literary form that would represent the speech of the gods” (Marvin A. Sweeny, Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today, p23). In this moment, the prophet’s credibility was at stake and would be judged upon his freestyle skills.
It doesn’t take long to notice that much of our Bible is written in poetic form. If you just flipped through the whole thing real quick you’d notice the structure of writing changing over and over again, with some entire books being written as poetry. This being said, the ancient idea that divine beings speak poetically was not just Egyptian, but Hebraic, since the Bible’s own prophets often expressed God’s words in this way. His words are deep and evocative. They cause us to pause and think over what’s being said, like a rapper at a poetry-jam. We have to dwell on it to get the point. His words invite us to search and find with His Spirit, while those who simply listen with their ears will likely miss the depths of what was actually said (Matthew 11:15).
This is why a lot of modern Christian art and worship music fails us today. Years ago the only Christian t-shirts you could find at festivals were knock-offs of popular products (the Sprite logo replaced with the word “Spirit,” for example). And our lyrics often resemble that of a madlib with a small dictionary of Bible words that we can use to fill in the blanks. Sprinkle a holy there and a glory there, set it to a catchy melody and publish it and send it off. And then we can degrade those lyrics even more with the mixed motives of writing a hit or making some money in the (it pains me to use this expression) “multi-million-dollar worship music industry.”
The John Mark McMillan’s and Propaganda’s that invite us to dwell with God and, not so much dissect their words as let their words dissect us, are few and far between. But sometimes it’s that kind of music that works on our souls best.
It’s not that all popular worship music is bad or that lyrical simplicity is wrong. I have plenty of favorites that are just that. But if you listen to new music every week like I do, it’s pretty easy to see that the world is flooded with worship music right now and that much of it isn’t memorable or compelling in any way. It’s time for the prophetic poets to rise again and teach us to listen.