How can a little finger-pressure on a guitar, and a few short lines of poetry, give such expression to the sadness of the human condition?
In the ruined site of the twin towers ten years after the attack on 11th September 2001, a memorial service was held to commemorate those who lost their lives.
During the service, Paul Simon took the podium wearing a smart suit, a baseball cap and carrying an acoustic guitar. He finger-picked for a while, simply and quietly, and after a few bars began to sing:
Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
You cannot heal a monstrosity like 9/11 with a song, but is the song said what many were feeling. As he sang, people, prayed, held on to one another and wept. Perhaps it was part of the long process of recovery for New Yorkers after the tragedy of the past.
I wonder whether Paul Simon knew that he was quoting – almost – the last line of Psalm 88.
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death…
You have taken from me friend and neighbor,
darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88:15 & 18
This ancient songwriter was seeking healing too. This psalm is the words of a long-forgotten tune called mahalath leanoth. And we know the name of the lyricist; he was Heman the Ezrahite, a wise Israelite who wrote songs for a band called The Sons of Korah.
Heman’s song is one of the darkest in the bible, and you have to ask yourself, ‘What is this dirge doing among the praise-songs of God’s people?’ The answer to this question is important.
For one thing, it shows us that it is perfectly alright for someone who feels miserable to worship God. Freedom! You do not have to pretend to be OK when you are not OK! A lot of people feel that they are so unhappy they cannot worship – Heman thought otherwise; worship is therapeutic.
Then it tells us that you can worship in songs that are not bright, cheery and up-beat. Some old hymns are deeply sad and we have scrapped them because they are not superficially joyful. Our worship is, of course, impoverished by this.
But more than anything, we should realize that Psalm 88 is what it looks like to be completely honest with God about who we are and how we feel. In summary, this is what Heman is saying.
‘Death is a wasteland where you – O Lord - are neither appreciated nor enjoyed. How can I do what I am built for if I am the late Heman the Ezrahite? My death would be outrageous! I am terrified and utterly alone. Do something!’
This song is in your bible because God does not want us to put on a pretty performance when we worship and pray, he wants us to be ourselves. Heman was a musician and he wrote it in a song because he knew that music is therapy. Before BB King or Eric Clapton, the songwriters of Israel were singing the blues.