Imagine this. You’re the king, but three armies are bearing down on you. You can’t withstand one of them, much less three. What do you do? Surrender? Call your generals? Fight to the last man? Hide? Or maybe like Jehosaphat of ancient Israel, you audition a choir. That’s right, audition a choir.
2 Chronicles 20:1. It came to pass after this also, that the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them other beside the Ammonites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle.
...Skipping to vs 21...
21. And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever.
It is easy to read over that and not get the impact of what Jehosaphat actually did here. I have never led an army but I have directed choirs, so when it says he appointed singers, that sounds like an audition to me. I see two choices – take soldiers and see if they can sing or take singers and see if they will go into battle, note that it says the singers went before the army. That would perhaps be more of an interview than an audition. It appears Jehosaphat chose the latter, that is, take singers, and sent them into battle. Teaching soldiers to sing would take more than the 24 hours they had. Verse 19 actually tells us it was the temple singers "And the Levites, of the children of the Kohathites, and of the children of the Korhites, stood up to praise the LORD God of Israel with a loud voice on high". (1 Chr 6:31-38 tells that David set Kohathite and Korhites over the song service of the temple.) The temple singers were already on the scene participating.
I told the story out of order to emphasize the “audition”, but actually Jehosaphat did all the right things even before that. He sought the Lord, proclaimed a fast, prayed with the tribe of Judah, got an answer from a prophet (and believed it), consulted with the people, THEN he auditioned his singers. This isn't my idea - I got it from Hebrew Word Study: A Hebrew Teacher's Search for the Heart of God  by Chaim Bentorah. His words:
Now try to imagine this. Jehoshaphat has twenty-four hours to prepare for war against an overwhelming army, and how does he prepare? He sets up auditions and organizes a choir! And this choir is taught one song and one song only: “Praise the Lord. His mercies endure forever.”
Jehosaphat was the king and probably didn't handle the auditions himself, he would have delegated. According to the Pulpit Commentary ,
he possibly simply "conferred with" those who were over the singers, as to who should be the most prominent in leading the service of praise, or as to what should be the words sung and other like matters of detail; or more probably, considering the exact form of language used
[I was going to stop here, then this idea popped into my head...]
What did it sound like?
We may have an idea of what it sounded like. The Old Testanment Hebrew text is notated with “cantillation marks”, which are directions on how the text is to be chanted or sung. The exact meaning of these cantillation marks had been lost for over 1000 years, but the late Suzanne Haik Vantoura claimed to have deciphered the marks. Her book "The Music of the Bible Revealed " explains the research, but has its critics. The cantillation marks are above and below the Hebrew text. Her insight was that the marks below the text were notes of the scale, and she worked out which marks were which notes. The marks above the text were ornamentation like mordents.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown  states that they sang Ps 136, which by the way repeats the refrain "His mercy endures forever" 26 times. Hmmm, 26, a very interesting number. So 2Chr 20:21 only lists the refrain, like the title of a well known psalm. For example, we would refer to "The Lord's My Shepherd" for Ps 23. This is what Ps 136:1 looks like. The darker section "SIGNS BELOW" is directly from Haik Vantoura's book, p 38. In this passage, there are no signs above the text. The Hebrew text is from Mechon Mamre . The other markings not highlighted are vowel sounds. Some people object to using God's name YHVH and substitute Adonai instead. I left it in because that's what the text says.
THE BIG IFSHow can we even know what music sounded like 3000 years ago? We can be certain the scale was the same because it's a math and physics thing, not something of arbitrary human invention. Even birds use the same scale (Birds found using human musical scales for the first time ). And archaeology has uncovered ancient musical instruments which show the notes in use. How do we know if Haik Vantoura was right? That's harder to know. I've read the book, but don't follow everything in it. The deciphering method itself is logical and consistent. It does create melodies, singable melodies. Any doubts I have stem from not understanding the research well enough.
And how do I know I deciphered her system correctly? I don't have to guess - thanks to John Wheeler , we have Vantoura's own deciphering of Ps 136 to go by. Yes, it's hand written. It is the same as mine.
According to Haik Vantoura, this is the melody they sang when they marched into battle that day. I added bar lines to highlight the march characteristic. Click here to hear, please forgive the poor quality of the built in microphone.
|Ps 136:1 Transliterated with Modern Music Notation |
What did that look like?
What did it look like, this army and these Levites marching to battle? This takes a little more imagination. Consider that soldiers have been marching to music for millenia. "Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier's life since the dawn of history" (historynet ). The Peloponnesians had their flute players "meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order, as large armies are apt to do in the moment of engaging." (Peloponesian-war ) We are familiar with the sight of armies marching, how would this have been any different?
Verse 21 says the singers should "should praise the beauty of holiness", which according to Barnes' Notes  means "in rich apparel and ornaments suitable to a holy occasion". In other words, they were dressed in Temple clothes1
There is also a clue in the word for praise "hodu". It's not the normal word translated praise that we are all familiar with - "halleluia". Hodu is derived from the word for hand "yod", so taking linguistic license, "Lift up your hands to Jehovah, who is merciful forever". See Ps 63:4. Maybe the Levitical singers, dressed in holy garments, did just that, lifted up their hands in praise to God while they marched.
I've never done well at this, but one possible lesson from 2 Chr 20 could be -
When life gives you a trial, Come out singing.