-by Jesse Hill
One of the things I’ve discovered in studying scripture is that many of my favorite passages seem to have been plagiarized. For example, many of the Psalms seem to have been partially copied from Canaanite praise songs. When I first learned this, I was distressed. But when I continued my study, I found that these plagiarized Canaanite songs had been altered in key ways when they were brought into the collection of Isrealite psalms.
Why would the Psalm writers take songs written for pagan gods and alter them to praise the true God?
Picasso has been quoted as saying “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” One reason for the psalmists to have appropriated the songs and hymns of their Baal worshipping neighbors is simply that they absorbed the style and lexicon of the time. A more compelling reason might be that by reworking the pagan hymns, the psalmists identified the ways in which YHWH is different from Baal; a statement intended both for the Canaanites and for the Israelites.
Our worship never happens in a vacuum. Every time we ascribe worth to God, we do so within our own cultural context. Our challenge, then, is to identify the idols within our own culture and to consciously change the narratives of our time to proclaim the name of the true God.
An interesting New Testament example of this comes from Peter’s impromptu sermon to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. In Acts 4:12, Peter says of Jesus:
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.”
This phrase was probably one of the better-known phrases of Peter’s time, as it was written on Roman coins minted by Caesar Augustus (the name Augustus means “worthy of reverence and worship”). Augustus minted coins with this phrase in order proclaim himself as the sole savior of humankind. By quoting the phrase to describe Jesus, Peter identified Jesus as the true Savior and Son of God and Augustus as an idol and a false messiah.
We recently introduced a new song at PMC; “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong United. The lyrics of this song come in part from Peter's sermon in Acts 4. The song proclaims the name of Jesus as beautiful, wonderful, and powerful. The bridge of the song says that He has no rival or equal, and that His name is above all names.
When we sing this song, we are taking up a task common to the people of God throughout history. We are both demoting every false, would-be god, and exalting the one true God.
I think of the psalmists and of Peter and I wonder, can I do what they did? Can I name the false gods of this age and make their deceptive stories true by retelling them in a way that exalts Jesus?