Paul and Silas are a couple of New Testament characters that are famous for singing while locked up in a prison. They had been arrested for telling the story of Jesus in Philippi. (A Major Greek city in the first century.) It’s still not the most popular topic in a secular society, but in the U.S. you are not thrown into jail for preaching, yet. The Bible story tells us that they were placed in stocks in the depths of the prison. A first century Roman prison was likely filthy, vermin infested, dank and dark. But about midnight these two are heard singing and putting on such a concert that the other inmates are up listening to them.
It is not unlikely that the repertoire included the ancient collection of the Psalms. This Jewish Old Testament hymn book has authors that go back to Moses and who follow Israel’s history all the way to their captivity in Babylon. This is a period of about one thousand years. Psalm number 137 recounts the requests of the Babylonians for them to sing the songs of Israel while in captivity.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, … For there, they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” vs.1, 3
It appears that at minimum one of the last collections of the Psalms of Israel was done by these people who were captive survivors of a decimating war of conquest by the Babylonians. They would spend seventy years in Babylon as predicted by the prophet Jeremiah. When at last about fifty thousand went home they were a dynamically different people. They had developed a system for teaching their faith to one another and their children. They had begun to write the arguments of their great teachers concerning practice and theology called the Talmud. And they had apparently developed their hymn book. It is more organized than the casual reader might notice. There are five sections, and though much of the book is filled with songs of lament, the book ends on a crescendo of praise. The last five Psalms are songs of praise.
Author and scholar of the Biblical wisdom literature Dr. Douglas O’Donnell argues, “… the very structure of the Psalter reminds us that no matter what circumstance we are going through, the LORD should be praised.”
Singing while in captivity may in fact be a very profitable thing to do. Singing when your circumstances are hard lifts your spirit. Neuroscientist have noted that singing causes the release of endorphins, which give a sense of wellbeing. Neurotransmitters connect in new ways. We feel better, are healthier, more creative and happier. And if we do it with a group the effect is multiplied! Can I just say I miss singing together in church? And apparently a better version of the preacher comes out of the music. (Just sayin’!)
All of us are looking for opportunities to maintain a good attitude during this strange, isolating and discouraging time. Perhaps we might learn something from Paul, Silas and the Jewish captives. We should sing. Shower, car or living room, just sing. Try to get the multiplying effect of getting others to join you. Turn up the music and belt it out. Your brain will thank you.
Sing for Joy, for mental health and for the Lord.