Setting Amos’ Hymn Fragments to Music

As I’m gearing up to teach a course about the Bible and music for the first time next semester, one thing that I’ve been giving much thought to is the fact that students are expected to participate in the creation of a creative work in these core curriculum courses.

I don’t like to ask students to do things that I have not done.

And so as I’ve been thinking about my assignment for this course, which will be either to adapt words from the Bible to an existing tune, or create a tune for words from the Bible, I found myself thinking about what text(s) I might set to music.

There is a constellation of texts that has always intrigued me: texts of what appear to be hymn fragments scattered through the Book of Amos, in 4:13, 5:8-9, and 9:5-6. I noticed them even the first time I was reading Amos, I think. But certainly I was struck already many years ago that there were these sections in Amos that didn’t seem connected to what was around them, but seemed connected to each other, and which mentioned astronomical phenomena. As I’ve looked into the passages more recently, I’ve learned that at least some of the words, which now tend to be rendered differently, may have originally referred to celestial bodies, constellations, and other such phenomena. I suspect that this in turn clarifies what is in mind in still other parts of the hymn.

To my knowledge, no one has yet taken these ancient hymn fragments, gathered them together, and set them to music. If I’m mistaken, please let me know. I doubt that there is such a thing as a comprehensive database of all musical settings of biblical texts – such a thing would be out of date each time its creator tried to complete it, so frequently are biblical texts and music brought together. There is obviously no embargo on the same text(s) being set to music more than once – far from it! I’m just curious about what others may have done.

Jonathan Dove is one of the few composers that I know to have set any subset of the Amos hymn fragments to music – here’s his “Seek Him That Maketh The Seven Stars”:

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It is exciting to think that I might be the first to set all the fragments of the hymn to music in one piece. And it is a bit daunting as well, even though I’m not a professional composer and so what I come up with may not even “count” in the eyes of many, or be of much interest.

You can read a variety of versions of the English text of the hymn in various places online. Below are the words as I’ve rendered them for my own piece, followed by an instrumental version of the piece with harp in place of the vocals. You can also see a pdf of the score here.

Yahweh, God of Star-Armies

The mak’r of mountains and of wind
Reveals his thoughts to humankind
The one who makes the pre-dawn darkness
Who treads across Earth’s mountaintops:
Yahweh, God of star-armies, is his name!

The mak’r of Pleiades and Orion
Turns darkness into morning light
And darkens day back into night
Who calls the waters of the sea
And pours them across the land
He makes Taurus spring forth after Auriga
And after Virgo makes it fall.
Yahweh is his name!

He touches the ground and it quakes
And all who live upon it mourn
All of it rises like a river
And sinks again like Egypt’s Nile
My Lord Yahweh of the star-armies!

He builds his stairway to the sky
Its guardrail planted on the Earth
He calls the waters of the sea
And pours them out across the land
Yahweh is his name!

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This ancient text that became part of the Book of Amos, which in turn became part of the Bible, first fascinates, but then disturbs. It brings home that the notion of Yahweh Sabaoth (which Chris Tomlin sings about as “God of Angel Armies”) is referring to the stars as the “hosts of heaven.” And so the text forces us to reflect on the differences between how ancient people viewed God, and celestial phenomena, and our current understanding. Reflecting on this led me to write the following “Song of Celestial Seasons,” which clearly takes the Amos passages as its starting point:

Today we can see so far
It won’t be long until we behold
mountains forming on distant worlds
Even as we now see the windswept landscape of Mars.
Creation’s secrets reveal themselves to us
Cluing us in to still greater mysteries
As through telescopes we gaze into the distant past.
In the darkness we once cowered in fear
Now we turn on lights
And scale the mountains’ heights.
With the flick of a switch
We banish the darkness –
And hide all but a few
Of the hosts of heaven from our view.

The stars are not soldiers
The stellar constellations
are not parade formations
Arrayed for battle, called to appear and march.
Hydrogen undergoing fusion
Generating energy, driven by gravity
Bestowing light and heat
All this elicits praise, awe, and wonder
even greater than in bygone eras.

The Pleiades are not seven stars but hundreds
Their light tinted by interstellar dust
To meet our eyes after their 444-year journey
Orion’s bright pattern, on closer inspection, reveals nebulae –
Stars still being born –
Amidst a pattern that will persist
Long after others have altered
From the perspective of our spinning, moving Earth.
Few today have heard of the constellation Auriga
Or Capella, its brightest star
Astronomy has revealed Messier objects, and later exoplanets, in their midst
Where our ancestors saw only dark of night
Taurus and Virgo are names still remembered
But few recognize them in the sky
As astrological beliefs persist for some, for others die.

The Earth rotates, revolves, orbits, hurtling through space
The tides rise and fall as the moon tugs on us with one face
The stars do not control our destiny
They do not feel our planet’s seasons nor affect them
Our planet’s tilt, our orbit around the sun
Distant ice melting, rains pouring, rivers rise and fall
Sometimes bringing life and fertility,
at others devastation and destruction.

The Milky Way is not a staircase
Up to the sky
Its rails planted on the distant horizon
Of Earth’s flat circle
It is our galaxy’s center
Millions of suns of which ours is but one
Hurtling together through space
In a dance led by gravity
And forces or matter that we still do not fully understand.
Our ancestors offered praise to the one
who commands the celestial hosts to march
We cannot view the stars as soldiers
But our awe and wonder, our reverence and praise
As a result is greater, not less, than theirs.

But after reflecting on the distance between myself and the text in Amos, I moved on to a recognition of the trajectory that connects me with it. This ancient hymn reflects an early stage in human exploration of the natural world and our quest to understand it. There is a recognition that the movement of constellations is connected with the changing seasons, which in turn are connected with weather. There is a conviction that behind these diverse phenomena are a single explanation. Without such ideas as we find expressed in Amos, we would never achieve the kinds of scientific discovery that we have since, just as from the future many will look back on ideas people hold today with condescension, but hopefully also appreciation, for the things that our partly-right perspectives allowed them to build upon that foundation.

I’ve had ideas for pieces that fall into the category of art music or “classical music” before, and much vocal music on religious themes is actually transgressive of that category to begin with. But this is the first piece of this sort that I’ve brought to completion musically, as well as the first time I’ve set a Biblical text to music. I’d welcome your thoughts on it, and if anyone decides they’d like to perform it, I’d be delighted and honored!

The experience of doing this has been personally meaningful to me in relation to my appreciation of the Biblical text, my theological perspective, as well as musically. I hope that, on some small scale, I can provide students in my course with the opportunity to have a similar kind of experience.

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  • Michael Wilson

    Think it’s cool you can compose music and write verse. Both skills elude me. I think though that your take on this poem lacks the originals majesty and overlooks it’s message. It is not about what stars are but who YHWH is. He is the master of the universe. “His” name is YHWH and he reveals his thoughts to mortals. Specifically the prophets of the cult that wrote this piece. Thus anyone not worshiping YHWH is eithier worshiping a lesser creation or is worshiping God in the wrong way under the wrong name, and so the people that support the cult of YHWH are uniquely blessed because they honor God, master of the universe as he wishes.

    Now we can take exception to this, but I think it beside the point to explain stars aren’t soldiers of God. From the authors perspective the stars are glorious and majestic reminders of how small a man is and are visual symbols of the forces that drive reality, all being subject to the will of their creator, YHWH.

    • James F. McGrath

      I am a bit confused by your comment, I confess. The words are adjusted somewhat for the sake of meter, and one section reflects hypothetical scholarly emendations. But I am not sure how the lyrics of the piece seem to you to overlook the message and detract from the majesty of Yahweh. Is it the mere order of the words? “Yahweh is his name” seems less majestic to you somehow than “His name is Yahweh” which you prefer for some reason?

      • Michael Wilson

        Sorry, I was comparing the piece fragmented in Amos and Song of Celestial Seasons. Not your translation of the oiriginal and some other translation. Song of Celestial Seasons talks about what stars are not. Its pessimistic. its offers the questionable consolation that our sense of wonder ought to be greater knowing science textbook stuff vs primitive peoples underdstanding.

        • James F. McGrath

          Thanks for the clarification. It sounded like that might be what you meant, but it wasn’t what you said and so I wanted to make sure.

          As you’ll see, the poem is not the final phase of my reflection on these texts. But even in that, I emphasize the greater sense of awe as our astronomical understanding has progressed. I think that anyone who is not in the least bit disconcerted by the fact that in an earlier stage in their religious tradition, stars were thought to be sentient beings that live in a celestial realm not too far away, either hasn’t wrestled enough with the challenge of how much our worldview has changed, or had the benefit of upbringing in a liberal religious context that I alas found my way to somewhat later.

          • Michael Wilson

            Yes, it is a challenge for people raised in traditional religious back grounds to know that for Amos, star army wasn’t metaphor but reflected the belief that stars were some sort of manifestation of spirit beings in there heavenly home, showing that biblical writers didn’t really know the heavens. But the metaphorical understanding has been around a while. The contemporary traditional idea, around for millinia I suppose, divorces objects in the world from spirit beings. They are all matter, and Angels, devils, and God and Heaven are in their own, extra dimensional world of spirit, acting on matter as we do, as a thing out side of them.

  • Michael

    Nicely done, James!

    The first thing I thought of when I saw your post was Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields.” Then when I read your lyrics, I had in mind something by Porcupine Tree or Glass Hammer :) But your own composition was excellent–fit very well!


    • James F. McGrath

      This was an attempt at something in more of a “classical” or art music style. But I have a prog-rock idea that will be the subject of a blog post soon…