Psalm 73 is a Rap Song

Psalm 73 is a rap song. Let me explain...

This semester in Bible study we’ve been asking the question, “Who is God?” That question—and our search for answers—has taken us on a journey through the Old Testament and New. Last week we found ourselves in the psalter.

One of my favorite questions to ask students when studying the psalms is, “If you heard this song on the radio, what would it sound like?” After kicking around some ideas, students unanimously agreed— “Psalm 73 is a rap song.”

“It’s written by a guy named Asaph,” said one of them. “That even sounds like a rapper’s name! Just write it A$APH.” I laughed.

I pointed out that Asaph was writing at a time of real political and cultural upheaval and that a lot of his songs deal with many of the same issues hip-hop artists rap about today. In an article on the relationship between hip-hop and politics, David Love writes that hip-hop has long been “a medium to express the hopes and frustrations of a disenfranchised community. “Hip-hop speaks up for the underdog.” It draws on current events and inserts political commentary. It speaks truth to power. Hip-hop does all of the above. Psalm 73 does too.

The psalms are songs you can imagine hearing on the radio. Their lyrics are poetic; they're very visual, rich in imagery. As an artistic medium—combining sights and sounds—the psalms have a lot in common with today's music videos.

As we worked our way through Psalm 73, students began describing the ways they might direct Psalm 73 as a music video. When Asaph describes the arrogant and wicked (“bodies are fat and sleek… not in pangs as others are…pride is their necklace…loftily they threaten oppression, etc.”) the students described scenes featuring balding white men smoking cigars in a cushy office overlooking a factory floor; drug-dealers driving through ghettos in limousines, bling dangling from their necks; rich politicians sending America’s poor to fight its wars; etc.

I asked the students, “Where does Asaph fit in this music video?” “He’s the limousine driver,” they said. “He’s working the factory floor. He’s waiting tables at the fancy DC restaurant. He’s sitting at an empty kitchen table with his wife; there is a solitary light bulb hanging over the kitchen table; Asaph and his wife are sitting near the shadows, alone, head in hands, trying to decide if they pay the electricity bill or groceries this month.”

“This is good! This is good!” I tell them. Keep going!”

Asaph storms off the factory floor, or he slams his hand on the kitchen table and storms out: “I’ve had it! ‘All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.’ Here I am—trying to be faithful, trying to do the right thing, not cutting corners—and for what? For what! Stupid! Pointless! I quit!”

Up to this point, Asaph’s rap has had a steady, pounding beat, his voice slowly getting louder and louder. But then, the rap stops. The song gets real quiet, and the screen goes dark.

Asaph’s faith is hanging on by a thread…just like that light bulb in the kitchen.

And then a whisper is heard: “If I had said thus, I would have betrayed the generation of your children.”

The screen lightens up. The beat starts up again. Asaph is sitting in the back pew of a church. It too is dimly lit—but light is penetrating the darkness. Asaph’s faith has been pushed to the limits; he’s about to go over the edge; he’s ready to let go, but God is not letting go of him: “I was like a beast toward you. But I am continually with you, and you are continually with me. You hold my right hand.”

There, in the back pew, Asaph sees God afresh and his own life from God’s perspective. Asaph, who once was envious of the arrogant and wicked—who wanted what they had and was ready to trade it all in—raps now, at the very end, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.”

“Who is God in this psalm?” I ask the students. He is present. He is powerful. But my favorite answer that day: “He is Asaph’s friend.” Indeed he is. He is ours too.

John Meinen, Campus Minister at University of Vermont
December 2, 2016
Northeast@ruf.org • 610-691-0988 • 631 Fourth Avenue, Bethlehem, PA 18018