February 2015


To the tune of The Death of the Son

Dale Sewall

“For the director of music. To the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.’ A psalm of David.”  Instruction preceding Psalm 9.

Psalm 9 is the first psalm to begin with praise. After Psalm 1 describes the choice between the ways of the wicked and those who seek to follow God, the next seven psalms, in one manner or another, are about conflict. They are cries to God for help. Psalm 7, at the very end, mentions praising God; and Psalm 8 describes God’s glory and goodness. But Psalm 9 is the first psalm to declare praise for God directly.

I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart:

I will tell of all your wonders.

I will be glad and rejoice in you;

I will sing praise to your name, O most High.  Psalm 9:1-2

This direct praise is so refreshing, but is in startling contrast to the words that immediately proceed verse 1.

Many of the psalms were used in Israel’s worship services, and some of them have brief instructions for the musicians or the music director. Some name a melody in which the psalm is to be sung. Psalm 9 names a melody. Psalm 9 is to be sung “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.’” (NIV & New King James translations)

I wonder what the tune “The Death of the Son” sounded like. Apparently it was known to the temple musicians, and so no other indication of the melody was needed, and none is preserved for us. We also don’t know whose son the tune memorializes. It is “a psalm of David” and David grieved the death of at least three sons. But the melody may be older than David’s family. Many families have experienced the death of a son.  

So we don’t know who the son was who died, or what the melody memorializing him sounded like. Personally, I imagine it as the first really beautiful, soul-lifting melody of all the Psalter melodies.

The praise for God in Psalm 9 is given because God judges the world with righteousness and governs the people with justice. God destroys the wicked and the oppressor. The needy will not always be forgotten. Nor will the hope of the afflicted ever perish. God will do what is right, and evil will not ultimately triumph over good.

It is noteworthy that this praise is given in a world where too many families grieve the death of a son or daughter; and noteworthy that this praise is sung “to the tune of Death of the Son,” a tune that I imagine to be hauntingly beautiful. If our praise for God ignores the human realities of sorrow and death, what kind of empty praise is it? It is not praise that can really lift us to hope; and it is not praise for God who can do something about neediness, sorrow, affliction and death.

Fortunately we know of the death of a son who came to redeem the world, who will be the judge of all the earth, whose resurrection promises our own when we live in him, and whose Spirit in us is the guarantee of all that God has promised to those who love his son.

That is why I can read Psalm 9 and every other psalm of praise; then look around at the world with all its oppression and injustice, and still lift my own voice in praise. That is why a psalm of praise can be sung “with all my heart” to the tune of “The Death of the Son.”

Without the death of this son, it would be far more difficult for me to praise God in the midst of the realities of this world. Knowing of this son’s living, dying and rising for us, nothing in this world should keep us from praising him.