I’ve been on a Matisyahu kick lately. I listened to him pretty much nonstop last week, and after a couple days my head probably would have kept bobbing even after I turned the music off.
Being the OT nerd that I am, I really enjoy Matisyahu because he draws so much from OT stories, from Moses and David to lesser known passages in the prophets. I had never really thought much about it, but last week I suddenly realized how unique his songs were—not because they are reggae tunes sung by a man in a yarmulke, but because of the content.
For those of you who don’t know, Matisyahu is a Jewish reggae rock musician. That’s right, he is definitely one of a kind. Of course, it’s not surprising that the OT would provide the inspiration for many of his lyrics.
But it’s the same for Christians, right? Our music and lyrics draw from the vast well of inspiration found between Genesis and Revelation. Only that doesn’t happen. Most Christian songs (and sermons) are based on the New Testament if they are based on Scripture at all. The Old Testament is reserved for epic Hollywood movies and creation debates.
I’ve never liked those pocket Testaments that leave out all of the Old Testament except for the Psalms. I always felt like these testaments were leaving out all of the good parts of the Bible. Exciting stories are missing, but so are critical passages that tell us things about who God is and who we are and why we find ourselves needing a New Testament.
It’s not just pocket testaments though. The Christian world in general loves to pretend that the Psalms are the only important part of the Old Testament, and there may be no bigger offender than Christian music. Can you think of any OT song you sing in worship at church that isn’t from the Psalms or named Days of Elijah? I didn’t think so.
But there is a reason that I think these songs (or lack thereof) are so important. Christian music has a tendency to be VERY one dimensional, often only focusing on a romantic/buddy Jesus who is our friend and has our back. There is so much more to God than that.
Where do we turn if we want to teach people about WHY we need Jesus? The OT is full of stories that demonstrate our need for God to step into history and set things right.
Where do we turn for passages that inspire us with the wonder of creation? Genesis, the Psalms, the Prophets… Even Proverbs and Job marvel at a Creator God who is greater and more powerful than we could ever conceive on our own.
Where do we turn for realistic portraits of fallen people who are walking with God? Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Saul, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and so many more have their stories told in epic form in the historical books. Some like Saul are tragedies, but through them all we see a God of mercy and justice who more than makes up for our shortcomings.
The Old Testament gives us a realistic picture of the human condition. In Ecclesiastes we see a man who is tired of life and the things this world offers. In Lamentations we see a man crushed by tragedy. In Exodus we hear the cry of an enslaved people for justice. In Judges we see godlessness gone wild. The Old Testament lets us know that we are not alone, no matter if we are depressed or devastated or depraved.
We need the Old Testament, both because of the way it sets the stage for the New Testament and because of the way it so accurately represents us to ourselves. So here is my list of five bands who have the daring and creativity to tackle the old-timey stuff, the overlooked Bible stories that broaden our perspective of who God is and where we come from. I will count down to my favorite, but I like all of these bands and think they all do an incredible job.
- Hannah Miller
Hannah Miller is relatively unknown compared to the other artists on this list. I stumbled across her when her song Promise Land played in the background of a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. I really enjoy the way she subtly inserts Biblical themes into her songs without becoming preachy. Her song Elijah is by far my favorite.
Gungor makes the list primarily because they sing a song called Ezekiel based on Ezekiel 16, a chapter in which God compares Israel to a prostitute. I never expected any band to tackle a passage like this, but Gungor does it (and they do it well, I think.)
Gungor does not stop there. Dry Bones is based on the valley of dry bones which God restores to life in Ezekiel 37. (Gungor really corners the market on Ezekiel). Vous Etes Mon Coure draws from the Song of Solomon, and the band has several songs based on the accounts of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 (Let There Be, Crags and Clay, The Fall, Beautiful Things)
- Jon Foreman
I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Switchfoot’s lead singer incorporates so many Old Testament texts into his solo stuff. Granted, several of these are based on the Psalms, but they are the best contemporary renditions of Psalms of which I know, including House of God Forever (Psalm 23) and White as Snow (Psalm 51).
But Jon Foreman goes beyond everybody’s favorite Psalms, diving into some difficult passages from the prophets (Again, Instead of a Show, Equally Skilled)
- The Oh Hello’s
The Oh Hello’s only full length album, Through the Deep Dark Valley, is a concept album completely based on the creation and fall, followed by its circumstances for all humanity. The first half of the album has songs written from the perspective of Adam and Eve, but the entire album speaks of a fallenness and need for redemption we can all relate to.
“See, I was born a restless child
and I could hear the world outside calling me
and heaven knows how hard I tried
but the devil whispered lies I believed…”
I put Branches as #1, not because they have the most OT content in their songs, but because you really need to listen to Branches. I’m serious, do it now. They are good.
I would have loved them no matter what, but they endeared themselves to me even more by writing two OT songs. Lullaby is an account of the fall (which seems to be a popular theme among these bands), repeating this line, “Father Adam, Brother Cain, what have you done? Ooh, we’re all gonna die…”
Finally, Branches sings a song called Jeroboam, inspired by Jeroboam’s power grab to take control of Israel. The song is poetry, not narrative, and it ends with my favorite line of all: “So arm yourself with empty hands / When looking at the promised land / And find yourself a wealthy man.”
Also, they do AMAZING covers.