Whooping to the Lord
A couple of people have asked me to expand on the theme of jubilation/whooping to which I drew attention in his sermon on Ps 99(100). The verb jubilo and the noun jubilatio occur often in the Psalms, and almost every time he encountered one of them, Augustine would point out that the word referred to a vocal expression used to express a joy or happiness too immense or too deep for words. He often pointed to the example of agricultural workers who, besides singing songs with words, would often break out into jubilant sounds. That meaning is not unknown in other ancient Latin writers, and the Oxford Latin Dictionary gives the following meanings: jubilo: “to let out whoops”; jubilatio: “wild shouting, whooping”; jubilum: (a wild shout, whoop”).
The Oxford English Dictionary offers these meanings: Jubilation: The action of jubilating, loud utterance of joy; exultation, rejoicing, gladness; public rejoicing. An expression of exultant joy”. Whoop: An exclamation, or representation of a shout or cry, expressing excitement, surprise, derision, exultation, incitement, etc.”
All of that led me, a couple of years ago, to propose here that the best translation of these Latin verbs and nouns, at least in Augustine’s sermons, was “whoop” and “whooping.” I was told by one friend that this “secularized” jubilation, but Augustine takes the “secular” meaning, presumably familiar to his congregation, and uses it to explain the meaning of the words in relationship to God. In any case, here are a couple of quotes from Augustine”; if “whooping” or “whoop” offends your sensibilities, just substitute “jubilation” or “jubilate” (or “joyful shout” or “joyfully shout”) for them. (Several English translations use: “Shout joyfully” or “Sing joyfully”.)
Augustine was commenting on Ps 99(100):2– “Whoop to God, all the earth!”–and recalls Ps 88(89):16–“Blessed is the people that understands whooping.”
What use is it to whoop and obey this Psalm when it says, “Whoop to God, all the earth”, and not to understand whooping, so that only our voice is whooping and our hearts are not? Understanding, after all, is the heart’s sound.
What I’m about to say you already know. One who is whooping does not speak words. Whooping is a certain sound of joy without words; it’s the sound of a mind poured forth in joy, expressing an affection, as far as possible, but not grasping its meaning. A person rejoices in his exultation, and after some words that can be spoken and understood, he bursts forth into a sound of exultation without words. It’s as if he indeed rejoices but is so filled with joy that he cannot explain in words what makes him joyful…. People who work in fields are most given to whoop. Delighted with the abundant produce and rejoicing in the fruitfulness and fertility of the soil, reapers or vintagers or those who gather other fruits sing in exultation, and among the songs they utter in words, they insert some sounds without words, so great is their mind’s exultation. And this is what whooping means.
When, then, do we whoop? When we praise what cannot be said…. After considering all of creation that we can name and run over in our minds, let the soul ask: “Who made all these? Who created them? Who made you among them? What are these things you are considering? What are you who are considering them. Who is the one who made both the things being considered and the one considering them? Who is he?” …
I have considered all of creation as much as I could. I have observed bodily creatures in heaven and on earth and a spiritual creature in myself who am speaking, who am animating my limbs, who am using my voice and moving my tongue, who am pronouncing words and discerning meanings. And when do I ever comprehend myself in myself? How, then, can I comprehend what is above me? …
When you have begun to be like God and to draw near to him and to feel [persentiscere] God, the more love grows in you, since God is love (1 Jn 4:8), you will feel something that you were trying to say and could not say. Before you felt God, you were thinking you could express God; but then you begin to feel him, and then you feel that you cannot express what you are feeling. But when you learn that what you feel cannot be expressed, will you be silent, will you not give praise to God? Will you be silent in the praises of God and not give thanks to him who willed to make himself known to you? You praised him when you were seeking him. Are you going to be silent now that you have found him? Of course not! …
But, you say, “How shall I praise him? I cannot even express that little bit that I am able to feel “in part, in obscurity, in a mirror” (1 Cor 13:12). Well, then, listen to the Psalm: “Whoop to the Lord, all the earth.” You have understood the whole earth’s whooping if you whoop to the Lord. Whoop to the Lord: don’t divide your whooping among several things. The other things can be expressed in some way or another. Only he cannot be uttered who spoke and all things came to be. He spoke and they came to be (Ps 32:9), but we are not able to utter him. The Word by which we were spoken is his Son; so that he might be spoken by us, however weak we are, he himself became weak. We can express whoops for the Word, but we have no word for the Word. So: “Whoop to the Lord, all the earth!” (Augustine, EnPs 99 (100), 3-6; PL 36, 1271-1275)
Sing to him a new song. (Ps 32:3) Take off the old: you’ve learned a new song. New man, new covenant, new song. The new song doesn’t belong to old people; only new people learn it, people reborn by grace out of their oldness and already belonging to the new covenant that is the kingdom of God. And all our love sighs with desire and sings the new song. But let us sing the new song by our lives, not just by our tongues.
Sing to him a new song; sing well to him. Everyone wants to know how to sing to God. Sing to him, but don’t do it poorly. He doesn’t want his ears to be hurt. Sing well, brother. If without musical training you are told to sing in order to please someone who knows how to listen to music, you are afraid to sing lest you displease him because what someone unskilled doesn’t hear an artist will criticize. Who would offer to sing to him if God were to judge singers that way, if he were to examine them that way, if he were to listen that way? When can you ever offer such elegant singing that you don’t offend God’s perfect ear in any way?
But look: he gives you a sort of way of singing: don’t look for words by which to describe why you delight in God. Sing with whoops. This is what it means to sing well to God: to sing by whooping. What does this mean? To understand that what is sung in the heart cannot be expressed in words. People who sing, whether during the harvest, or in the vineyards, or in some work they love, begin by expressing their happiness in the words of songs; but then, as if filled with such happiness that they cannot express it in words, they turn from words with syllables and go off into sounds of whooping. A whoop is the sound someone makes to show that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot tell. And whom else does such whooping befit but the un-speakable God? For “un-speakable” means the one whom you cannot speak, and if you cannot speak him, and you must not be silent, what else remains but that you whoop, so that your heart can rejoice without words, and the vast expanse of your joys will not be limited by the syllables of words? Sing well to him with whoops. (Augustine, Enar. in. Ps 32-2, 8; PL 36, 283)
The theme was familiar in the Middle Ages. Aquinas quoted the Glossa: “A whoop is an un-speakable joy which cannot be kept silent yet cannot be expressed because it surpasses comprehension” (On Psalm 46:1).