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You Belong: How Wendell Kimbrough’s song brought Psalm 87 to life in my seminary class

You Belong: How Wendell Kimbrough’s song brought Psalm 87 to life in my seminary class

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Contemporary Singer & Songwriter Wendell Kimbrough

Not long ago, I had an unexpectedly emotional moment – a bit weepy, to be honest – teaching a preaching class. It was all because of a song. Well, actually, it was because of the expansive love of God as expressed in the Word, channeled first through a Psalm and secondarily through an adaptation of that psalm by contemporary singer/songwriter Wendell Kimbrough. 

Interactive Exegesis

I was scheduled to preach on Psalm 87 in an upcoming chapel service at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, where I teach preaching and worship arts. I decided to invite the students in my Intro to Preaching class to help me hear what this text might be saying to our community. We had already spent time working abstractly through the exegetical process: read slowly and carefully, ask the text questions, listen carefully for answers, bathe everything in prayer, etc. So, I asked the students to come to our next session ready to engage in some interactive exegesis.

Psalm 87

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2  the Lord loves the gates of Zion
    more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
    O city of God. Selah

Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
    Philistia, too, and Tyre, with Cush—
    “This one was born there,” they say.

And of Zion it shall be said,
    “This one and that one were born in it,”
    for the Most High himself will establish it.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
    “This one was born there.” Selah

Singers and dancers alike say,
    “All my springs are in you.”

When class began,  I invited them to sort what they were discovering into a variety of exegetical “buckets”: structure, themes, powerful language, canonical echoes, grammatical observations, theological assertions, existential objections, possible illustrations, etc. 

As we worked through Psalm 87 together, we talked about gates and dwellings and God’s preference for the former rather than the latter. 

We talked about the theological significance of “Zion,” the “city of God” and the connotations of those phrases with home and temple and belonging and communal feasting and rest and the literal, allegorical, eschatological, and ethical directions toward which the Psalm pointed us. 

Wendell Kimbrough | Psalm 87

We talked about God taking a census, registering names, clarifying identities and what it means to be born (or born again) someplace. 

We talked about Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Cush – a “greatest hits” collection of Israel’s enemies. And we considered who our congregations might consider “God’s enemies” – or our enemies. One insightful student, risking a bit of vulnerability, admitted that she had internalized that enemy language, and wondered if the ease with which she made distinctions between “us” and “them,” between insiders and outsiders, was because she was afraid that she herself was an outsider, one of God’s enemies. Then others shared, with tears, about their own pain at feeling in various situations like outcasts. They told stories about others they knew who, for all sorts of reasons, believed that they didn’t belong, not with God or God’s people. 

And we talked about that seemingly out-of-place last verse that mentions singers and dancers and the odd phrase “All my springs are in you.” 

I threw all they were finding up on a whiteboard, making a glorious and holy mess.

Making a Glorious and Holy Mess

In the end, we tried to encapsulate everything we gleaned from this psalm in a sentence: “God loves to open the gates of Zion to those who don’t imagine they belong.” 

And then I played for the class Wendell Kimbrough’s You Belong.

You Belong

It’s a song I’d heard some months before on a Patreon livestream, when it was still a work in progress. It resonated with me then, and in its final form was a perfect example of all the things I most admire about Wendell’s music. 

In contrast to much of the popular worship music I hear, Wendell writes singable, memorable melodies that have shape and character rather than a loosely connected series of musical motifs. Sonically, it sounds adjacent to folk music: acoustic and honest and intimate. That makes it both more accessible to the human heart, and to the worship band that doesn’t have eight musicians, four techs and a fog machine. Wendell’s music sounds like the sort of thing that might have been recorded in Muscle Shoals in the 1970’s (Wendell is from Alabama, after all). 

Lyrically, Wendell’s music is characterized by simplicity and honesty. He is an insightful interpreter, both of the Psalms themselves, and of the human condition to which the Psalms speak. He holds on to biblical language when it has metaphorical power. But he avoids the elevated linguistic register of some scriptural translations that puts distance between the words of the bible and the cries of our hearts. He translates obscure phrases into simple-to-understand language. In Psalm 87, God’s declaration, “This one was born there,” becomes “You belong with me.”


As the song played in our classroom, I circled material on the whiteboard that resonated with the lyrics. As Wendell’s voice sang the words “the City of God is your home” and “God spreads a feast” I circled the word we’d put on the board: “Zion.” 

We heard “God’s sworn enemies” and I circled the cluster of nations mentioned in verse 4: Cush, Babylon, Philistia, etc. And I circled the list of those we’d noticed church people often think of as enemies: libs, fundies, heretics, the world, and most meaningfully, us

We heard “turn and believe and receive your new name” and I circled “registration – this one was born there.” 

When one of the verses urges us to “lay down your weapons; O learn to be brave” I circled the word “tropological” – a word pointing to the ethical meaning of a text. And at the words of the final verse, “when the Lord comes shouting, ‘I make all things new’,” I circled the word “anagogical,” pointing to the final intentions God has for us and for the world. 

Lastly, I circled our summary sentence—”God loves to open the gates of Zion to those who don’t imagine they belong”—every time we returned to the chorus: “So all you outcasts, come! The City of God is your home. And the Lord will greet you, rejoicing to sing: You belong with me.”

Wendell Kimbrough | You Belong

It was a powerful moment in class as the gentle tears from earlier fell more freely and the class began to sing along so that by the final joyful chorus, the people in the next room were surely wondering what was going on. 

I sat with what we’d done for a few days, and preached that sermon on my scheduled Friday, followed by a celebration of the Lord’s Supper–inviting all those who felt like outcasts to the feast. And we rejoiced while communing to sing God’s affirmation to us from Psalm 87: You belong with me.  

And that out-of-place last verse? Because all the psalms were originally used in the context of worship, I’ve come to think that maybe it’s a liturgical instruction for the dancers and singers to play what I presume was for the ancient Hebrews a well-known banger called “All My Springs Are in You.” So now when God’s people gather to feast, I will often instruct my own musicians to play the Kimbrough banger, You Belong. 

Link to Listen to “You Belong” from Wendell Kimbrough:

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