Continuing with our series on “Why Sing the Psalms in Worship?” here is our third reason:
3. The Psalms present the Biblical pattern for properly balancing the objective and the subjective aspects of the Christian life.
I remember when I first started my journey towards Reformed Christianity as a 17 year old. For me it started with worship. I started questioning the style and substance of the songs that my church sang for it’s “contemporary” worship services. I remember starting to be a little disturbed with the individualism that was prevalent both in the words of the songs and in the actions of the worshipers. It seemed as though everyone was in their own world with their eyes closed and hands raised. They may have been genuinely praising God, but one got the sense that it was not a corporate worship service. The words of the songs themselves encouraged a private experience with God. Here’s one example:
I will worship (I will worship)
With all of my heart (With all of my heart)
I will praise you (I will praise you)
With all of my strength (With all my strength)
I will seek you (I will seek you)
All of my days (All of my days)
I will follow (I will follow)
Follow all of your ways (All your ways)
I will give you all my worship
I will give you all my praise
You alone I long to worship
You alone are worthy of my praise
This is only part of the song. There are three verses total with the refrain after each one. Throughout the whole song the subject of the verbs are “I.” I can remember singing song after song with this sort of individualistic emphasis. There was no sense that we were praising God together. There was the occasional “we” in a song but the overall emphasis was on me and my personal worship experience.
Shortly after high school I went to Bible college and it was there that I began to discover the great hymns of the faith. One of the things that immediately popped out at me was that many of the hymns actually spoke in the first person plural using words like “we,” “our,” and “us.” Here is one sample:
We praise you, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
In grateful devotion our tribute we bring.
We lay it before you, we kneel and adore you;
We bless your holy name, glad praises we sing.
We worship you, God of our fathers, we bless you;
Through trial and tempest our guide you have been.
When perils over take us, you will not forsake us,
And with your help, O Lord, our struggles we win.
With voices united our praises we offer
And gladly our songs of thanksgiving we raise.
With you, Lord, beside us, your strong arm will guide us.
To you, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!
The more I discovered these great hymns the more I appreciated the corporate aspect of worship on the Lord’s Day. The more I hung out in Reformed circles the more I complained with others about the individualism that had pervaded most American churches. I was done with all the “I”s and “my”s and “me”s in singing.
Then I discovered the historical Reformed practice of Psalm singing. The Psalm’s don’t propose a false choice between the objective and subjective aspects of the Christian life. It isn’t either/or when it comes to pronouns. It is both/and. I had gone too far to the opposite extreme.
Consider the balance of the Psalms. Out of the gate the Psalms start off with a very individualistic emphasis:
Psa. 3:1 O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
Psa. 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
Psa. 5:1 Give ear to my words, O LORD;
consider my groaning.
Psa. 6:1 O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Psa. 7:1 O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
Talk about individualism! Finally we come to the 1st person plural in Psalm 8:1 “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
But besides Psalm 8 we also have other corporate Psalms where “we” and “our” and “us” is used.
Psa. 20:5 May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!
Psa. 33:21 For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. 22 Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Psa. 44:1 O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
Psa. 65:4 Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!
Psa. 75:1 We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds.
There are plenty more examples of this corporate aspect to the Psalms.
What should we conclude in all of this? We can at least conclude that the Bible teaches that there is an individual as well as a corporate aspect to worship and the Christian life. I think in some Christian traditions the corporate aspect is overemphasized to the neglect of the individual. But Paul himself was willing to say things like,
Gal. 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul wasn’t afraid to say, “Christ died for me.” The Psalmist wasn’t afraid to say, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psa. 63:1).
It is important that we have these pronouns in our songs of worship not so that we can forget the corporate aspect of worship, but so that we all embrace the faith for ourselves. This is especially important for our children who may grow up thinking that the Christian faith is their parent’s faith. Having the first person singular forces one to think about whether or not they themselves believe the faith. This is why I love the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism for its pointedness when it asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. . .”
On the other hand are some Christian traditions that overemphasize the individual to the neglect of the community of believers. People start to think that it is all about “me and my own personal relationship with Jesus.” If anyone tries to stifle that then they’d rather just worship at home or at the beach.
The Psalms strike a balance between the one and the many. As Paul says elsewhere, “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body” (1 Cor. 12:12). We must always remember that we are one and many, a corporate body and individuals. The Psalms help us balance these complementary aspects of the Christian life in our worship songs. We can sing both, “I praise you and thank you my God” and “We praise you and thank you our God.” Singing the Psalms will help us to be one body and many members united in worshiping our Triune God.