Continuing with our series on “Why Sing the Psalms in Worship?” here is our fourth reason:
4. The Psalms give us a comprehensive presentation of Christian emotion.
The Psalms move us emotionally. We can’t read the Psalms without having some sort of emotional response. John Calvin once said that the Psalms contain “An anatomy of all the parts of the soul. . . There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
As Tremper Longman III notes, “we learn not only about God as we read the Psalms, we learn about ourselves as well” (How to Read the Psalms, 76). The Psalms help us to sing to God from the heart. As Calvin says above, all of our human emotions are represented in the Psalms. Consider the following sample of emotions: Joy–Ps. 4:7; Ps. 33:1; Reverence–Ps. 5:7; Ps. 8:1, 9; Shame–Ps. 44:9, 15; Fear–Ps. 56:3; Sadness–Ps. 6:6-7; Anger–Ps. 109:8-10; Doubt–Ps. 73:3-5, 13; Confidence–Ps. 46:1-3; Trust–Ps. 20:7; Love–Ps. 18:1; 116:1
The list could go on. One of the main things that I want to point out is the wide range of emotion and how this contrasts with much of what is sung in American churches today. Much of the songs that are sung in worship today only give the worshiper the opportunity to sing with the emotions of joy and thankfulness. In other words the songs assume that everything is always going well in a persons life. In these churches, when we come to worship, we are to be happy and clappy.
The problem with this is that it is dishonest with the real suffering that we face in this troubled life. The fact is that this is a sin cursed world (Gen. 3:14-18; cf. Ecclesiastes). We all must face suffering whether we are Christians or not. Furthermore, as Christians we are not to be surprised if the world hates us and persecutes us (John 15:20; 1 Pet. 4:12; 1 John 3:13). How then can we expect people to take worship seriously when we gloss over the real sufferings of their lives? Furthermore, how are we preparing our people for suffering if we give them the impression that it does not exist for Christians if they have enough faith? This is why so many abandon these churches and the faith when they are faced with the loss of job, the loss of home, the loss of health, the loss of loved ones and other genuine sufferings which are common to all.
The Psalms on the other hand are not afraid to cry out in distress:
13:1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Simply put, the Psalms teach us how to sing the blues. Psalm 13 above is what is known as a lament Psalm. Scholars usually speak of three broad categories of Psalms: praise, lament and thanksgiving. Praise psalms are the Psalms that we sing when everything is going well. Lament psalms are for singing when things aren’t going so well. Thanksgiving psalms are for singing when God hears our prayers of lament and restores us to a state of wellness.
The lament Psalms actually make up the majority of the Psalter. This may come as a surprise to some, especially if one was raised in a church with only happy-clappy songs. That said, it is not totally about being a “Debbie Downer” either. The movement of these lament Psalms is always from lament to some hint of basic trust in God and/or praise at the end (notice vv. 5-6 above). One exception is Psalm 88 which is the darkest of the lament Psalms. But even there the Psalmist addresses God as “the God of my salvation” showing some ray of hope. Furthermore, the Psalter as a whole moves from lament to praise. It is a slow and steady crescendo that builds to praise. The final Psalms are like a grand finale of praise ending with the call for everything that has breath to praise the Lord (Ps. 150). This is why it is rightly called “the churches book of praise”, because praise gets the final word.
What we learn from all of this is that it is ok to cry to God. But we cry tears of hope (1 Thess. 4:13-14) knowing that there is coming a day when He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 7:17; 21:5). Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5). Just because we believe in God’s sovereignty over all things (Eph. 1:11) and just because we know that he is working out all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28), that doesn’t mean that we don’t go through genuine sorrows.
The Bible doesn’t speak with a Stoic accent. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus cried and people heard it: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). Jesus didn’t doubt the doctrine of divine providence in these moments. He himself taught providence (Matt. 6:25-34) and he himself is the God who upholds and governs all things (Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2-3). He knew that his Father would hear him, and yet he cried (John 11:35). But his cries were heard! He was raised the third day, he ascended into heaven and now he sits at the Father’s right hand until he comes again in glory (Acts 2:23-36).
The Psalms more than anything depict the movement from lament to praise in the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus (cf. Luke 24:27, 44). When we sing the Psalms of lament we must remember that Jesus sang them first and being found in Him we will join Him in heaven to sing only Psalms of praise and thanksgiving forever. The Christian life is like a mosaic. The details are ugly but the big picture is beautiful. We sing both Psalm 13 and Psalm 150 while we live between the gap of promise and reality. But when we reach heaven we will be done forever with mourning, crying, pain, even death, and it will all be worth it in the end (Rev. 21:4; Rom. 8:18).
We would do well to recover Psalm singing so that we might express all of our emotions, whether it be sorrow or joy, fear or confidence, doubt or trust. The Psalms teach us how to verbalize our feelings to God in a sanctified way.
Furthermore, they make us sensitive to the emotional struggles of others. You may not be experiencing sorrow at the moment. You may not be experiencing joy at the moment. But the Bible calls you to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Whether the Psalm you are singing matches your present experience is irrelevant. It matches Christ’s experience either in his humiliation or exaltation and it matches someone else’s experience who is a member of the body of Christ. So join with the chorus of emotion that is found in the Psalms and experience the movement from lament to praise.
(By the way, one of the emotions listed above that has troubled Christians over the years is that of anger found in the imprecatory Psalms. How do we reconcile the imprecatory Psalms with Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Should Christians sing the imprecatory Psalms in worship? These are questions that I want to consider in a follow up post to this one, so stay tuned.)