Why Sing the Psalms in Worship? Reason #4

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.)

Why Sing the Psalms in Worship? Reason #3

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.

Why Sing the Psalms in Worship? Reason #2

Continuing with our series on “Why Sing the Psalms in Worship?” here is our second reason:

2. It is an excellent way of hiding God’s word in your heart and letting the word of God dwell in you richly (Ps. 119:11; Col. 3:16).

The Psalmist declared, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).  Paul told the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).  Simply put, singing the Psalms in worship will help you memorize God’s Word.

My former home church in Torrance started singing the Psalms in worship a little over ten years ago.  At first it was rough.  Every song was new and unfamiliar to us.  We probably sounded terrible and some of us had our doubts about singing the Psalms.  But over time, the whole congregation has come to love singing the Psalms and now knows about 75 of the 150 and they are still learning the rest.

The amazing thing is that even though we struggled to get through them at the beginning, the more we have sung them over the years the more I have noticed that some of the members don’t even need to look at the psalter anymore.  Even many of the kids sing them from memory.  People have stored God’s Word in their heart.  And I’ll bet most of them didn’t even try to memorize these Psalms.  I can at least speak from experience that some of the Psalms that I have memorized had nothing to do with me trying to memorize them.  We all know that if we hear a song enough times it just sort of works its way into our memory.  Sometimes we can’t get a tune out of our head.

Singing the Psalms is especially important for our little ones.  Kids are sponges.  They just absorb things in a way that adults cannot.  How many of you can remember a song from one of your favorite cartoons as a kid?  I can remember the theme song for Duck Tales, Chip and Dales Rescue Rangers, Scooby Doo, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the list could go on and on.  I don’t even have a choice when it comes to forgetting these songs.  They are just there, permanently.  O how I wish that I could say the same thing about the Spirit inspired songs from God’s word!  You know what though, it isn’t too late.  By God’s grace if you start singing the Psalms you will be surprised at how easily a song can still get stuck in your head.

Memorizing Scripture in this way will help you in your various trials and temptations in this life.  Think about our Lord Jesus.  What was His strategy for battling temptation with the devil?  He quoted scripture (Matt. 4:1-11).  When you are tempted to sin, you can do battle with your flesh and the devil by singing a Psalm.  If you are struggling with the lust of the eyes, sing Psalm 101:

“3  I will not set before my eyes, anything that is worthless.”

When you are struggling with depression and doubt, sing to yourself the words of Psalm 42:

5 “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.”

When you are struggling with confidence, cut out the middle man (Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress) and go straight to the source of Psalm 46:

“1  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

When you are not in the mood to go to church on Sunday morning, encourage yourself by singing Psalm 122 in the car:

1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”

I could give you tons of more examples.  The Psalms are the best soil for your soul in these temptations.  Let your roots sink deep into the Psalms.

Singing the Psalms will also help you when you are in the hospital recovering from cancer, brain surgery, a car accident or when you are dying on your death bed.  After all what was on Jesus’ heart and mind when he was dying on the cross?  The words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Ps. 22).  If it helped him in his darkest hour of trial it will surely help you in your darkest hour of trial.  Sing the Psalms for the sake of your comfort and hope when you are about to die.  Psalm 22 turns to hope in the end.  It not only foreshadowed Jesus’ sufferings it also foreshadowed his exaltation at the Father’s right hand.

“Ok, I’m convinced, now what?”

Hopefully you are able to say this.  If so, pick yourself up a psalter and find your favorite Psalm and start singing it once a day in family worship or in your personal devotions.  You’d be surprised at how fast you will memorize God’s word in this way.  Then once you have learned the benefits of this practice, tell your elders and pastors about it.  Encourage them to start implementing Psalm singing on Sunday morning in worship.  Tell them you want to see Christians hiding God’s Word in their heart and how this has helped you.

In case you are looking for a good Psalter to sing from I recommend the following:

This is the psalter that my former church in Torrance uses.  It has some great tunes and sticks closely to the original text.  I highly recommend starting with Psalm 23B set to the tune of “Crimmond.”  It is the most beautiful tune I have ever heard for Psalm 23.  The midi file doesn’t do it justice.  Sing it acapella in parts and you heart will melt as the melody reinforces the tenderness and confidence of the words of the Psalm.

This psalter is good too:

It is a revision and completion of the project of the psalter above.  The words are in modern English and they did a great job with it.  If you click on either of the images it will take you to the web-site where you can purchase them.  They also have a web-site dedicated to helping you sing the Psalms from these psalters.  You can listen to all of the tunes and sing along.  And as you do, may the Word of God dwell richly in your heart as you sing the Psalms and hide God’s Word in your heart!