What does it mean to enter into the presence of God in worship?

I was asked this question not too long ago by a visitor at our church. It’s a good question to reflect upon and you too may have wondered why your pastor says this at the beginning of the worship service. Like this visitor, you may have wondered, isn’t God everywhere present and thus aren’t we always in his presence? And the answer is yes, God is everywhere present and, in one sense, we are always in his presence. But what happens in public worship on the Lord’s Day is something special. We experience God’s presence in a unique way that is unlike the common presence of God that everyone experiences 24/7.

For example, the author of Hebrews describes new covenant worship in terms of “entering” and “drawing near”:

Heb. 10:19  Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

To be sure, God is everywhere present, but in worship we “enter” his presence in a unique way. And that is because presence is not just about physical space, it is also about relationship. For example, I can be in a room with my wife and be present physically, but not really be present, if for instance I am not paying any attention to her and am instead checking e-mail, Facebook, or surfing the web on my phone. You see the important thing in this instance is not so much physical presence but relational presence. Another example would be when a friend says to another friend, “I need you to be here for me.” This doesn’t always mean physical presence. While it may include that, it is usually much more. It means being a good friend by loving them in word and deed, encouraging them when they are down, serving them when they need help.

And so, when a minister says let us be mindful of the fact that we are about to enter into the holy presence of God, don’t think so much in terms of space, but in terms of a covenant relationship. We are about to be present in a covenantal conversation with God, where he speaks to us by His Spirit, through His Word and sacrament, and we respond to Him in prayer and praise. Worship truly is a divine encounter. But it’s not about God, who fills all things, filling a space that he didn’t already fill nor is it about being physically transported somewhere. It’s about entering into God’s blessed presence by faith. And as we hear his Word by faith, He promises to work in our hearts by His Spirit to convict us of sins, comfort us with grace, and to conform us more into the image of Christ. But our blessed hope is that one day we will enter into the fullness of God’s blessed presence in the new heavens and new earth and experience ALL of the benefits of Christ by sight when we see Christ face to face. Even so, Lord, quickly come!

The Lord’s Day: A Pleasure for Pilgrims

Are you a Christian whose heart is set on pilgrim ways, i.e. you look forward to the new heavens and new earth? If so, then you will enjoy a foretaste of the new creation on the Lord’s Day with God’s people tomorrow in public worship and be blessed as you hear Christ preached and look forward to the glories of the age to come (unless you have works of necessity or mercy to attend to or are providentially hindered, e.g. sickness, weather).

But even if you don’t feel like it, don’t conclude then that  you necessarily aren’t a Christian. This is part of the struggle against sin that we all face. Should you stay home then? NO! You should still go to church out of obedience to God’s call to worship and trusting His promise that you will be blessed as you hear Christ preached from God’s Word and partake of the sacraments. Go because you need the means of grace like you need to eat every day. If you avoid food, depending on how much you avoid it,  you will either be malnourished or starve yourself to death. The same is true with regard to the means of grace and especially the public means of grace (the Word preached and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Pray now that God would give you an appetite for worship and that you will be well fed by His Word and Spirit tomorrow.

Here are some pilgrim verses to meditate on as you prepare for the Lord’s Day:

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. . .For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:5, 10).

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. . . For [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. . .they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. . .By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. . .For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 10:23-25; 11:10, 16, 24-26; 13:14).

“To those who are elect exiles. . .May grace and peace be multiplied to you. . .Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,  obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:1-4).

AMEN! Come, Lord Jesus! Until then we will look to you by faith, rejoice in you on the Lord’s Day, and walk by your Spirit as pilgrims in this world for the glory of God the Father.

“Worship: Evangelical or Reformed?” by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between an evangelical church and a Reformed church? Dr. Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary in California, answers this question at The Aquila Report with regard to the worship service here. Here is a snippet from the article:

“The Reformed faith has a fundamentally different understanding of the presence of God. God is indeed present to hear. He listens to the praise and prayers of his people. But he is also present to speak. God is not only present as an observer; he is an active participant. He speaks in the Word and in the sacraments. As Reformed Christians, we do not believe that he speaks directly and immediately to us in the church. God uses means to speak. But he speaks trulyandreally to us through the means that he has appointed for his church. In the ministry of the Word—as it is properly preached and ministered in salutation and benediction—it is truly God who speaks. As the Second Helvetic Confession rightly says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.””

Deleted Sermon Scenes: On “The Lord’s Day”

(click to view issue on-line)

 

One of the hardest things in writing a sermon is deciding on what to leave in and what to leave out. And often there is so much more that could be said: so many quotes that could be used, so many Scripture texts that weren’t mentioned, so many more applications and illustrations.

It’s almost like a movie. Viewers watch a movie that is 1 to 2 hours long but there are so many deleted scenes that didn’t make the cut. Because of this there are special features on DVD sets with deleted scenes, an extended version of the movie, an alternate ending, bloopers, etc. A lot of hard work goes into those deleted scenes and it’s nice to be able to show them in some way. I feel this way about some of the things I discover in my study and preparation of a sermon, I wish I could have used these other 5 quotes or applications but I only had 30-40 min (my goal for sermon length). Because of this I thought I would start posting some of the quotes and other applications/illustrations that I discovered in the study while preparing for a sermon that didn’t make the cut. And so, here are some of my “deleted scenes” from this past Sunday’s sermon on the 4th commandment and “The Blessing of the Lord’s Day” (BTW, I won’t always post this many quotes, but these are just too good. I bolded my favorite parts if you just want to skim them):

Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship (his chapter on this topic is still may favorite thing that has been written on this topic):

“‘I wish I had more time to dig deeply into Scripture and solid Christian teaching, but my life is just too crazy.’ How many times have we heard that? Said that? And yet, deep down we know that we always have time for what we really want to do in life–because we make time. . .The goal of this chapter is to show how God has made time for us and therefore expects us to make time for him. While many readers probably think this statement refers to a daily routine of private devotions, it doesn’t. Though heartily in favor of such habits, I actually have in mind the Lord’s Day, or the Christian Sabbath. For generations of faithful believers, Sunday was not about football or shopping but about God and feeding at his luxuriant table. But somehow, we got caught up in the buzz, and we wonder if we can ever get out. That’s why we keep trying the latest spiritual diet plan–a new quiet time program, a new prayer, maybe even a spiritual director or a week in a monastery. But who suggests a recovery of the Sabbath? Irony of ironies, amid all the stress of ‘try this fad or feel guilty,’ a commitment to the institution that God has actually commanded risks being called legalistic.” (p. 189).

Therefore, right from the beginning, all of history was moving toward the consummation–the state of living beyond the possibility of sin and death and sharing God’s Sabbath rest with him forever. We see this fleshed out throughout redemptive history, right up to the end, where in Revelation–because of Christ’s fulfillment of the probation–all those who are in him are given the right to finally eat of that Tree of Life (Rev. 2:7; 22:1-5, 14). It will not be a return to Eden–the beginning of the play–but an entrance with Jesus into a state more blessed than the first (innocence), which has yet to be played out on the stage of history (consummation). . .In its character, therefore, the Sabbath is not cessation from activity but cessation from a particular kind of activity–namely, the six-day labor that is intrinsically good but has suffered the curse after the fall. God did not rest because he was tired; rather, it was the rest of completion, the rest of a king who has taken his throne. Representing the consummation, this sabbatical pattern was the way not only of hoping for the new creation but of experiencing it and participating in its peace.” (p. 195).

The resurrection, sufficient to move the Sabbath to Sunday, reverses the curse placed on creation because of man and represents the birthday of the new creation. Furthermore, it represents the privilege that we as creatures, not just as Christians, were meant to possess” (p, 195).

“The Sabbath is the weekly link to both past creation and future consummation. Thus, it keeps us anchored to the order that God established before the fall as creatures who share his image as well as stretch our necks forward, longing for our full entrance into the Sabbath day that the Second Adam already enjoys with God. The Sabbath keeps us navigationally fixed to these two points–what is built into creation (Alpha) and what is still awaiting us in the future in the new creation (Omega). It gives us the tempo of belonging to the One by whom we exist and for whom our existence is directed” (p. 196).

“Unlike the temple worship, the Sabbath was not a sacrament of the church but an ordinance of creation (like marriage, vocation, and the state) and was not abrogated in the New Testament but strengthened and confirmed. The reinstitution of the Sabbath after the fall was actually very good news: It meant that God still held out hope of entering his rest” (p. 196).

“The Pharisees had misinterpreted the Sabbath, since God had never prohibited works of necessity and mercy. The disciples were not working the fields but receiving God’s provision to sustain their life–the very thing that the Sabbath itself signified. Any approach that turns the Sabbath into a slavish observance misses its point” (p. 197).

“If God’s ‘rest’ is a royal enthronement rather than a cessation of activity, the same is true for us. As kings under God, we take our place with Christ in heavenly places, setting our minds on things above where our true inheritance lies” (p. 198).

“What the Romans called Sunday was in fact the birthday of the new world. Each Lord’s Day is a ‘little Easter‘” (p. 199).

“Who would want to miss this day or crowd out the in-rushing of God’s eternal rest by surrendering it to the twisted, plot-less, pointless, and powerless forces of consumerism, greed, ambition, and self-assertion? Do we not believe that God provides for us?” (p. 200).

“B.B. Warfield captured this transformation of the Sabbath by its fulfillment when he wrote, ‘Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn'” (p. 201).

“This day was given to us not because we are strong but because we are weak” (p. 204).

“‘But every day is the Lord’s Day’ often leads to the unintentional consequence that no day is the Lord’s Day” (p. 204).

So, the Sabbath should not be treated as a blank space in the week but as the one space that is filled and overflowing with the richest gifts of divine activity” (p. 205).

D.G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship:

“Why has a practice that enjoyed universal acceptance among American Protestants from roughly 1776 until 1960 virtually disappeared in the last half of the twentieth century?” (p. 63).

Believers are sanctified through a lifetime of Sabbath observance.  In  other words, the Sabbath is designed to work slowly, quietly, seemingly imperceptively in reorienting believers’ appetites heavenward. It is not a quick fix nor is it necessarily a spiritual high.  It is an “outward and ordinary” ordinance (WSC 88), part of the steady and healthy diet of the means of grace.  . .North American Protestants, we have noted, are generally not in sync with this rhythm.  Attracted to the inward and extraordinary, they commonly suffer from spiritual bulimia, binging at big events, then purging, by absenting themselves from God’s prescribed diet.” (p. 65).

[In response to the objection, “But every day belongs to the Lord” therefore there is not one day that is to be set apart, Hart says]: “The flaw of this argument is easily detected if we apply the same logic to our tithing to the Lord.  We ought to view the Sabbath and our use of time in the same way that we regard the tithe and the stewardship of our money.  To set apart a portion of our income for the work of the church is not to acknowledge that ten-percent of our possessions belong to God.  Rather, it expresses our conviction that all that we possess is the Lord’s.  Still, God’s comprehensive lordship over our possessions does not remove the obligation to give to him a portion specifically for the work of his church.  In a similar way, even though all of our days are to be used in service to God, we are still commanded to set apart one day in seven for special worship and service.  While we live all of life in God’s presence and within his eyesight, only in worship on the Lord’s Day do we enter into the holy of holies.” (p. 67)

“God has given us a holy meal (the Lord’s Supper), holy water (baptism), holy words (preaching), and a holy vocation (the minister of the Word).  He has also given us holy time: one day for worship and rest. Contrary to popular claims, Reformed Christians do believe in a liturgical calendar.  But it is weekly, not seasonal.” (p. 73).

J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke volume 2 , [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998], 120. {Luke 13:10-17} (HT: Erik Kowalker):

Let us never forget that our feelings about Sundays are sure tests of the state of our souls. The person who can find no pleasure in giving God one day in the week, is manifestly unfit for heaven. Heaven itself is nothing but an eternal Sabbath. If we cannot enjoy a few hours in God’s service once a week in this world, it is plain that we could not enjoy an eternity in His service in the world to come. Happy are those who walk in the steps of her of whom we read today! They shall find Christ and a blessing while they live, and Christ and glory when they die.

Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Holy: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (HT: Rev. Andrea Ferrari via Facebook)

“One of the ugliest things about our culture is that we usually assess a person’s worth on the basis of his or her productivity and accomplishment. Once we have ceased working we might as well [cease producing and accomplishing]. The practice of Sabbath keeping [gives us] the delight of quitting this endless round of trying to produce….”

“One of the reasons that the Sabbath is so freeing is that when we cease working, we dispense with the need to create our own future [not] striving to be God.”

Jason J. Stellman, Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and Not Yet:

This is precisely what the Sabbath does [for God’s covenant people]: it enables them to live out their convictions in the context of fellow believers, providing the social support for their ‘otherworldly,’ or heavenly, citizenship. Put another way, a counter-cultural identity and the practice of the Sabbath become mutually reinforcing‘” (p. 59; quoting from: John R. Muether, The Sabbath: Plausibility for Presbyterian Pilgrims)

Brenton Ferry (on the shift from Saturday to Sunday), The Age of Jubilee: A Redemptive Historical Case for the Christian Sabbath:

“The previous arguments (whether satisfying or not) set the stage for my present argument from the Year of Jubilee. Simply stated, the Year of Jubilee fell on the first year after a cycle of seven sabbatical years. Every seventh day, Israel rested for a Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8-10). Similarly, every seventh year, Israel rested for a Sabbath year (Lev. 25:4). But after seven Sabbath years, the climax of the sabbatical calendar was reached on the following Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:11-12). In other words, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths was the year after the seventh Sabbath year.

This Jubilee pattern was portrayed in miniature annually in the Feast of Pentecost (which means “fifty”). On the day after the seventh Sabbath from the wave offering, the Israelites observed another Sabbath day (Lev. 23:15-21). Therefore, inherent in the annual Sabbath cycle was the anticipation of the climactic Sabbath after the Sabbath.

Furthermore, Ezekiel prophesied that the end of the Babylonian captivity would fall on the Year of Jubilee (Ezek. 46:16-17). Freedom from the Babylonian captivity was a shadow of the redemption of the New Testament era.

We live on the inaugural side of the real Jubilee Sabbath, into which our Savior has entered. The Sabbath of Sabbaths has already begun. The eschatological eighth day has arrived. Therefore, we rest on “the eighth day.” This structure is built into the Old Testament Sabbath calendar, providing God’s people with an inherent anticipation of a better Sabbath, the ultimate Sabbath.

Great Hymn, Great Tune: How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

Last week I featured a “Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune.”  This week I want to feature a “Great Hymn, Great Tune.”  I have discovered several gems in the Trinity Hymnal this year and one of my favorites of these gems is “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” Not only do I love the words, I believe that the tune is great as well. It really does reinforce the words that we are singing. The tune has a sense of awe and wonder and evokes a sense of God’s faithfulness and mercy to an undeserving people. The midi file here doesn’t do the tune justice, but here are the words for you to meditate on:

How Sweet and Awesome is the Place

How sweet and awesome is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune: A Debtor to Mercy Alone

One of my pet peeves as a pastor is finding the perfect words for a song of application after the sermon and the tune is terrible. As I am preaching on Philippians 1:6 this Sunday, I once again came across this problem. I just discovered the hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” and I love the words. They are so comforting and uplifting, but the tune seems so dark and sorrowful. In my opinion the tune would have been better suited to a hymn/psalm of lament or contrition.

There are at least two reasons why it is a bummer when good words are set to poor music. One reason is that the psalm/hymn might not ever be used in worship and God’s people will miss out on some of the rich words of our psalms and hymns. This is why I have highlighted one of these hymns below.

A second reason, which I want to focus on, is that if the song is used in worship, the music can create a sort of barrier to the words being sung. Having just preached on the 3rd commandment I can’t help but think that this in some way aids people in taking the Lord’s name in vain. It causes them to be emotionally detached from praising God’s name. This doesn’t excuse the worshipers who are detached, it just means that they have to work harder to focus on what they are singing. And it makes it hard to exhort people to heartfelt worship when the musicality of a psalm/hymn is conflicting with the words in some way.

The music should reinforce the words being sung and press them home to the heart of the worshiper. I liken this to a preacher whose sermon content might be great but his delivery style makes the sermon hard to listen to (I’m sure I am guilty of this at times). Perhaps he always shouts and emphasizes everything or perhaps he is too quiet and doesn’t seem moved at all by what he is saying.  Or perhaps he is too fast or too slow. Either way, there should be a connection between the pitch, the volume, the speed, even the facial expressions and body language of the preacher and his sermon content. When it comes to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” we too need tunes that reinforce the words that we are singing so that our hearts and minds will sink deep into the truth of God’s Word and our faith will grow. We will not only be aided in worshiping God with all of our heart and mind, we will also have an easier time memorizing the words that we are singing and hiding God’s word in our heart.

That said, I do believe that there are many psalms and hymns set to great tunes in our various songbooks, but I am looking forward to improvement from the work of at least two Psalter Hymnal Committees that I am aware of (both in the URCNA and OPC). I hope that we will find great musicality in these songbooks that really support the words we are singing. In the meantime I’d like to highlight a great hymn, not so great tune:

A Debtor to Mercy Alone

by Augustus Toplady

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.

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)

(Refrain)
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!

Resources on Worship

As a follow up to my previous post I thought I would mention five of my favorite books/booklets on worship (in no particular order).

  1. With Reverence and Awe by D.G. Hart and John Muether
  2. A Better Way by Michael S. Horton
  3. What to Expect in Reformed Worship: A Visitor’s Guide by Daniel R. Hyde
  4. Give Praise to God, edited by Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas and J. Ligon Duncan
  5. Pleasing God in Our Worship, W. Robert Godfrey