We often use the word “worship” to describe the portion of our church services where the congregation is singing. When someone asks about the worship at a church, they’re typically asking about the quality of the church’s music.
Truth be told, the whole Sunday service, from the songs to the sermon to the sacraments, fall under the umbrella of “worship.” Perhaps it’s the importance of music in our culture that has led so many to view this element of the service as the essence of worship. A high view of the church’s music isn’t unwarranted, though! The Bible contains a whole book of praises, the book of Psalms, and it’s filled with insights that can help to shape our musical worship today. Here are three things the Psalms can teach us.
1) Modern worship music should help us cope with the difficulties of life.
The Psalms aren’t just a random anthology of ancient songs, haphazardly thrown together. The book of Psalms was written over a period of about one thousand years, and in its final form it helped to address the difficult circumstances of Jews living in exile without a king. The book begins with the promise that God’s anointed king will reign over the whole world (Ps. 2), but as the Psalter unfolds, bleak circumstances make it seem as though God had forgotten his promise.
At the end of Psalm 89, the Psalmist cried out, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, with which your enemies mock, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.” Far from the vision cast by Psalm 2, God’s anointed is mocked rather than served! The book of Psalms thus aided the Hebrew people by giving a voice to their confusion, and it also provided them with a message of hope.
Immediately after Psalm 89, we’re greeted by Psalms which emphasize that God himself is the refuge of his people and their divine king. For people wandering in exile, there is the hope of God as shelter. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1) and “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” (Ps. 95:3) As the book of Psalms moves from lament and confusion over what seemed like failure on God’s part, it culminates in confidence and praise, because God reigns and promised to “build up Jerusalem and gather the outcasts of Israel” (Ps 147:2)
This book of praises helped God’s people to cope with the challenges they faced in the world, and the songs we sing in church today should do the same. The Psalms accomplished this by addressing the issues of the day head on, while laying out a clear picture of how God met his people in their difficulty. To the wandering, God said, “I am your shelter.” (Ps. 91:2) To the kingless, “I am your king.” (Ps. 95:3) To those suffering injustice, “I will come to judge the earth.” (Ps. 96:13) Our songs should extol the great attributes of God that give hope to pilgrims wandering on their way to the New Jerusalem.
2) Modern worship music should encompass all our emotions.
One of the things I love about the Psalms is that they’re shockingly honest. God isn’t interested in our posturing, or flowery speech that comes from a decaying heart. In the Psalms, we see real people expressing not only joy and celebration, but fear, frustration, and lament. In fact, of the 150 psalms we have in the Bible, most of them are psalms of lamentation. Sometimes honestly expressing ourselves before God doesn’t look jovial, and God understands.
John Calvin wrote about the book of Psalms, “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The spectrum of feelings we discover in the Psalms shows us that “worship” doesn’t just mean singing happy songs, but includes our broken cries as well.
Modern worship music should consider the spectrum of feelings represented in the Psalms, and help to encourage a range of emotion and expression that is broader than the happy-clappy. This is tough, because lamenting makes us uncomfortable. However, if we can’t express lament in the church, we give off the vibe that the Christian life should always be a mountaintop experience. Is there a song for the brokenhearted to sing in your church, for the person who has been gripped by sin or tragedy all week?
The Psalms show us that God’s people can come to him honestly, and our music should help to facilitate that honest expression. In my experience, broader evangelical churches have an easier time with the anthems of praise than they do with the laments, while traditional churches tend to have the laments down, but have a difficult time expressing the more jubilant side of the Psalms, with shouts of joy and celebratory clapping! Perhaps we can all take a cue from God’s hymn book.
3) Modern worship music should be beautiful and excellent.
The book of Psalms is a work of art. Many of the Psalms have glorious literary features that highlight their craftsmanship. Within the Psalter we find poetic parallelism (Ps. 19:1-2; 24:3-4; 73:26; 119:105), acrostic constructions where each verse or section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ps. 34; 37; 119), and vivid imagery. The Psalms depict God as Father (Ps. 103:15), Defender (Ps. 68:5), Shepherd (Ps. 23:1), King (Ps. 93:1), and Judge (Ps. 98:9). Their elegance should inform the attention we give to our own musical worship.
Timothy Keller writes,
In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre, or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Why? Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful, despite its slack of artistic expression; what’s more they usually have a personal relationship with the music presenter. But any outsider who comes in as someone unconvinced of the truth and having no relationship to the presenter will likely be bored or irritated by the expression. In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. (Center Church, 305)
Keller’s point is important. To care for the beauty and skillfulness of our worship is also care for our neighbor. The artistry of the book of Psalms reinforces the fact that modern musical expressions of praise should be good, true, and beautiful.