We are two days into our month long reading of the Book of Palms. The word psalms comes from a Greek root word which means roughly, a song sung to the harp. The Psalms is a collection of songs and prayers and is often called the Psalter. This was the hymn book that Jesus and His disciples used. The night of the Last Supper when Jesus and the disciples sang a song as they left the upper room, they probably sang Psalm 118. Different psalms have different purposes and all of them, regardless of what kind they are, reflect the deep feelings of those who wrote them. All of them poured out their hearts to God, counting on Him to hear. Some psalms explode in frustration and worry. Others shout out in thanksgiving and worship. Some psalms beg for help and others cry out for forgiveness. There are psalms that explore God’s Word and His wisdom in great wonder and some that burst out in fury at God’s enemies. And there some that invite God’s people to dance and sing together in praise.
The Book of Psalms is poetry. The psalmists use metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech to make their point, just like we do today. Psalm 18, for instance pictures God as harnessing a thundercloud and riding to our help. We know that the Lord is Omnipresent, and He doesn’t need to ride a cloud to come rescue us when we are in trouble. But the picture reassures us at a level deep within us. Also, this poetry does not rhyme. Hebrew poetry uses word pictures, and it repeats thoughts and ideas. Sometimes the second line repeats the main idea of the first line but in different words. Psalm 3:1. Sometimes the second line adds ideas to the first line. Psalm 33:13. And sometimes the first line uses a word picture to illustrate a thought stated in the second line. Psalm 52:8. Third, look for Jesus and how He is at work in your life. Ask the question is this a psalm Jesus has prayed or sung in my place?
There are psalms that contain explicit predictions of the Messiah’s life and work. Psalm 22 describes our Lord’s crucifixion in remarkable detail, centuries before crucifixion was even invented. Psalm 23 paints the picture of our Lord as the Good Shepherd. However, we should not read the psalms looking for direct prophecies about Jesus. Doing that will mean we miss out on what the Holy Spirit might reveal to us in this book.
In order to fully appreciate the Psalms, there are some things to keep in mind. First psalms were written for singing. These were songs for public worship in the temple of ancient Israel. While they are poems, they are also lyrics for music in the ancient world. Second, the psalms were written over a period of 1,000 years, involving several different authors. Third, the psalms were collected and arranged over a long period of time. The process probably involved some editorial additions to the poems, some cutting and expanding and maybe even some restructuring for use in temple worship. Fourth, psalms were written in the language of the human spirit, the utterances of the soul. Many come from deep within the writer’s soul. They are not cool, reasoned prose but deeply emotional works that sometimes use wrenching language, dramatic exaggeration, and figurative speech. Fifth, psalms and the writing of psalms were part of ordinary life for the Israelites. Scripture records many instances of God’s people breaking out in a psalm of praise because of something the Lord had done. Using the psalms, the Israelites expressed their devotion and thanks to the Lord. The tradition continued into the New Testament. Look at Mary’s song in Luke 1…” My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” There were even a number of original, extant copies of psalms found with the rest of the scrolls at Qumran in 1947. Sixth, individual psalms were written for different purposes. Some began as private devotion while others were designed from the beginning to be used as public worship. Ultimately, all the psalms became the treasure of all the people involved in temple worship. No matter what subject they addressed they always led people to the worship of the living God. Lastly, we need to remember the psalms were written in the language of response. Each psalm records in powerful, poetic language one individual’s response to God. From a desperate cry to an ecstatic shout of joy, each psalmist responds to God in the middle of a particular situation. Even though psalms became part of the community’s worship life, they also remain a vehicle for individual expression as well. Even today psalms are used in both public and private worship, and individual devotion.
There are many kinds of psalms but before I leave you today, I would like to take a closer look at the music of the psalms. As I said earlier the Psalter is the hymnal of ancient Israel. Many have musical notations given. Some are directed at the Chief Musician. Others call for musical accompaniment. Psalm 4 calls for stringed instruments, psalm 5 for flutes, psalm 6 calls for the eight stringed harp, and psalm 8 for the instrument of Gath. Sometimes the titles specify the tune to be used. These are hints as to the musical nature of the individual psalm.
The Psalms present a balanced picture of the use of music in worship. If we look at psalm 33, we will see that the first three verses are quite instructive. Verse one suggests the purpose of godly music is to rejoice in the God who has given us new life. He calls for the righteous to rejoice and these kinds of praises can only come from those who have been cleansed by God’s grace and renewed by His Spirit. The psalmist describes this praise as beautiful because God enjoys receiving praise from His people. For this reason, worship music is always directed to Him. In other words, God is always the audience for music performed in His name. Psalm 150 realizes that God has created all things and as such, everything He has created gives Him praise. The Psalter ends with “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
There are many ways to make music, and some of us simply make a joyful noise! The call to sing a new song does not mean we need new hymnals. Singing a new song simply means we sing to God with a renewed sense of wonder at all He has done for us. The worship of God should never become something we have to do. We are called to come before God with rejoicing. And we never approach playing music with a casual attitude. We are called to offer Him our very best. But skill is not the criteria for worship music. We worship with a sense of great joy and reverence.
There is much to explore in the psalms. As you read, notice a couple of things. How many paint a picture of something we know about Jesus. Read as though you are looking for your very favorite psalm, one you never considered as a favorite before. And last but not least, as you read see how many have been set to music that you know from worship in church or favorite Christian artists.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W