God Songs | Discovering the Psalms
Last summer during my month-long study break in Cambridge, Kurt and Lyndse Felsman came to see me. We were out for a walk together after a nice meal, and I turned to Kurt and said, “I’ve been thinking about preaching through the Psalms next summer. I’m going to call it God Songs; what do you think?” He said, “It sounds like God has been doing some things in your heart.”
So here we are at the beginning of a new series, and I am excited! Let me introduce the Psalms and tell you why they are so important for the church.
Though we often say “the book of Psalms,” there are five volumes.
Book I: Psalms 1-41
Book II: Psalms 42-72
Book III: Psalms 73-89
Book IV: Psalms 90-106
Book V: Psalms 107-150
The Psalms were compiled over time and additional volumes added as they were written. Each psalm stands alone as its own poem or song (this is why so many have musical notations or instrument recommendations) unlike other books of the Bible where chapters form part of a larger narrative.
The New Testament writers regularly quote the Psalms; it is as much inspired by God as any other book. God moved writers like David to pen his words. Nearly half of the Psalms, 73 out of 150, were composed by or for David. Most are in the first two books. The remaining 77 were written by various poets and musicians who worked in the temple, and over the course of time, they produced five very large albums of songs. Scholars have tried to find a way to categorize each book by songwriter or theme or style but been unable to do so. It is best to see each book as a new volume of the worshipping community.
In 1 Chronicles 25:1-8, David sets aside 288 trained and skilled musicians “for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres, and cymbals.” (The Hebrew word translated as “prophesying” means to preach.) They were on a shift-schedule “for the ministry at the house of God,” proclaiming the word God through music.
GOD’S WORD SHOULD MOVE US EMOTIONALLY
The Psalms were given to us because God wants his word to be proclaimed with music. He wants his word to speak to our hearts! Think about this for a moment. What does music do for us? It gets to our emotions, what Jonathan Edwards called our affections. The Psalms engage the full range of human emotion, giving us permission to grieve, helping us give voice to pain, and calling us to celebrate. The psalms were written to teach people about God and life. They were used for praying, playing, and performing, which by the way, corrects the very mistaken notion that the sermon is more important than singing! Let me push back against the idea that the singing portion of the church service is a warm-up for the sermon. It is worship. As soon as the singing begins, we have begun proclaiming God’s word.
Emotion is everywhere in the Psalms. “Sing for joy” (Psalm 33:1). “Burst into jubilant song with music” (Psalm 98:4). “Lift up your hand in the sanctuary and praise the Lord” (Psalm 134:2). The truths of God’s word were intended to move us emotionally. How we express those feelings varies from person to person—some people cry, some people raise their hands, some people close their eyes. We should all be feeling something when we think about God and the truths of his word.
“If you read the Psalms only for doctrine, you’re not reading them for what they are. They are psalms, songs, poetry. They’re musical, and the reason human beings express truth with music and poetry is to awaken and express emotions that fit the truth.” ~John Piper, “Psalms: Thinking and Feeling with God”
Emotion and truth go together. In mentoring young ministers, I have often said that if the church has emotion and no truth it looks like a ship with no rudder—completely out of control. Meanwhile truth with no emotion looks like a ship with no sail just sitting there going nowhere. When I ponder the truth that God wants to bless me, this should bring me joy (Psalm 1). When I think about the fact that God is sovereign over the nations, even when the world seems out of control, I want to worship (Psalm 2). When I consider the promise that God will bring justice those who wrong me, my heart is filled with a sense of peace and trust (Psalm 3).
In the 1700s England and New England experienced what is known as a Great Awakening. Lives were being changed by the gospel and churches were filled with new converts. New songs were being written and sung like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707), O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing (1740), and later Amazing Grace (ca. 1770s). There were those who were critical of this new music and particularly concerned that some people were showing emotion in church services. People were tapping their toes, lifting their hands, and some were even crying! Pastor and theologian Jonathan Edward picked up his pen and defended the revival in his classic work titledReligious Affections. He turned the tables on his critics saying, in essence, I’m concerned about those of you who are NOT moved by the gospel!
“True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference…” ~Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections
HOW THE PSALMS SHOULD CHANGE US
1. The Psalms teach us how to think about God
Theology is the study of God, and the Psalms are rich with it. In this first psalm, we see that God wants us to be blessed. In the second, we see that God is sovereign, in control. He is just, he takes it seriously when we are wronged. He is a shepherd. He is forgiving. He is good.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.” ~A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy
Suppose someone wrongs you. Not just a minor unintentional hurt, but a serious, deliberate betrayal. If you believe God sees what happened (clearly taught in the Psalms) and is angry over the wrong done to you (clearly taught in the Psalm), and you trust that that he will, at the right time and in the right way, hold this person accountable (also clearly taught in the Psalms), then this will affect how you think and how you respond. That’s why the most important thing about you is what you think about God.
2. The Psalms give us permission to feel and express our feelings
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked. ~Psalm 3:7
One of the things about the Psalms is that they’re so raw. The Psalms affirm us in our pain. Or whatever we are feeling. They give us permission to tell God what is going on inside of us. They give us permission to cry, to grieve, to be discouraged, to sing, to dance, to rejoice.
3. The Psalms continually call us to a Godward life. This is the vertical life, lived out before the Audience of One in everything.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. ~Psalm 19:1
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it… ~Psalm 24:1
The Psalms encourage us to give glory to God in everything we do, even in the mundane and the everday. Or maybe I should say especially in the mundane and the everyday. Whatever we are doing, let us incline our hearts toward God and give Him praise!
Let me conclude with an insight from C. S. Lewis. He confessed that before he was a Christian, he had a hard time understanding the Psalms, especially their call to give praise to God. And then he realized that there was praise going on around him all the time every day:
The world rings of praise, lovers praising their lovers, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses…flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars….The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.
We delight to praise what we enjoy….The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be.
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Our God is the most worthy object in the universe, and he is worthy of our intense delight! So this summer we will think about him, learn about him, and we will even be moved by him and worship him.