In this series of posts, we’ve been talking about some of the biblical foundations for worship. In these posts I’m seeking to highlight various biblical principles and historical truths that have direct implications for our worship in the present day church.
Today, we will talk about one of my favorites: The Psalms.
The Psalms is the longest book in the bible, consisting of one hundred and fifty chapters. The Psalms are a collection of poetic songs composed by (and perhaps not limited to) King David, an ancient musical collaborative group called the Sons of Korah, and Moses.
Today I’d like to look at three different approaches that can be taken to interpret the Psalms. These three “lenses” to look at the Psalms each have value, and depending on whose book you read, each can be argued as the “right” interpretation of the book. I consider each one a valid way to look at the Psalms. But then again finding the single “right” message in any book of the Bible isn’t exactly the point…but you can decide that for yourself. Let’s get started.
1. The Ancient Hymnal. This is a pretty important point because it’s pretty obvious that the Psalms were actually used in worship services (and have been for centuries). Most English translations of the Bible have things like “A maskil of David” in the subtitle, a term that many scholars agree denotes a musical genre or setting or some other liturgical term (which you may find explained in the footnotes of your bible). You may also find the phrase “A Song of Ascents” which is pretty self-explanatory. Worshipers would sing this song as they ascended the temple mount in Jerusalem – like singing songs on the way to church.
The thing I like about this view of the Psalms is that it gives us a clue about what our worship songs should be like. The Psalms cover a broad range of topics (more on this later), not the least of which is the story of God’s faithful love and redemptive work to save his people from their enemies (and their sin). Many Psalms are structured like this:
Problem – Petition – Remembering God’s Faithfulness – Praise
Can you see how that takes you from a place of despair (where we oftentimes live) to a place of peace and trust in God (where we need to be)? This is what worship does, right sizes our perspective.
2. An Anatomy of the Human Soul. As I mentioned above, the Psalms cover a wide range of topics and contain various expressions of just about every possible human emotion. For this reason many people like to think of the Psalms as a way to know our own soul, to see the validity of our anger, sorrow, joy etc.
This is a somewhat limited way to look at the Psalms, but nevertheless an important one. In an age of “I’m ok, you’re ok” where we love to put on a happy face and appear totally “put together,” the Psalms offer us a perspective on the freedom we have to unburden our hearts before God. Psalm 62:8 says “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” No matter what we are going through, our loving Father cares deeply for us, and wants us to pour out the real, raw emotions of our soul to him. If you read the Psalms this is more than simply telling God how we feel. King David especially demonstrates a lack of censorship in things like wishing for the violent death of his enemies and all their family members. How’s that for honesty?
3. Psalms as Prophecy. This is a really cool way to look at the Psalms. In his excellent book Transformed by Praise: The Purpose and Message of the Psalms, Mark Futato explains how we can look at the entire book of Psalms as prophecy about Christ, each telling the story of our Savior in a different way.
You may be familiar with what are known as the “Messianic Psalms” (Ps. 2, 22, 41, just to name a few) that very clearly speak prophetically about Christ. But because Jesus was the perfect human and the Supreme High Priest who experienced everything we have experienced without sin (Heb. 4:15), all of the emotions expressed in all of the Psalms can be seen as expressed in and through Jesus. He so completely identified with us in his saving work that all of our sufferings became his, and in taking them on himself he knows them completely. In fact if you read the New Testament, every reference to the Psalms is interpreted directly about Christ (even Jesus himself!). That’ll preach.
The Psalms are extremely important to us as worshipers. They help us to see how we are to structure our singing together and how to appropriately pour out our hearts before God. But more importantly they point to Jesus, the only one who is able to bring us before God in worship (our true worship leader – see 1 John 2:1).
What a blessing to have been given this resource available to know God better!
I’d encourage you to get in the Psalms daily (If you read five every day you’ll read the whole book in a month). I promise you it will spur you on in your worship, and that’s something we all need!