The Psalms is the songbook of the Old Testament, and the Temple hymnbook of ancient Israel. The indications are that the first edition was compiled by King David and his associates Asaph and Heman from their own compositions. Certainly the collection was expanded later by additional Psalms, but the majority of the Psalms seem to be from the golden age of Israelite worship during the reigns of David and Solomon. There are many interesting parallels with a modern hymnbook, such as the inclusion of archaic phrases, archaic allusions, and probably even archaic melodic forms. There may have been many melodies included which had been around for centuries, and which had seemed overly familiar to many.
Many of the contemporary worship practices seem to point back to the Psalms for their inspiration and justification. The lyrics for many current worship songs and choruses are simply passages from the Psalms. Sometimes these passages taken directly from obscurely or badly translated passages from the Psalms. Other lyrics seem to be reflective of the phrases that occur throughout the Psalms. Unfortunately, these songs and choruses are sometimes as archaic in language and harder to understand than the hymns that they replaced in many worship services. A closer examination, though, of the Psalms shows that these tendencies do not reflect the actual intention and use of the Psalms. In fact, much of contemporary worship practice can find a deeper and stronger direction from a more careful examination of the Psalms.
The Psalms center on worshipping God first of all, in all facets of his character, nature and works.
One of the great contrasts of the Psalms with many contemporary worship services is the great theological depth of the Psalms. All that God is and all that he has done is celebrated. There are also many mentions of the aspects of his nature and character which people nowadays may find less comforting and easy to live with as a finite and sinful human being, such as his justice and judgment. But all this reflects the utterly God centered content of the Psalms as a whole; they are not concerned with what appeals to humans but the truth of who God really is, and what he has really done throughout history, not only in saving his people but also in judging those who reject his will and his ways. Consider three Psalms in particular: Psalms 103, 104 and 105. Not one is longer than a modern hymn, but the first, Psalm 103, is a praiseful consideration of what it means for a person to live under God’s love. The second, Psalm 104, is a praiseful description of how all nature is under the care and power of God. The third, Psalm 105, is a worshipful remembrance of the acts of redemption that God had performed for Israel. All of these take the time to describe and dwell on the truth of God in heartfelt understanding.
This aspect of the Psalms alone rebukes the shallowness of much of the content of many modern worship songs and choruses. God is not referred to repeatedly as ‘You’ or ‘Lord’, and there is much less ‘I’ and ‘me’. There is much less emphasis on how worship makes me feel, and on the truth about the God who is worshipped. His names are celebrated throughout, and there is strong reverence as well as strong intimacy throughout. The Psalms are definitely deeply emotional, but not full of emotionalism; the emotion comes from the intimate knowledge of and relationship with the God of the Bible, not the use of sentimental or emotive phrases and cliches.
The Psalms repeatedly rebuke the idolatry of this world.
Anyone from an idolatrous background that entered the Temple and witnessed the worship of the Israelites would sooner or later understand that there was something wrong with his view of God. In fact, some of the rebuke of the idolatry of this world sounds almost sarcastic in pointing out the foolishness of worshipping the things of the creation rather than the Creator. It’s obvious that there was no desire to spare the feelings of anyone who had indulged in idolatry. Rather, there was a strong call to recognize that the God of the Bible was the true God, and to worship him only.
Idolatry still abounds today. Not only is there the practical idolatry of materialism, where things are more important than God, but there is a dabbling with non Christian religions and practices as well, even by some who attend evangelical churches. Does the worship of these churches then deal with worshipping God rather than the pay raise and the creature comforts, and forsaking all others for the God of the Bible?
The Psalms go into the character and works of God at length.
It is noteworthy how long many Psalms are, and how impressive they are in their depth. This depth of description comes from the deep awareness of God that arises from the deep personal experience of God in the life of the Psalmists. They knew the God of the Bible personally, and had dwelt on his revelation of himself in his written Word. While there are some short Psalms, it is impressive how different many Psalms are in their depth from the short and quick choruses that are popular among many today.
This then brings up the question: do we go through our worship far too quickly? Do we spend the time to explore the character and works of God at length in what we say, sing and do in our worship services?
The Psalms are Messianic.
The worship in the Temple of Solomon could not help but be centered on what God had done through his chosen king. The Psalms also were prophetic of what God would do through the ultimate heir to David, the coming Messiah. Prophecies of the Messianic humiliation, death and exaltation are found throughout the Psalms. Most certainly the apostles could not have sung the Psalms after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus without the deeper awareness of their significance. They certainly would have had the words of Jesus burning in their hearts after he had explained the Messianic nature of the Psalms to them in his teaching after his resurrection. Such Psalms as Psalm 22 were seen to be highly predictive of the crucifixion, and Psalms 2 and 110 of the exaltation of Christ, and were featured strongly in the early preaching of the apostles.
The Messianic nature of the Psalms does bring back the question on how much some contemporary worship services exalt Jesus Christ. Is it possible for anyone to sit through our services without getting, if not a strong awareness, at least a glimpse of the glory of Jesus in his deity, crucifixion and resurrection? Is the picture of God at times a more generic view of him simply as a Creator, Provider and occasional Friend, rather than the God who came to bring eternal salvation through his Son Jesus Christ? Would someone from a cult or non Christian background truly see the difference in the God of the Bible that we worship, and the reality of his Son Jesus Christ?
The Psalms contain personal testimonies of God’s salvation and work in the lives of his people.
The Psalmists knew God intimately and saw him working in their daily lives. They had experienced his salvation throughout their lives. God therefore inspired them to put down their experiences and pass on the wisdom that they had gained through their living closely with him and following his Word for the benefit of ages to come. These are the testimonial and the wisdom Psalms. The picture is that God is not someone distant, a passive observer from a distance, but rather someone who cares so much his people can come to him in any circumstance.
The Psalms show that God’s people can share their deepest emotions and needs with God, even when they are not feeling joyful and happy.
A number of Psalms have a strong element of lament. This is from the entirely scriptural realism that righteous living can be painful living if one is living among sinful people. The deep wounds of the human heart from others, such as verbal abuse, ridicule, rejection and physical abuse. Yet even with all the painful feelings that come from these deep wounds inflicted from others, the Psalmists continue to share the deepest needs of their hearts with God. One does not see an ‘always feel good — always get along’ view of a godly person in the Psalms. It’s quite the opposite — it’s quite clear that the person who stands for God will always find other people who are trying to beat him down. But the Psalms are clear in these situations, that God understands, God cares, and God listens even when the words that come from us are words of lament more than words of praise. It demonstrates that God is not necessarily near to those who seem to have it all together, but to those who are brokenhearted and humble before him. Moreover, there is also God’s purpose in suffering that is found throughout; it is part of God’s school.
The Psalms include the call to righteousness among the people of God with the call to worship God.
The God of the Bible finds displays of worship without righteousness of life revolting; that’s one of the strong messages of the Old Testament. Therefore many of the Psalms contain a ringing call to holiness from the people of God. There was no intimation that God was all right with what anyone was doing. Rather, the call was to abandon one’s own ways and follow the Word of God. Moreover, the call to holiness also comes with an outright commitment to do specific things such as God had commanded. Moreover, this call was not about a vague ‘surrender’ as much as a specific commitment to obedience before God. Such Psalms as Psalm 51 express the depth of real repentance and sorrow for sin far more deeply than many songs that talk briefly and almost tritely about ‘surrender.’
In addition, the Psalms display a call to righteousness in following the Word of God. Psalms 1, 19 and 119 deal in particular with how the Psalmists viewed the Word of God: as inspired by God and the true path for righteousness and holiness. A person in true sympathy with the Psalmists would therefore show the same kind of respect for the Word of God as the Psalms do.
Moreover, the Psalms carry the call to live in Biblical wisdom. Psalms 34 and 37, among others which could be classed as wisdom Psalms, sound almost like the book of Proverbs. They tell about what it means to live in God’s universe under God’s rules, and how learning and applying the Word of God in one’s life is true wisdom in this world.
Contemporary worship in many evangelical churches has rightfully been faulted for being superficial and emotionally centered at times. This would not be because of but rather in spite of what the Psalms teach about worship.