The Rounds Are Live

Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher wrote in 1704:

Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws. (quoted in Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, Location 99)

Well then, no wonder we are so weak. We war over worship songs instead of having war songs for worship. Our music reveals our relative thinking and irreverent affections rather than faithful roots in truth.

The goal at our church is not to sing only Psalms. It is our goal to not not sing any Psalms. That is, we want to at least add some to our arsenal for sake of applying Colossians 3:16. I’ve now preached through the first 13 Psalms (and plan to preach more in the future) in order to encourage and persuade and better prepare us for edification when we sing them down the road.

What sort of inheritance do we want to leave for our grandchildren? What sort of preparations should we make for standing around the hospital bed of someone who is dying? Yes, take Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Gettys, and maybe even Lecrae with you, okay. But take more. Take Psalms.

May these songs become an always playing soundtrack behind our theology, worldview, corporate worship, private devotion, prayer, singing, and art. The rounds are live, the blood is red. Let’s turn the volume up.

Is any (among you) merry? Let him sing psalms (ψαλλέτω). (James 5:13, KJV)

Recommended Instruments for Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

More than a few factors have excited me to study about and learn to sing some Psalms, some of which I’ve posted here over the last couple weeks. It’s taken a couple years, though, of reading and listening before realizing the depth of my musical shallowness. Here is a list of resources that I eagerly recommend, verbal instruments that have tuned my thinking not only about Psalms, but also about music and singing and corporate worship.

A Primer on Worship and Reformation by Doug Wilson Amazon. See especially chapter 8 “The Psalms as a Battering Ram.”

Our Worship by Abraham Kuyper [Amazon]. This is about liturgy, but don’t be scared.

Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art by Abraham Kuyper Amazon. See especially the chapters on art.

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham Amazon

Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves Amazon. See especially pages 58-61 on music.

Future Men by Doug Wilson Amazon. See especially chapter 11 “Church and Worship.”

“The Church Singing” by various. A 9Marks Journal with a variety of articles.

I haven’t read these yet, but I’m planning to:

  • Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh Patel Amazon
  • This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin Amazon

“Musical Style in Worship,” a blog post by Doug Wilson. link

“The Transformative Power of Classical Music” by Benjamin Zander. A video TED Talk: YouTube

“Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning” by Ken Myers. A four-part video lecture series: Vimeo

“The Classical School and Music” by Doug Wilson. A video lecture: YouTube

“Songs that Shape the Heart and Mind” by John Piper. Video and sermon notes: link

The right kind of fiction will also impress the benefits of joyful song.

  • Beowulf by Unknown (NOT any of the movies. It’s got to be the book. The movies miss the point by a long shot.)
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

If I were you and I knew what I know now, I’d start with the videos by Wilson and Myers. I’d recommend Wisdom and Wonder and The Psalter Reclaimed next. Our Worship would be third, but your musical mileage may vary, as they say.

Things That Stand Out

What kinds of things can be learned by imitation? Behaviors such as how to small talk can be learned, as can preferences such as how you like your meat cooked, or traditions such as what to do on holidays, or even partialities for dying or artificial Christmas trees. Maybe the better question is, what kinds of things can not be learned by imitation? We talk about many different styles of learning, but the Trinity wired us to watch and pick up on patterns and mindsets, even when those go against the words spoken or printed. Kids more often do what their parents do even when their parents tell them to do as they say.

The inevitability of imitation can be as encouraging as it is overwhelming. It means that we can make a difference with our kids, with our fellow small groupers, with our neighbors, students, co-workers, and friends. It may take time. It will take time. But consider that the Thessalonians earned quite a reputation in a short while. Entire regions knew about their imitation of the Lord within months of the start of the church. Obedience, joy, work, those are things that stand out.

Paul told the Ephesians,

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2, ESV)

When we come to the Lord’s Table things turn. We see what Christ did and we learn to do likewise. We also show what to do as we come. We consider His example and then become examples. This is why some of our kids want to participate. That’s how it should be. We demonstrate who saves and that our joy is in Him. Our joy demonstrates that we believe that God has provided forgiveness, not that we can earn or purchase it. We don’t come to win His grace, we come to receive it. We’ve turned from the idols of human effort to the living and true God, to the loving and sacrificing God in Jesus His Son. That sort of thing gets around.

Down with Dualism

I have read the Psalms a couple dozen times, and parts of some Psalms probably hundreds of times, just as many of you have. Yet as I read them again recently and read a few introductions to prepare for a preaching series, I have been gladly surprised by a number of things. Here’s one of the most surprising surprises.

I’m surprised at how touchable the Psalms are.

I’m still not sure that touchable is the best word to name this observation, but think along with me. The Book of Psalms is a book of songs. The Greek name, psalmoi means “songs sung with musical accompaniment.” The Hebrew title is tehillim, meaning “songs of praise.” We think of it as Israel’s worship book, and we’re right.

But when we (21st century, Protestant, epistle-loving church-goers) think about worship, we think about spiritual realities, about heavenly glory, about God’s transcendence. Yet the omnis aren’t the only stars in the Psalms. There are praises about God’s great glory, followed by thanks for great crops.

We observe numerous types of psalms: thanksgiving, lament, and praise. We see royal psalms, Sabbath day psalms, psalms about creation, about the exodus from Egypt, psalms seeking deliverance from gossips and liars. There are Psalms confessing sin, others seeking forgiveness. Psalms utilize standard poetic conventions such as parallelism, acrostics, laying down patterns like embroidery, stitch by stitch. We find knees and hands and laying down prostrate.

We see David on the run from Saul. David on the run from Absolom. David’s guilt after adultery and murder. National captivity. Want for justice. Dangers, defeats, doubts, depressions, and delays.

In other words, the Book of Psalms deals with the terrestrial, with earthy needs and troubles and gifts maybe even more than it does with celestial, incorporeal truths. There is more about nature and nations than the temple. Or, better, God’s people sang about nature and nations in the temple.

God made it all. He holds it all together. He causes time and the sun to run their courses. God is no dualist. His people know and rehearse and rejoice in His supernatural attributes, yes. They praise attributes such as His holiness, His mercy, His judgment, and His steadfast love. But these qualities are always connected to something tangible that He has done, that His people can see or that they have hope to see. God is active, and the psalmists who complain about His inactivity do so because that’s not normal for Him (Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise and Prophecy, 73).

We’ve begun to learn to sing Psalm 128 as a church.

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house
;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table
.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
(Psalm 128:1-6, ESV)

Too many of our (post)modern songs fail to promote worship in the flesh. We have a lot of songs that are fleshly (in lyrics or in style), in that they cater to the flesh, but they are not fleshy, that is, addressing life here and now. The Psalms care about the soul and body, about forever and today, about heavenly handwork and rich soil. This is one reason to sing entire Psalms. Songs that borrow lines from certain Psalms are fine, but the appropriated lines are usually only the sacred lyrics.

Worship should always be a preparation for living the Christian life in the real world and not simply a means of temporary escape from it. (Grogan, ibid., 8)

God glorifies Himself, God makes and fulfills promises, God loves His people in time and space. The Psalms have handleability, and it’s good to get our lips and hands working together.

Turn, Turn, Turn

When Paul defended his ministry before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he included the charge that the Lord gave to him. Jesus said to him,

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:16–18, ESV)

Jesus commissioned Paul to work for conversions. This converting work still happens today as men become Christians, and in another sense it also still happens within Christians.

When we gather on the Lord’s Day, we say that our eyes have been opened. We acknowledge that we have been converted, that we no longer walk in darkness but in light. We worship the true and living God. We declare that have sinned but that we also have received forgiveness. And we take our place among the holy.

We are still tempted, though, and we still sin. The Lord set us apart, converted us, but He continues to convert us as well, changing our behavior by changing our longings. He is still sanctifying us, still turning our loves away from sin, from unholy and unworthy desires.

A fundamental break was made when he first granted us repentance, but our feet get dirty day by day. We must continue to repent, to turn away from the ways of the world and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Are you continuing to turn? Do you think about your ongoing conversion? Are you seeking further sanctification by faith in Him? If yes, then confession of sin is a time to look forward to. It continues the purifying process and in doing so declares whose side we’re on.