Locating Trust

In Psalm 20 David has us sing,

Some trust in chariots and some in horses
but we trust in the name of the LORD our GOD. (verse 7)

The verse before (6) and the verse after (8) connect this song to battle. Verse 1 talks about “the day of trouble” and verse 9 includes a shout out for the king. Men are always tempted under fire to trust their strengths, their strategies and supplies, to trust what they can see. This is true especially for those out front.

What wins, though, is the Lord. “He will answer from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand.” “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39).

We also trust in the name of the Lord our God. We are saved as we believe in Him.

Even though kings used chariots and horses he shouldn’t swear by them. Likewise the believing leader doesn’t believe in the means. For us, we utilize weapons in the spiritual war, but we do not trust those weapons. We “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

One of the most effective tactics of our shepherding, one that helps us to present every man complete in Christ and build up the body in part and as a whole, is to eat and drink. We do it because we believe that the Lord works, that He nourishes our faith and knits us together around His Table. Bread and wine are never so powerful as when received together in thanks, in the name of the Lord.

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.

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.

Forsaken by God

More than David, more than Job, no man ever felt more forsaken by God than Jesus. Near the end of His time on the cross (Matthew 27:46), Jesus took a line from Psalm 22 as His own.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1a)

The next few lines of Psalm 22 also fit with His affliction.

Why are you so far from saving me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
(Psalm 22:1b–2)

We sing about when “The Father turned His face away” from the Son. Yet Jesus certainly did nothing wrong. He had no sin of His own. And He felt forsaken. We know that He wasn’t doing drama or mouthing the words.

Our righteous God cannot look at the unrighteous. But the good news is that the Father forsook His Son for a time so that He could never forsake His redeemed, adopted children.

We can be encouraged to know that the godly have such times. We can be encouraged to know that ours will never be an experience as bad as that of Jesus. And we can be thankful that Christ endured being forsaken in order to secure our eternal fellowship with God. Do you feel isolated from God? Then come, eat and drink in remembrance of Him and in fellowship with Him by faith.

Not 149 More Doctrinal Bullet Points

In my last post on Psalms I gave some reasons why our use of the Psalms is flat. That needs to change. It should BOOM.

By boom I mean literally: make a loud, deep sound. And by boom I mean figuratively: make a dent in the ideological walls of unbelief and rebellion.

Why should we use the Psalms? Here are three reasons for pulling the pin from the Psalter grenade.

1. Psalms are spiritual.

Knowing, speaking, and, yes, singing Psalms is spiritual. That is, it is an evidence that the Holy Spirit is controlling us. Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers,

do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18–19)

A drunk man may get loud and rowdy and sing his songs off key for the entire bar. He can’t keep it to himself. A man filled with the Holy Spirit can’t keep it to himself either. According to the verses above, a spiritual man will be focused on others and inspired Psalms are part of his vocabulary. Spirit-filled men speak in ψαλμοῖς (psalmois)—many Old Testament psalms, in ὕμνοις (hymnois)—many hymns with religious content, and in ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς (odais pneumatikais)—many songs having to do with the divine spirit. Psalms aren’t the only way we can encourage each other, as if we were playing a party game where we could only speak in lines from Psalms. But lines from Psalms are the only inspired song lyrics we have.

The psalmists were not writing to believers who were filled with the Spirit, but Paul told believers who were filled with the Spirit that the Psalms were appropriate subject matter. Paul also gave this exhortation to a congregation of mostly Gentile believers. He expected that the Spirit would translate the prayers and praises of one nation into many tongues.

2. Psalms are biblical.

This was one of those observations that, once I heard it, I’ve not been able to forget it. The letters of Paul to the Ephesians and Colossians are similar but each contains some distinct emphases. In Colossians 3:16 we see almost the same results of Ephesians 5:18-19 but from a different cause.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

Biblical people, the kind we most certainly want to be, are stocked with Scripture and, in particular, the Psalms.

Psalm 1, a psalm about delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night, introduces 149 more psalms, 149 more songs. It does not head the list of 149 more doctrinal bullet points. A melody set to meter would enable meditation and enhance memory. It might even be enjoyable. Songs help us delight more. When we get a song stuck in our head, is that not part of what it means to mediate day and night?

3. Psalms are vital.

Our English word “vital” comes from the Latin vita = life; so it describes something that is absolutely necessary, indispensable to the continuance of life. Vital signs are life’s minimum. God’s Word is vital for life, so says the introduction to the Psalter itself: Psalm 1.

Blessed is the man
[whose] delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
(Psalm 1:3–4)

The law of the Lord is to be delighted in, and there are few better ways to do that than singing. Psalm-love encourages us to be planted for sake of life, even when the culture waters dry up around us. For the thirsty, my attempt to explain Psalm 1 is here.

The end for the meditator is that in all that he does, he prospers. The picture returns to the man, not just the tree. There is a solidity, a sweetness, a sap to his life rooted in God’s Word. And note that the contrast is not with a shallow-rooted, brown-branched, barren tree. The contrast is with a hollow husk of chaff. The chaff is dead. But our hearts should be alive with the sound of Psalms.

The Season of Our Desuetude

There is a medley of reasons for our desuetude of Psalms. Not only are they my observations, they also are my experience.

Our use of psalms is flat. What I mean by flat is that we lack interest in the Psalms. We don’t give much energy to them. Likewise, if a musical note is flat, the sound is below the true or normal pitch. Our use of Psalms is well below the pitch God’s praise calls for.

Why is our use of Psalms flat? Here are four types of dissonance (lack of harmony or tension) between us and the Psalms.

1. Lyrical Dissonance

We are not used to the style of writing. As a culture we don’t have much familiarity with, let alone appreciation for, poetry. The Psalms are 3000 year old poetry. They are also Hebrew poetry, and translation is typically the toughest on poetry. A frequent setting for these poems is a dessert, sometimes the temple, other times the palace. We don’t find ourselves in similar places often. Shepherds and soldiers and priests and kings wrote these poems. None of us hold any of these occupations. The poetic devices, other than alliteration and maybe chiasm, are things we are not comfortable with.

And when we do give these words our precious time
most of these inspired lines don’t even end the same way (or rhyme!).

2. Musical Dissonance

Who knows what the original songs sounded like? In order for us to get the English into a sing-able format, it usually sounds odd to us, like a six year-old forcing everyday conversation into tune. Men in monasteries in the first few centuries used to memorize and chant the Psalms. More men during the Reformation and Renaissance wrote new melodies to compliment the Psalms in their respective languages. But it actually seems that most of church history has not used these inspired songs because it was hard.

It is a challenge for us today. There are some who will take the time to learn, to appreciate, maybe even to play the more difficult stuff. Many would prefer to have catchy, easy tunes. There is a reason that popular music is popular.

3. Theological Dissonance

We are not sure what to do with Israel. Our Presbyterian and Covenantalist brothers would say that Israel was the Old Testament Church and the Church is the New Testament Israel. But that by itself doesn’t solve all of the issues. What about Israel’s King and immediate theocracy? What about all of the national themes? What about all of the military battles? We are not Israel. Jesus is our King, but that works out differently in the United States in the 21st Century. Can we find anything for us in the Psalter? Will we be able (or give the effort) to think through the steps to make proper application?

That said, don’t forget 1 Corinthians 10:6 and Romans 15:4. The Psalms are undoubtedly included for our instruction and encouragement to endure, even if that takes effort to appreciate.

4. Postural Dissonance

Not only are we uncomfortable with the Jewish distinctives, we are also uncomfortable with the upfront lows (though we may not get cozy with their highs, either). We prefer our piety a little dishonest; keep the hard parts of your life to yourself.

There are discouraged, weary, if not depressed and borderline bitter cries in these songs. It isn’t that we don’t ever doubt, we just wouldn’t say it out loud in church company. We certainly wouldn’t write it down in a song, or think that others should sing it in worship. If we heard a man praying like certain psalmists we might confront him afterward. Maybe he needs to be corrected. But maybe he needs us to keep singing the next verses that follow the frustration, the verses renewing hope in the Lord.

Gold-Plattered Snot-Fests

Somewhat recently a large group of believers were taken from their homes. Their capital city was attacked and those who weren’t killed were taken captive. They were allowed to live but provided with minimal rations and put under hard labor. We would consider them only a level above being prisoners of war.

What did they do to keep their faith alive while in exile? How would they stir up hope among themselves that God would return them to their homeland? Would they compromise and lose their distinctions and blend in with the culture? Or would they be known as a group within their captivity? What would identify them?

The nation of Israel was taken captive a few times in its national history, a history that is “somewhat recent” to us in light of eternity. The book of Psalms was collected and collated around some of these disasters.

Book 1 (1-41) emphasizes David’s kingship and troubles. Book 2 (42-72) is Israel’s troubles in general. Book 3 (73-89) is Israel in exile, the darkest of the five sections. Book 4 (90-106) is end of the exile and looking to the heavenly King. Book 5 (107-150) is exaltation. It’s a pattern of problems, prayer, and praise found not only in individual songs, but the whole hymnbook leads through the same process.

Many of the Psalms were written in the middle of trouble. The songs were certainly sung in the middle of trouble. These songs were weapons for the soul, in good and bad times.

For example, what if your captors made you sing your praise songs to taunt you? What would you sing? You’d get a psalm.

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
(Psalm 137:6, see verses 1-3 for the context)

We have a variety of strategies for dealing with low tides of the soul, but singing is not usually one of them. Singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs even less.

I didn’t grow up as a psalm singer. In my childhood at church, we only sang hymns and we only sang out of a hymnal. If you can imagine it, we didn’t have projectors putting lyrics up on a screen for all to read. I think we read from the book of Psalms, probably, or at least some of them such as Psalm 23. The Gideons included it in the back of their New Testament copies so we probably gave Psalms at least a little more attention than Leviticus.

I attended a variety of churches while in college and stuck with one throughout seminary. This is the second congregation I’ve been a part of since graduating seminary. And this is the first church I’ve ever been a member of where we’re actually attempting to sing any actual Psalms.

Some churches I attended just didn’t have a high appreciation for the Bible. The leadership wanted visitors to feel comfortable more than they wanted the truth to be clear. Of those churches that did esteem the truth, most were Epistolary Evangelicals, the truth-tube believers that live almost entirely in the New Testament letters. Ain’t nobody got time for the Old Testament mess.

And why bother? The Old Testament is a mess. Besides, aren’t there issues with New Testament Christians looking to Old Testament contexts for help? As for songs, aren’t there plenty of good, new sources today? And don’t Psalm-people tend to be pretentious people? A few of you may have grown up around gold-plattered snot-fests where patriarchs looked down on anyone who even mentioned the name Sandi Patty or Twila Paris.

I get the resistance. I am a notoriously slow processor. It can take me hundreds of pages and sometimes hundreds of days to think over and work out my responses to certain issues, let alone maybe change my mind. I am also a career contrarian. I do not like to be persuaded; I like to argue. I resist being led (sometimes a strength) and am hard to edify (always a weakness). But I have been persuaded that the chasm between us and the Psalms is worth crossing. It is work, but it is worth it. So, yes, I am trying to persuade us to believe in Christ, to die like Christ, and to know the Psalms just as Jesus did.

In the next couple of posts I want to address reasons that we might not utilize the Psalms in our personal and corporate worship, along with reasons that we should.

Most Saturday Nights

On most Saturday nights our household makes dinner into an event. The food may be a bit more fancy as well as the decorations on the table. We get the kids involved with some quick-fire catechism type questions, we all sing the doxology, we pray, and then we feast as an appetizer for Sunday morning’s feast of worship.

One thing I usually do is poor the drinks. Everyone around the table gets a glass of wine, be it a large glass or a kid cup, and to whatever degree it is cut with seltzer water. It’s part of our celebration and my privilege to pour out the portions. Dad sets the tone by doling out the wine.

The Lord also fills cups. The wicked get the cup of fire and sulfur and scorching wind to drink as David described in Psalm 11:6. For the righteous, we can sing along with another of David’s songs,

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
(Psalm 16:5–6)

The Lord is the one who gives us our cup. He gives it to us Himself and in it He gives us Himself. He gives Himself to us now, during worship, as a taste of a forever feast.

What more proof do we need than the word that declares the goodness of the Lord’s Supper? God gave Himself for us so that He could give Himself to us. He gave His body and blood, He gives us Himself. He is our cup and the cup today is an endowment for an eternal heritage of fellowship.

The Son and the Psalter

Psalm 2 sits in a special place in the Psalter. In fact, based on early manuscripts of Acts 13:33 that quoted Psalm 2:7 as being in the “first psalm,” Psalms 1 and 2 were seen as one song, starting in 1:1 with “blessed” and ending in 2:12 with “blessed.” Though they are divided in our copies, Psalm 2 clearly provides another entrance into the entire Book. If Psalm 1 stresses the goodness of singing the Scriptures, Psalm 2 stresses the goodness of singing the Son. Psalm 1 makes men wise and fruitful who delight in the law of Yahweh. Psalm 2 makes men wise and joyful who submit to the rule of Yahweh’s anointed.

Whoever put Psalm 2 in this place put HOPE in the Son’s reign as the a banner over ALL the other songs! While we anticipate the personal blessings of present fruitfulness in the world according to Psalm 1, so we anticipate the global blessing in the future rule of the Messiah over all the world as Psalm 2 describes. He will bring peace among men.

Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
(Psalm 2:11–12)

Serve Him, rejoice before Him, kiss Him, and trust Him. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Refuge is a constant refrain in the Psalms. It implies that we need help, that we are in trouble. It also means that He is the salvation, protection, safety we need. He doesn’t get irritated that we need help. He makes us happy when we run to Him for it.

Psalm 2 doesn’t mention the cross or the resurrection, true, but the Savior and King is the same person, the same chosen and anointed Son. This song reveals the problem: rebellion against the Lord. This song reveals the answer: submission to God’s Son. Psalm 2 also reveals the future as we look forward to the Son’s certain reign. Christ received His throne by going to the cross first, and we celebrate both His sacrifice and His government at the Lord’s Table.