LEARNING FROM THE PSALMS
Evaluating Worship Music Using Scripture as a Guide
As I type, I am saying to myself, “Have you noticed that you are making some people fairly upset by publishing your opinions about worship music?” And I answer back, “Yes, I have noticed that, but I have more to say, and I’m going to say it.” A voice- the voice of reason- says “Michael, listen to me. QUIT NOW.” Another voice, the voice of enthusiasm, says “Oh shut up.”
Many years ago, I heard Dr. John Piper say that one should choose a book of the Bible and make it a lifetime passion. As anyone who knows me realizes, I took the advice and invested myself in the study of Mark’s Gospel. The advice was good, because the study of that book has proven to be a gateway into the study of the rest of scripture. Over the last three years, I have expanded my interest to another part of scripture, the Psalms. This has been a rewarding study as well, particularly in the area of worship. I want to apply some of what I have learned in the Psalms to the evaluation of contemporary worship and worship music.
(Let me digress to say that there are some excellent resources on the Psalms that have been very helpful to me. For a detailed scholarly commentary, the three volumes in the Word Bible Commentary by Craigie, Tate and Allen are more than you would ever need. Weiser’s volume on the Psalms is helpful, and Walter Brueggeman as well. On the side of preaching and teaching the Psalms, I would recommend three authors. First, Dr. James M. Boice’s three volume set of sermons on the Psalms, and Eugene Peterson’s little volumes, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, and Answering God. C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms has many important insights. I would also recommend Petersen’s translations of the Psalms in The Message, as well as using two different translations when reading any text, perhaps the ESV and the NASB.)
The relevance of the Psalms for worship music is obvious. This is the hymnal of Israel. Any Christian hymnal, whether ancient or modern, will show the influence of the Psalms over the development of worship music. The New Testament explicitly commands the singing of Psalms in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. While I do not believe the regulative principle restricts worship to only Psalm singing, I readily admit that the majority of scripture written explicitly for the use of God’s people in worship is contained in Psalms, and they must occupy a primary place in the church’s worship. Even CCM recognizes the primacy of the Psalms, as anyone familiar with contemporary worship music knows. A large segment of contemporary worship music is built upon the Psalms, and many of these are among the best offerings of that genre.
We should realize there are two voices within the Psalter. Many of the Psalms obviously originated in individual experiences. They report the kind of poetic and prayerful reflection many people have in episodes of great stress or loss. One of the appeals of the Psalms is that almost anyone can read and relate to some experience or feeling in a Psalm. On this level, the Psalms are very “raw” and sometimes seem inappropriate for public worship. Along with emotions such as gratitude, trust and praise, there is also intense questioning of God, despondency, prayer for the destruction of enemies, complaining, and even crude sentiments of revenge. The church has often struggled with how to relate these honest sentiments to worship and prayer. I have sometimes told students that if you didn’t know who your enemies are, you wouldn’t benefit much from the Psalter.
There is also the voice of God’s people in celebrative public worship, and this is the aspect of the Psalms that most comfortably fits into corporate worship music. Here the Psalms proclaim God’s attributes or celebrate His deeds in ways that are designed for congregational participation. While these psalms are not entirely absent the questions or emotions of the more individual psalms, the vast majority of these texts translate easily into music and readings of praise to God for his goodness, power and love. These Psalms are heavily represented in both traditional and contemporary worship music.
Now, I bring up these two voices because I want to talk about what I think is the major issue facing those of us who believe in the regulation of worship by scripture. How do we evaluate lyrics and style? I can almost physically feel the agony and the emotion over these two matters when contemporary worship is discussed. I think the Psalms can be very helpful here, though I can’t say that my reading of the Psalms will be universally acknowledged as solid. Let me give an example.
I recently listened to a tape of a discussion by a panel of reformed pastors in front of a large audience of similar men on the question of whether to use contemporary worship music. I don’t think that contemporary worship had a friend in the room. Now the overall undertow of the various questions and answers was simply this: Is there a way, Biblically, to rule out the use of contemporary worship music entirely? Believe me, these guys would have taken anything and run with it. They talked about associations with secular songs, tunes that were out of sync with texts, terrible theology, and the emotions created by particular rhythms. But, even after ninety minutes, they weren’t able to come up with a way to say that CCM- as a style- was inappropriate.
The reason, I believe, is the Psalms. The Psalms simply won’t let things be simple. Whenever you make a criticism of contemporary praise and worship music, there sit the Psalms. If you say a song is too repetitive, there is Psalm 136. When you say a Psalm has too much “I” and “me,” there are Psalms 30 and 131. If you say a song is too subjective, there is Psalm 3. Psalm 137 defies any attempt to make it tame enough for the chancel choir. And so on. The Psalms will not stand idly by while the genuine voice of any questioning, suffering, rejoicing saint is stilled as “inappropriate.”
So where are we? We are at the point of saying that the Psalms lend a lot more depth and freedom to the possibilities of worship than many of us would without them. Still, this is a corporate worship book. Israel took up all these songs, complaints, prayers, curses, questions, dances, praises, celebrations and made them into the worship experience of God’s people for thousands of years. I think it is safe to say, that if the book of Psalms did not exist, few denominational committees would commission such a book for the congregational worship of God. But it is what we have, and as I said earlier, I believe it holds a primary place in shaping the worship of any congregation seeking to be faithful to a Biblical pattern of worship.
So where do we go from here? Am I saying that anything with a reference to the Psalms can be used in worship without regulation? No, listen carefully. The Psalms give us a pattern. They give us a hymnal to use as an example in pursuing worship in our own time and place. I do not believe the Psalms are meant to be the only words we use, but like all of scripture, their message about God and their description of God are meant to be the central content of our worship, and certainly of our music.
Current studies of the Psalms have made some interesting observations on the structure of the book of Psalms as a whole. A short article is no place to explore these ideas, but it can be summarized briefly as follows: The book of Psalms gives considerable evidence of being constructed with some care. The book begins with a description of the righteous man meditating on God’s Word (Ps 1) and an affirmation that the world is full of conflict until the coming of God’s Messiah (Ps 2). The first part of the Psalter seems an escalating account of the troubles God’s people experience in the world. The center of the Psalter turns towards an affirmation of confidence in God, despite the troubles of the righteous. As the books rounds the 90’s, it begins a confident celebration of God as King of the world and of the people that He has redeemed. At the high point of the Psalter, Psalms 105-107 recount the faithfulness of God to his people, and Psalm 119 then celebrates the Word of God, a word that is the source of hope for the man of Psalm 1 and of every other psalm and experience. The book moves to a resounding closing crescendo of praise.
In other words, there is structure around themes in Psalms, and every human and national experience comes together as God speaks His Word to create faith, hope and worship, and eventually brings his King to rule over the earth. The Psalms, like all of scripture, point to Christ as the key to history, experience, redemption and worship. (Luke 24:44) If we take the Psalter and isolate its contents from its message, we distort it as much as if we selected other parts of the Bible for isolated use and certain misuse and misunderstanding. It is a book that tells of God’s redemption, God’s promises and God’s triumph in the midst of a world of enemies, questions, pain and sin. God has sent His Word. God will send His king. As new covenant worshippers, we enjoy both.
So I would like to present the possibility that the book of Psalms does give us a good basis to evaluate worship music. And these are the criteria that I would use.
1. The presentation of the person of God should follow the clear teaching of the Bible. Biblical words and images are to be strongly preferred. Biblical language should be used in proportion to its use in scripture, so the worship of God as King would exceed worship of him as, for instance, husband.
2. The history of redemption is the great theme of worship, and personal experience cannot be divorced from what God has promised and what God has done in history. Songs that celebrate and recount the history of redemption are to be preferred, particularly as they recount God’s faithfulness, sovereignty and covenant love.
3. While songs of personal experience are appropriate, the great emphasis of worship should be the victory of God and the realities of the Gospel. Music should never obscure that fact that my own experience is not the center of redemptive history.
4. The language of a particular song may be either personal or corporate, but the clear emphasis of a corporate worship service should be the voice of the congregation speaking of their experience with their covenant God. Just as the Psalms integrate the personal into the congregational, so should our music today.
5. Songs that approach worship outside of the framework of Biblical revelation and redemption are to be considered inferior, and their limited use is more appropriate for individual worship rather than the worship of the congregation. We must be clear: They are not wrong, and they may be high expressions of reality and devotion, and still not be appropriate for congregational use.
6. Worship music should invite and encourage all God’s redeemed people to sing together in recounting the great deeds of the Lord on their behalf. Songs by individuals and groups should facilitate the worship of the congregation and not replace it. This should be an important concern for all music.
7. The Psalms have a pattern of declaring an intention to worship God in the congregation as a result of His mercy shown to an individual. Worship music should recognize this, and allow individual praise that invites the congregation to join in praising God for what he demonstrated to one that is true for all.
8. The great events and elements of redemption should joyfully occupy the worship of the church. The experiences and feelings of individuals form part of that worship, but they are not the final substance of it. (The “I” finally becomes the “We.”)
What about style? Do the Psalms help us settle the issue of what kind of music is appropriate for worship? Fortunately, God is wiser than to lead any one culture to assume that its particular norms and preferences should speak for the church in every time and place. I heard a very good brother make the case that certain hymn tunes conveyed the majesty of God better than others, and not being a relativist, I believe him. The tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the tune of “Jingle Bells” are not interchangeable. But the majesty of God may be addressed in a variety of musical styles, and as I have said in a previous article, a congregation is under an obligation to represent the diversity of its culture in its worship by the use of what is best in its setting, and what most gives glory to God in a way the entire congregation can affirm and participate in.
I might give a practical note here. I remember many years ago, the musical group “Glad,” had a portion of their concert where they did the hymn “We Praise Thee Our God Our Redeemer Creator,” in a number of different styles and settings from classical to Beach Boys to Barber Shop to Bluegrass. The point was always well made in the excellence of each presentation of the hymn, but another point needs to made: there are few, if any congregations where that kind of diversity is present, desirable or manageable in worship. In other words, while occasional forays into diverse expressions are probably healthy and manageable (as many churches have done with occasional youth led services or jazz services), the elders need to so regulate worship so that a discernable and dependable cultural flavor is present and worship praises God and involves the congregation in the broadest, but most participatory manner of worship possible.
So I conclude my third, and I believe final, discussion of worship music. I have questioned the claims of the CCM revolution in worship music, and found them to be lacking. I have suggested that the Bible gives the leadership of a congregation the guidance and content necessary to have a reasonable and beneficial use of the regulative principle. And I have shown how the book of Psalms in particular provides an example of Biblically ordered worship. What remains is for those of us who know the God of the Psalms to heed the invitation of Psalm 100.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.