The Psalms in Worship
June 1, 2011 | Written by The Bridge
Dr. Phillip McMillion
One often hears Christians express the desire for worship that is more meaningful. The issue is how to determine what makes worship meaningful and how we can achieve this. H. H. Rowley puts it this way, “The real meaning of worship derives in the first place from the God to whom it is directed.” In a Biblical sense, worship is to focus first on God, not on the preferences or feelings of the worshipper. This focus on God rather than humanity challenges some of the assumptions of some modern views of worship.
There is much we would still like to know about worship in ancient Israel, but most students of the Old Testament agree that the Psalms were important in Israel’s worship. Perhaps, we need to return to the use of the Psalms which express a confidence in God as one who is steadfast in love and mercy. There is a balance between the holiness of God, and the love of God. The challenge for us is to maintain both of these elements in our worship to the Lord.
One of the ways that the Old Testament maintained a balanced view of God was through remembering what God had done for his people. When God called Abraham and led him, God showed his love and protection. When he kept his covenant with Abraham, the Lord showed his steadfast love. God also showed His majesty and power, however, when He sent the plagues on the Egyptians and delivered Israel at the Red Sea. The memory of what God did for his people was crucial and it inspired them to respond to God in worship.
In many of the Psalms, there is an emphasis on telling and re-telling what God had done for his people. This was to be preserved and taught to each new generation in order that they might also understand and appreciate all that the Lord had done. When they remembered the Lord’s actions, the coming generations would also respond with gratitude and praise. This is clearly seen in Psalm 105. The Psalm opens with a call to “Give thanks to the Lord.” For what are they to give thanks? They give thanks for His deeds, wonderful works and miracles, as seen in verses 1-5. The largest part of Psalm 105 contains a summary of the deeds that God had done. In verses 7-15 the Psalmist reviews the covenant which God made with the Patriarchs. In verses 16-25, the Psalm recounts God’s work through Joseph and Israel’s oppression in Egypt. The plagues on the Egyptians are reviewed in verses 26-36. Then verses 37-42 relate the great deliverance by God at the Exodus and his care for Israel in the Wilderness. The people rejoice at the blessing of the new land which they receive in verses 43 and 44. The final line of Psalm 105 returns to the theme of praise to the Lord. This psalm calls on God’s people to praise him, but it also teaches what God has done. Why do they praise God? Because of all that God had already done for them. The works of God were not viewed as ancient history of no importance to the present generation. God’s work was taught over and over again to each new generation as a crucial part of their heritage.
In ancient Israel, if they were to praise God for what He had done for His people, it was crucial that they know the story of these great deeds of the past. This may seem obvious, but it is true. Now, how does that apply to us? Since we are indeed God’s people as 1 Peter 2:9 says, then this heritage of God’s works is also our heritage. If it was important for ancient Israel to know this story in order to properly worship and praise God, can it be any less important for us today? How can we worship God if we do not know the great things which God has done? In ancient Israel, they came to God with hearts full of thanksgiving and emotion, but that emotion was based on a knowledge of what the Lord had done for them.
In our modern world, there is often little appreciation of the past. Anything that happened over two weeks ago is considered ancient history with no possible relevance for us. We must be careful, however, not to let this attitude toward the past destroy our appreciation for God’s wonderful work. We must teach new Christians what God has done, and that this was done for them. As God’s people, we must remember God’s works so that we can praise him with hearts of gratitude. The joy, thankfulness, and emotion of our worship should always be grounded in our understanding and remembrance of God’s actions for us. Perhaps, the use of Psalms such as Psalm 105, 106, and 136 would help us to appreciate the importance of knowing God’s history.
There are many other types of Psalms that could also be used in worship today. There are times to thank God for his wonderful blessings, there are times to rejoice together, or times to cry together. The Psalms could help us to find words to express many of these thoughts. The key idea is to make sure our worship is centered on the Lord. We may well discover that our own emotions and feelings are richer because of our focus on God in our worship.
Professor of Old Testament
Harding University Graduate School of Religion
1000 Cherry Road Memphis, TN 38117