Worship in the Psalms: An Introduction


There are many ways to study a subject.  One method of study is dissection, wherein the object being considered is taken apart in order to understand what makes it interesting or, perhaps, the product of genius. What one often has after that deconstruction is not the thing studied, but rather, a pile of parts.  The book of Psalms is often studied in this way.  The Psalter is categorized primarily according to individual and communal psalms, then further into praise and lament psalms.  Another way to analyze the Psalter is by considering its five distinct books, or collections.  Some scholars refine the categorization into various groups and sub-groups according to content: all this, before one begins to speak significantly of the various literary and poetic devices employed in its pages.  When the process is finished, one is left with a pile of parts that little resembles the book of Psalms.

It is interesting that the Psalms has such a universal attraction.  At first glance, the collection does not have what one would call “street appeal.”  Some are historical and tedious, while others are: confessions of sins you never committed, with complaints of sorrows which you never     felt; cursing such enemies as you never had, and thanksgiving for such victories as you     never obtained; leading you to speak of things, places, and actions you never knew.          (Isaac Watts).
Still, they mesmerize us.  Both Jewish and Christian histories are rich with tradition concerning the Psalms.  They have been sung, memorized, meditated upon, preached and prayed.  Evelyn Underhill notes that the Psalms have
now entered so deeply into the very texture of Christian devotion that we have ceased to
be aware of their range of influence.  Yet it is mainly by means of the Psalms that both
the historic and spiritual continuity of Christian corporate worship has been secured.

The magic of the book of Psalms lies in the predominance of its parallelism, a type of poetry that transcends language barriers.  This feature endows the Psalter with an important characteristic of Art: that of granting the experience without inflicting the consequence.  A true interaction with Art, however, is always a two way street: the Artistic object and its observer both seem to change as a result of the interaction.  This is no less true with the book of Psalms; as one reads and interacts with the various poems, one soon discovers the psalms “reading” them.  It is as though someone has peeked into the reader’s diary, exposing the deepest thoughts and feelings for the entire world to see.  With continued exposure, the reader will soon begin to think and to pray the words of the Psalms as though they were his own.

The poetic allure of these ancient prayers, coupled with their historic cultic assimilation, prompts this author to probe the Psalter for insight into both Jewish and Christian worship practice.  The book of Psalms is the Hebrew hymnbook, and is therefore qualified to disclose the soul of that nation’s thoughts and beliefs concerning worship.  It is at the same time Scripture, which qualifies it to give an authentic view of God’s character and requirements.

This introduction will employ an inductive approach to answer three basic questions about Worship:
1) Who should we worship?
2) Why should we worship?
3) How should we worship?
Any answers to the above questions will come exclusively from the pages of the Psalter, and all biblical quotes will come from the Holy Bible, New International Version.

In addressing the question of “Who” to worship, this study will first seek to uncover several of the prominent names and titles of God found in the Psalter, presenting background and cultural context where necessary.  Second, the “Who” of the Psalter will be considered in light of the attributes and character traits of God; in other words, “what is He like?”  Third, selected “Messianic” passages will be considered from both Hebrew and New Testament vantage points in order to discern whether or not Jesus is prefigured in the Psalms.

The second inquiry, “Why should we worship?” will query the Psalter in three contexts: 1) what is the required covenantal response of the Jews?  2) What is the appropriate and creaturely response to the God of heaven and earth?  3) What is the central occupation of human existence?

The third and final question, “How should we worship?” will consider the practical methodology of worship.  A retrieval of selected worship vocabulary in the Psalms will detail how one should speak, act and think in the mode of Worship.  The practical application of these terms will allow for a short discussion of the issue of balance in worship.

The Divine Names of God
In the Old Testament, a person’s name was used to express an aspect of his character or behavior.  In the case of the One who cannot be comprehended, names become not only a window into God’s being, but also titles with which to address God.  It is as though the Psalter has provided hooks on which to hang one’s finite thoughts in the infinite cloakroom of God’s Being.

Diverse Terms for God*
The Psalms contain many of these names, or “hooks,” but two specific names lay a foundation for the rest; they are “LORD” and “God.”  The most frequent translation of “Lord” in the Psalter comes from the Hebrew word Yahweh, sometimes pronounced Jehovah.  It is recognized in our English bibles by the fact that it is capitalized (LORD), and is sometimes translated “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM.”  It insinuates the self-existence of God, and in later Judaism (and up to present day) was considered too holy to be spoken.  The name Yahweh was often coupled with other words, frequently to commemorate a theophony.  These compound names serve to buttress one’s understanding of God; for example, Jehovah-Nissi (The LORD our Banner) or Jehovah-Sabaoth (The LORD of Hosts).  Beginning with Psalm 77, the shortened form of Yahweh, Ya, appears and is sprinkled throughout the rest of the Psalter.  This is probably due to regional idiomatic practice, as “the collecting together of the Psalms was a gradual process that lasted for centuries.”   The Hebrew word Adonai is also translated “Lord”, and means sovereign, controller or owner.  It is usually not all capitalized, and is sometimes used in conjunction with LORD, as in “I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord’;” (Psalm 16:2) or “The LORD says to my Lord . . .” (Psalm 110:1).

When the term “God” appears in the Psalter, it most often represents the Hebrew word Elohim, a plural form meaning  “gods.”  It is often used as a superlative implying majesty, especially when applied to the supreme God of the Bible.  Another closely related word, also translated “God,” is the Hebrew word El.  It has a connotation of power, might and strength.  Like Yahweh, it, too, is often teamed with other words to augment one’s perception of God’s being; for example, El-Elyon (Most High God) or El-Shaddai (God Almighty).  An example containing both of these terms is found in Psalm 91:1: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High (Elyon) will rest in the shadow of the Almighty (El-Shaddai).”

Diverse Titles for God
In addition to the aforementioned terms, the Psalter utilizes diverse titles for God.  A familiar epithet is found in the well-loved Psalm 23: “The Lord our Shepherd.”  The Hebrew term for this title is Jehovah (or YHWH)-Raah .  This title had both covenantal and practical significance.  Practically, the ancient Israelite knew that Shepherds were strong enough to protect the sheep, yet aware of the condition of the individual animals in their flock.  They also knew and did things that the sheep could never understand as they responded to territory, weather and season changes by leading their flock from place to place.  The “Shepherd” metaphor was both understandable and comforting to the Jews.

A second title for God in the Psalms is the term “Fortress.”  The Hebrew term for this is metsudah, which means a stronghold or strong place.  A sense of protection and refuge was important to the ancient Jew.  During this period of history, cities had walls to protect their inhabitants; there were also cities of refuge to which people who had committed a crime without malice could flee.  For the ancient Hebrew, the thought of God as fortress instilled trust, and supplied the worshiper with the assurance of God’s strong and encompassing protection.  Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is based on Psalm 46, which states in two separate places “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

A third and very significant title is found in Psalm 95:6 and states that God is Jehovah (YHWY)-Hoseenu: The LORD our Maker .  C. S. Lewis points out what a “surprisingly rare doctrine ” creationism was at that point in history.  He notes that the distinction between Creator and creation “empties Nature of her divinity” but leaves it “full of manifestations which show the presence of God, and created energies which serve Him .  He further observed that, though the Jews were agricultural, they showed a deep appreciation for the parts of creation that were of no practical use to them.  For example:
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
They sing among the branches. (Psalm 104:12)
Recognizing God as Creator kindled a deep sense of aesthetic appreciation in these people, even though they took their living from the dirt.

The Hebrew word awb (“Abbah” in Greek) represents one of the most intimate titles to be appropriated in the Psalms: that of Father.  In Psalm 68:5, God is described as a “Father to the fatherless,” and his compassion towards his people is compared to the way a father feels towards his children in Psalm 103:13.  Protection, provision, love and legacy are all thoughts that find their source and expression in the concept of “Father.”

The Divine Self-Disclosure of God
The Psalter attributes various terms and titles to God, enabling the Jew to approach God in both reverence and intimacy.  He is called LORD and God, Creator and Fortress, Shepherd and Father.  But what should one know about Him?  What are His attributes?  How is He to be recognized, and does it matter that people have different concepts of God?  A. W. Tozer taught that right thinking about God was of central importance, given man’s tendency to make God in his likeness.  He warned “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.”   God enables right thinking about Himself by disclosing various facets of Himself to his creation.

Diverse Attributes of God
In addition to the diverse terms and titles in the Psalter, God has disclosed certain attributes of Himself to mankind.  Tozer defines an attribute of God as “whatever God has in any way revealed as being true of Himself.”   Theologians have distilled these attributes into words that help divulge that which cannot be described.  Omnipresence, for example, is a foundational attribute of God which the Psalmist describes in Psalm 139:7-10:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
The omnipresence, or universal nearness, of God is both comforting and disconcerting in the fact that while one does not have to go somewhere to find God, neither can one escape Him.  Regarding the omnipresence of God, Heldebert of Lavardin is quoted as saying:
God is over all things, under all things; outside all; within but not enclosed; without but     not excluded; above but not raised up; below but not depressed; wholly above, presiding;     wholly beneath, sustaining; wholly within, filling.

As the universal nearness is expressed in God’s omnipresence, the universal knowledge of God expresses the attribute of omniscience.  Moses, in Psalm 90:8, acknowledges that secret sins are uncovered in the light of God’s presence.  Another psalm-writer declares “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalm 147:5).   The implications of this complete knowledge are staggering.  No particle of knowledge exists outside the mind of God and, therefore, He can never learn or be surprised.  Further, God never has to think or process things, because all things are instantly accessible to him.  Lastly, it means “God is self-existent and self-contained and knows what no creature can ever know – Himself, perfectly.”

Omnipotence, the universal power of God, is also taught in the Psalter.  It is both inherent in and intricately entwined with God’s other attributes, and so, God could not be creator of all that exists apart from being at the same time all-powerful.  Neither would God be sovereign if he did not possess all knowledge.  The omnipotence of God was significant to the ancient Hebrew in a variety of ways.  When bullied, they intoned “I will sing of your strength (59:16), and again “O my Strength, I sing praise to you” (v. 17).  When outnumbered, their confession alleged, “so great is your power that your enemies cringe before you” (66:3).  When oppressed, they recounted God’s deliverance from Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (136:12).  The reader can easily surmise that the ancient Israelites considered nothing too difficult for God, and nothing too trivial for His attention.

Diverse Traits of God
In addition to the theologically pregnant attributes mentioned above, many and diverse traits of God are scattered throughout the Psalter.  Numerous psalms speak of God as Judge, especially emphasizing the need of the poor, meek or defenseless to receive right judgment (9:8; 68:5; 72:2).   In his chapter “Judgment in the Psalms,”  Lewis explains that the downtrodden Jew did not see himself as the guilty party, dreading the judgment of God.  Rather, he sought judgment in order to be proven right!  The ancient Israelite resorted to God for judgment because it was so difficult to get his case heard in an earthly court, apart from bribing the local magistrates.  Surely the Heavenly Judge would defend his or her rights, even if no one on earth would.

Two further traits that are often linked together in the Psalms are God’s love and his faithfulness, as in Psalm 89:1-2:
I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
The combined traits of love and faithfulness are a common thread throughout Scripture, but nowhere more prevalent than in the Psalter.  The significant pairing of these traits is central to the Jewish concept of God, for love without faithfulness is adultery, and faithfulness without love is captivity.  The Psalter reveals a loving, faithful God, who is the deserving object of both individual and communal praise.

Messianic Foreshadowing in the Psalms
The Psalter has addressed the “Who?” of worship through the presentation of God’s names, titles, attributes and character traits.  This discussion, however, would be incomplete without addressing the presence of Jesus in the Psalms.
Jewish Tradition
Three images are particularly key in discussing a Jewish understanding of the Messianic presence in the Psalter: 1) Anointed King; 2) Son; and 3) Suffering Servant or Innocent Sufferer.  The image of “Anointed King” appears early in the Psalter (Psalm 2) and establishes the word masiah, or Messiah.  In the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, Derek Kidner says that this King-Messiah is attributed with “divine honours: the language of sonship in Psalm 2, of co-regency with God in Psalm 110, and of Godhead itself in Psalm 45.”   During the Jewish monarchy (1020-587 B.C.), a group of psalms known as the Royal Psalms were seen to refer to the reigning king of Israel, but Kidner observes that the general deficiencies of any earthly king precipitated a wider, eternal interpretation in addition to the immediate one.  This interpretation became increasingly prominent beginning in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians conquered Judah, taking most of Jerusalem’s inhabitants captive.  The end of the monarchy meant the termination of David’s dynasty, causing drastic changes in the interpretation of the Psalms.  “Now the praise of God as king moved into the foreground,” says Westermann,  “and the royal psalms began to be interpreted messianically.”

The Psalter also employs the image of a “Son.”  What endows this term with a sense of messianic anticipation in Psalm 2:8 is that it is associated with an unending dynasty and possession of the whole earth, something difficult to reconcile with a human son.  Additionally, Psalms 22, 35, 40, 41, 69, 109 and 118 all cast the shadow of a Suffering Servant or Innocent Sufferer.  Hindsight is necessary for the direct application of these verses to Jesus, but their consideration is important to the Jewish interpretation of the Psalter.

Christ’s Interpretations
There are an estimated 112 quotes from the Psalter in the New Testament.  Jesus, as quoted in Luke 24:44, claims that the Psalms speak of Himself.  In Mark 12:35-36 He appropriates Psalm 110:1 as a proof-text for his deity.  Christ identifies Himself in Mark 12:10 as the rejected cornerstone of Psalm 118:22, and Bonhoeffer notes that Christ died with Psalm 22:1 “on his lips.”   Even Satan concedes that Psalm 91:11-12 is talking about Jesus (Matthew 4:6) as he uses it to tempt the Christ to test God.  Ronald Allen notes that in Luke 24:24, Jesus’ attitude towards those who do not recognize him in the Psalms is direct.  He says that they “should have known!  By their failure to understand, he marked them as foolish and slow of heart to believe.”

Apostolic and Patristic Understanding
It is clear that the writers of New Testament Scripture interpreted Jesus as One prefigured in the Psalter.  Luke the Physician gives an account (Acts 4:24-26) of a communal prayer which interprets the crucifixion to be the fulfillment of Psalm 2:1-2, and he also records Peter incorporating Psalm 16:8-11 into his testimony of the resurrection of Jesus, saying that David specifically prophesied about Christ (Acts 2:29-31).  A passage in John (2:16-17) documents the Disciples attributing Jesus’ anger in the Temple to Psalm 69:9 (“Zeal for your house consumes me”).  The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 to explain the ascension of Christ to heaven and the giving of gifts.  Paul also quotes Psalm 8:6 as a proof-text for the dominion of Jesus (I Corinthians 15:24-25).  Finally, the writer to the Hebrews ascribes Psalm 40:6-8 to Jesus, believing it to foreshadow the coming of a superior, once-for-all sacrifice for atonement (Hebrews 10:5-8).

Common Sense and “Second Meanings”
Common sense demands at least an acknowledgement that certain details in the Psalms are remarkable in their resemblance to many events in the life of Christ that were beyond his control to manipulate.  Psalm 69 speaks of the offering of gall to the Innocent Sufferer.  Psalm 118:25-27 details the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, which was performed by perhaps thousands of people in response to the Messiah.  Psalm 22 speaks of the Sufferer’s hands and feet being pierced (v. 16) as well as casting lots for the sufferer’s clothing (v. 18).  Finally, Psalm 17:15 is a clear prophecy of the resurrection of the sufferer.

In addition to a common sense acknowledgement of the similarities to the life of Christ, C.S. Lewis puts forth the concept of “second meanings” in ancient literature, wherein a “writer may say more than he knows, and mean more than he meant.”   This concept submits for consideration that even if the ancient Hebrew writers did not intend these passages as Messianic, the modern reader, with the luxury of hindsight, can easily make this connection.

Thus far, the Psalter has portrayed the “Who” of worship through the presentation of God’s names, titles, attributes, character traits, and by the presence of Jesus prefigured in its pages.  The second question to be addressed in this inquiry is the “Why” of worship.  The modern mind might presume a preoccupation with the afterlife to be a chief motivation in Hebrew worship, but, as Lewis observes , a cursory reading of the Psalter will reveal a paucity of thought in this regard.  He notes that the words that seem to indicate a belief in eternity fall short when their original meaning is consulted.  Indeed, the word “heaven” simply means lofty, celestial, or refers to the sky.  The word translated as “soul” actually refers to the breath of life that makes a creature alive.  The term “hell” (sheol) is best thought of as the land of the dead, and is very much like the Greek concept of Hades: neither heaven nor hell.  A belief in the afterlife would, in fact, develop in Judaism, and had become a divisive topic during the time of the Apostle Paul (Acts 23:6-8).  During the writing and compilation of the Psalter, however, the impetus to worship came from other motivations.

Covenant Relationship
A major motivation for Jewish worship focuses on the concept of “covenant.”  A covenant is “a political format for maintaining relationships without the use of force,”  and provides a structure for the Hebrew wherein God and Man can relate to one another.  It also functions as the silhouette of a coming time when God Incarnate would invite (not force) all people to Himself.  The concept of covenant is central to understanding the Jewish relationship to God, and is like a master key in that it unlocks many doors.  In a covenant, one party is dominant and the other is subordinate.  Metaphors like “lord,” “king” and “shepherd” are common terms used in the covenantal language of the Bible.  Additionally, according to Janice Leonard, the love and mercy (hesed) of God is actually “favor based on the covenant, rather than a general attitude of benevolence.”

Throughout the Psalter, the covenant between God and the Israelites is utilized as the dominant reference point.  The honoring of the covenant functions like a barometer that reveals the spiritual condition of the nation:
All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful
for those who keep the demands of his covenant.  (Psalm 27:10)
Their hearts were not loyal to him
they were not faithful to his covenant.  (78:37)

The covenant is also appealed to in the midst of hard times:
All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.  (44:17)
The concept of covenant, then, provides crucial input to understanding worship in the Psalms.  As the history of Israel progressed, additional covenants were initiated.  The Psalter reflects how “the history of worship changed as the nation’s history changed,”  and the “Why?” of worship evolved.

In the Abrahamic covenant, worship takes the form of response.  God had promised a new land, numerous descendants and a spiritual legacy to Abram.  Later, God initiated the rite of circumcision as a sign of the covenant.  Still, the cutting in two of animals was to undergird the agreement between the two.  Abram’s general response was to believe, to obey and to build an altar.  This covenant-response was a major way in which Abram worshiped God.  In Psalm 105:8-11, the psalmist recounts and incorporates this covenant in his Psalm of thanks and praise:

He remembers his covenant forever,
the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
The covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
“To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”
Altars, permanent scaring and the ritual killing of animals form the seedbed for future covenants, and future worship patterns.

The covenant with Moses at Mt. Sinai was a defining moment in Jewish history, as worship evolved from covenant-response to covenant-reenactment.  Commemorative festivals were instituted, and detailed instructions for corporate worship were given.  The event at Sinai established the concept of Sacred Space when the Jews were given limited access to the mountain.  The giving of the law served to regulate behavior, and also established the concept of Sacred Time through the institution of the Sabbath.  Animal sacrifice was appropriated both to ratify the covenant and to reenact the deliverance of God (Passover).  As Israel moved away from Sinai and through the desert, these early elements of worship at Sinai were adapted and incorporated into Tabernacle worship; the presence of God moved with her.  The Mosaic covenant is referenced in Psalm 78, as it rehearses many of the gracious works of deliverance and provision God performed whilst Israel sojourned in the desert.  It also includes this indictment:
“their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.”  (78:37)
Moses realized that, ultimately, the people needed a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16), and prayed that God’s deeds-of-splendor would be shown to the people’s children, the next generation of covenant-people (Psalm 90:16).

During King David’s reign, the covenant-reenactment is not just national, but becomes personal as well.  The Nation of Israel had been promised a Messiah, but David had been promised a lasting dynasty.  God’s covenant with David spawned a different kind of worship and required a different kind of worshiper: one with an individual, as well as corporate, responsibility:
The LORD confides in those who fear him;
He makes his covenant known to them.  (25:14)
One thing I ask of the LORD,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.  (27:4)
Better is one day in your courts
Than a thousand elsewhere; (84:10)

It has been mentioned that “Shepherd” is a metaphor often applied to the dominant participant in a covenant.  Psalm 23 is exemplary in its covenantal language, and mentions many benefits of making a covenant with the Shepherd-King, Jehovah-Raah (the LORD my Shepherd).  Verse two of Psalm 23 speaks of being led to places of restful provision, while in verse three the subordinate is guided to successful living.  Verse five reinforces the Shepherd-King’s presence and protection in dangerous places, and verse six describes a typical covenant meal between a vassal and his overlord.  It is important to note the “intensely personal tone” of this Psalm, which Westermann would classify as an individual Psalm of trust.

The personal impetus to David’s worship leads to much “I” and “me” talk in the Psalter.  Additionally, the “sacrifice” verbiage expands to include offerings of thanksgiving and praise, rather than just animals.  David also asserts that God values a contrite heart above burnt offerings (51:16).  His influence on both individual and corporate worship cannot be overestimated.  David’s covenant and reign triggered a sense of personal responsibility in the practice of worship, and contributed to its evolution from covenantal obligation into an affair of the heart.

The emergence of the individual worship response concurrent with corporate or national worship would prove to be strategic.  Seventy years after David’s reign, the Nation of Israel split into a Northern and Southern Kingdom, and with this division came a series of corrupted leaders.  In 587 B.C., Judah (the Northern Kingdom) was conquered by Babylonia; Jerusalem and the first temple were destroyed, and many of the northern Jews were deported to Babylon.  This abruptly suspended the service of the priesthood, and brought to an end the commemorative festivals and temple sacrifices.  The communal worship of the Jews had ceased, and Psalm 137:4-5 captures the bitter memories of the Jews in exile:
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
Psalm 89 also mourns the ruin of David’s royal dynasty, first by recounting the Davidic covenant (35-37), then by asserting that God had abandoned his agreement:
But you have rejected, you have spurned,
You have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
And have defiled his crown in the dust. (Psalm 89:38-39)

Fifty years later, many exiled Jews began to return from Babylonia to Jerusalem.  The communal psalms of lament give the reader insight as to how the exiles felt about the destruction of their city and lands (psalm 80), their Temple (psalm 74), and also the perceived end of David’s royal house and lineage (psalm 89). The despair of the Jews was instrumental in the development of a belief in the afterlife, as well as the reinterpretation of the Royal Psalms.  It was during this period that the Psalter was compiled, partially, perhaps, to help reengage the returning exiles into their covenant relationship with Yahweh.

An Appropriate Response
Covenant obligation was not the sole motivation for worship amongst the ancient Hebrew.  When a finite creature realizes he has been created by the Infinite, he becomes keenly aware that allegiance and homage are demanded in response; it is only appropriate.  Similarly, a People who have experienced mercy in the form of forgiveness or deliverance realize that the Giver of mercy deserves their gratitude; it is seemly.  The appropriateness of worship contributes a second explanation towards the “Why?” of worship.  Lewis likens it to the sense in which a work of art demands or deserves our attention.  He notes:
admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it, that, if paid, admiration     will not be ‘thrown away’, and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible,     and great losers, we shall have missed something.

Of the Creation to the Creator
The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.  (24:1)
In other words, everything belongs to God because everything was made by God.  This simple realization is ample motivation for worship.    It is self-evident that the creature should pay homage to the Creator.  This author contends that worship would be appropriate for this reason alone, apart from the requirements of covenant participation.

Of the Finite to the Infinite
Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
His greatness no one can fathom.  (145:3)
An attitude of humbled amazement surfaces throughout the Psalms.  The Psalm writers frequently become caught up in the greatness of God, and often begin to list the deeds or attributes of God that best seem to illustrate the reason for their feelings of awe.  Worship, in this context, resembles a reflex or a spontaneous expression of the heart.  It is not conjured up, but simply bubbles over.

Of the Forgiven to the Forgiver
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
And forget not all his benefits-
who forgives all your sins
and heals your diseases.  (103:2-3)
The Psalmist seems not only to be aware of his sin, but also cognizant of the need for forgiveness.  Inherent in this realization is the inability to make things right on one’s own merit.  The praise of the forgiven reflects the spirit of a drowning person who has been thrown a life preserver, or a parched person who has received a long drink of cool water.  Deep gratitude is instantly and naturally expressed to the rescuer.

Of the Delivered to the Deliverer (34; 1-4)
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.  (34:7)
Deliverance was a concept the Jews understood well.  The festival of Passover reenacts Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and the festival of Purim remembers Esther’s courage in helping to deliver the Jews from Xerxes’ edict.  Persecution was a fact of life for the “chosen” people.  Remembrance of God’s deliverance turned their hearts toward the Deliverer.

God Requires It
A third answer investigating the motivations of Hebrew worship in the Psalms must include the command of God.  Not only is worship expected of a covenant participant, and appropriate from the recipient of mercies beyond measure; it is commanded in the vocabulary of worship.
Praise the LORD.
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD.
Let the name of the LORD be praised,
both now and forever more.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the LORD is to be praised.  (113:1-3)
The word “praise” is used recurrently in the Psalter, and is a translation of the word Hallelujah.  Allen explains that this word is a “compound term.  It is made of a plural imperative of the verb ‘to praise’ coupled to the short form of the name of God, ‘yah’.”   The above verses, then, impel the community of God-followers to praise God at all times and in all places.

One may ask why the sovereign, self-sufficient God of the universe would command praise from mere mortals.  Since God, by definition, has no deficiency, his command to praise cannot be rooted in his own satisfaction.  A partial answer may reside in Psalm 19, which reveals that the creation “declares the glory of God.”  Since Man is a part of the created order, perhaps he is included in this “grand command” to praise.

A Central Purpose of Human Existence
The Psalter reveals Hebrew worship to arise from covenant requirement, appropriate response, and obedience to the command to praise.  Finally, the Psalms teach that worship is a central purpose of human existence.  Psalm 63 declares the love of God to be “better than life,” adding that thinking of God satisfies the deepest parts of the soul.  Psalm 42 analogizes the soul’s desire for God in terms of a deer longing for a drink.  Psalm 89 describes the practiced worshiper as one who experiences God’s presence constantly.
Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you,
Who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD.
They rejoice in your name all day long;
They exult in your righteousness. (89:15-16)
The Psalter describes those as “blessed” who are continually praising God, even declaring it to be worth trading one thousand days elsewhere (84:4,10).  The closing command of the Psalter is for everything that has breath, or being, to give praise to God (150)!  The urge to praise seems to be programmed into creation, and it appears that Mankind is not exempt from this desire.  It is, however, evident by his attributes that God doesn’t need praise.  Why, then should He demand it of his creation?  The conclusion that the Psalter implies is that, in the act of worship, the finite and the Infinite are able to have fellowship with one another.

This inductive approach to the Psalter has rehearsed some of the titles and attributes of God, including a strong foreshadowing of Jesus as the coming Messiah, in order to discover who is being worshiped in the Psalms.  Additionally, the Psalter has revealed some of the reasons motivating the ancient Hebrew people to worship, including their responsibilities as a covenant people, the appropriateness of worship, the command to worship, and the fact that Worship is a central purpose of human existence.  In this final section, “How Should We Worship?” selected worship verbiage will be retrieved in order to detail more specifically what one should say, do and think in the act of Worship.  Finally, the author will discuss the concept of balance in worship in order to address the various requirements and responses presented in the Psalms.

What Should We Say?
“Praise the LORD” is an oft-repeated phrase throughout the Psalter, and is a translation of the word Hallelujah.  This word has already been presented as an imperative to praise, but its meaning connotes a spirit of reckless abandonment.  This type of praise is best described as clamorous and excited boasting, and is a response to God’s character and deeds, which are to be the motivation for this type of response, rather than being excited for its own sake.

A second word that is often translated “praise” alternately means to give thanks, and to make confession.  In the context of thanksgiving, “praise” manifests itself as a desire to give credit where credit is due, and is offered both individually and communally.
I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders. (9:1)
May the peoples praise you, O God;
May all the peoples praise you.  (67:3)
This praise is usually given in response to blessings received from God, or is promised in anticipation of a forthcoming answer to prayer.  Alternately, “praise” can refer to making confession, and is an acknowledgment of transgression.  Confession is also an act of worship in that it reveals a worshiper’s belief in and reliance upon the mercies of God.

The phrase “Bless the LORD” is translated from a third Hebrew word that also means “praise.”  This word, and a closely related word which means to kneel, are used to describe deep, heartfelt gratitude.  It is often followed by the recitation of the benefits God provides, as in psalm 103, or a list of his attributes, as in psalm 104.  This act of listing the blessings and attributes of God is a common manner of worship.  The heaping up of admiration and gratitude upon God suggests that the human soul is overflowing in praise.

What Should We Do?
In addition to revealing what a worshiper should say, the Psalter also tells the reader what they should do; i.e. what actions are appropriate and acceptable in worship.  The posture of a person can communicate the attitude of his heart.  The book of Psalms gives numerous postures to incorporate into both corporate and personal worship in order to convey worth to God.  The English word “worship” is usually translated from a Hebrew word which means to bow down.   It means to prostrate oneself, or to bow very low, and is sometimes paired with a second word that means to kneel, as in Psalm 95:6.  It reads:
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
These postures demonstrate subordination and communicate the paying of homage to God.

The Psalter notes that standing (sometimes translated “minister”) is a posture that communicates honor, usually utilized in the house of the LORD, as in psalm 134:1.  Church history teaches that the early church stood throughout their entire gathering.  In modern culture, standing is still considered good manners in certain situations; this has been incorporated into the contemporary church as the normative posture for worship.

Dancing is also mentioned as a way to “praise the LORD” (149:3).  While this was a natural expression for the ancient Hebrews, some modern cultures do not have dance as a part of their cultural tradition. One compromise in this regard has been for Western churches to develop Liturgical dance teams, which are often utilized to communicate, in an artful way, the text of a song or prayer.

The hands are utilized in several ways in the Psalter.  One can lift the hands in response to God’s name and his love, according to psalm 63:4.  This posture can communicate many different attitudes, such as surrender, sacrifice or reaching out to God.  The clapping of hands, as in psalm 47, is used in celebration.  It was a sign of rejoicing in the reign of God, usually in the context of shouting.  The point is to strike the hands together in order to make a joyful noise.  The word that means to give thanks also connotes the extension of the hands, as in an offering.  The Psalter also instructs the spreading out of the hands in prayer.

In addition to the various postures and actions of worship, the Psalter gives some musical instruction as well.  Psalms is a collection of “poetry set to music” says Andrew Hill,  “and functioned as the hymnbook of ancient Israel.”   Many Psalms contain superscriptions, which fall into basic categories: 1) author; 2) name of collection; 3) psalm type; 4) musical notation; 5) liturgical notation and 6) occasion for composition.   From these superscriptions, as well as from parallel material, we learn that David had established musical guilds to serve in the temple.  He is known to have appointed at least three choir directors: Jeduthun, Asap and Heman.  It will not surprise the reader, then, to learn that the encouragement to sing is strewn throughout the Psalter, and that this singing was to be done in a variety of ways.  David, presumably, sang Psalm 18 as a solo.  Psalms 24 and 33 were liturgical psalms utilizing a question and answer format, and were perhaps sung antiphonally.  Psalm 42 and 43 (originally one psalm) has a recurring refrain, conceivably sung by the congregation.  Psalm 136 represents responsorial singing where the leader sings a line, and the liturgical participants respond with the phrase “His love endures forever.”  Psalm 100 champions the use of corporate singing.

The Psalter also commends the use of instrumental music, and some superscriptions indicate which musical instruments were to be used in the accompaniment of a particular psalm.  Psalm 4 indicates stringed instruments, and Psalm 5, flutes.  Psalm 150 instructs praise to be given with Brass, Strings, Woodwind and Percussion instruments, i.e. every family of instrument that existed at the time.  The book of Psalms effectively elevates the role of instrumental music from an auxiliary role to being a vehicle of praise to God in and of itself.  An unfortunate side note is that some of the meanings found in the superscriptions, which refer to musical form and practice, have been lost over time.  A critical verse regarding the use of instruments is found in psalm 33:3, which commands one to “play skillfully.”  In his comments on this verse, Kidner says “the call in that verse is for freshness and skill as well as fervor; three qualifications rarely found together in religious music.”   The Psalter teaches that this creative freshness originates in God.
Singers and Players alike say
All my fresh springs are in Thee (87:7).
The Psalter also provides a worthy role model for serving in the worship of God.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
With skillful hands he led them (78:72).

It should be obvious to the reader that the Israelites had an aesthetic component to their worship, and one must wonder why music commanded such a central place in these activities. It is the opinion of this author that the appreciation of aesthetic nuance is one way that humans reflect the Imago Dei.  Music serves as a bridge on which the heart and mind meet to communicate things for which there are no words.   It has been said, “He who sings, prays twice,” and in worship, music functions both as an offering of praise and as a vehicle of expression.

A word about Aesthetics is appropriate here.  There is a tendency in the Christian community to use “Beauty” as a working definition of Aesthetics, but this perspective is shortsighted.  While the appreciation of Beauty is uniquely human, it is not sufficient to encapsulate the aesthetic interaction of the heart and mind.  Calvin Seerveld , in his landmark book Rainbows for a Fallen World, presents nuance and allusiveness as central components of Aesthetics, because they incorporate skill and mind, as well as Beauty (or, what is seemly), into the equation.  The Psalter requires music to contain aesthetic worth, and leaves no room for the casual, the half-hearted, or the formulaic worship of God.

What Should We Think?
The “How” of worship focuses not only on those things that can be spoken and done, but also on that which no one but God can discern.  The inner-life, expressed in thought, motivation and attitude, is also to be harnessed and employed in the worship of God.  Psalm 46:10 implores the worshiper to “Be still, and know that I am God,” while Psalm 100:3 entreats him to “Know that the LORD is God.”  These instructions appear to imply a purposeful interruption in the normal thought patterns in order to think on the existence, presence and sovereignty of God.  Psalm 1:2 calls people “blessed” who meditate on the law of the LORD day and night.  Inherent in the impetus to think and meditate is the human tendency to forget, or to compartmentalize God’s past activities on one’s behalf, and to live as though master of one’s own destiny.

In addition to thinking and meditating, the Psalmist also declares himself to  “trust in your unfailing love;” (13:5a).  This represents an explicit mental determination to rely on God, rather than in one’s self, resources, or a multitude of other things that seem reliable but are not.
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?  (56:3-4)
By placing his trust in God, the Psalmist refuses to fear Man.  The Hebrew word for “fear” connotes both reverence and dread, and is to be reserved for God only!  In the context of the mind, trust and fear work in a reflexive manner.  Placing one’s trust in something beyond one’s self proves that it has power over you, and is to be appropriately feared.  Similarly, fearing anything beyond God, reveals one’s trust to be misplaced.  Hence, the Psalmist says:
You who fear him, trust in the LORD.  (115:11a)

In light of the numerous examples of speaking, doing and thinking in the Psalter, the question of balance becomes pivotal.  Western Christianity is wrestling with this issue today, debating whether music should be old or new, soft or loud, reverent or celebrative.  Some question whether worship should include speaking or singing, bowing or standing, confessing or rejoicing.  The answer from the Psalter to all these questions is a resounding “YES!”

Psalm 96 commands the singing of a new song, but then includes within it the words from an old song (taken from the temple liturgy).  Psalm 100 demands both shouting and thinking, while Psalm 32 recounts both confession and rejoicing.  Psalm 149 mixes dancing and speaking, worship and warfare.  Psalm 95 integrates singing with recounting, and extolling with bowing down.  Psalm 34 begins with individual praise, and then invites the gathered community to join.  As Lewis says, “Just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in it.”   Psalm 150 provides the ultimate in balance and variety.  After the opening imperative to praise (Hallelujah), it instructs the reader to praise both in the earthly sanctuary and in the heavenly one.  The motivation considered is to be both the deeds and the nature of God.  The volume is to be both loud and soft; the tools of praise both musical instruments and the worshipers’ bodies.

This inductive approach into the Psalter has rehearsed various titles, attributes and Messianic foreshadowing in order to discover Who is being worshiped in the Psalms.  It has examined Why the ancient Jews worshipped, revealing their responsibilities as a covenant people, the appropriateness of worship, and the fact that Worship is their reason for existence.  Finally, many of the practical issues of How to worship, including what to say, do, and think, have been presented.

Ultimately, the student of the Psalter must draw the conclusion that worship is appropriate on many levels, and demands numerous and varied responses to God, based upon and regulated by context.  This sounds strangely like “relationship” talk rather than that of ancient cultic religion; and well it should.  “Relationship” offers the only viable explanation for the All-Sufficient King of the Universe to request the worship of mere mortals.  This paper closes with an adaptation of the final Hallelujah from Psalm 150, which many believe was composed to close the Psalter.

Psalm 150, Adapted
Praise the LORD.
Congregate to boast of Yahweh
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
For what He does
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
For Who he is
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
Something loud
praise him with the harp and lyre
Something soft

praise him with tambourine and dancing,
With abandon
praise him with the strings
With skillful control
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
To live is to praise God
Praise the LORD.
Together, make much of Yahweh


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Wyrtzen, Don. A Musician Looks at the Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Day Break Books, 1988.

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