Look to the Psalms

Dr. Smoak

As Jesus prepared to ascend back to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father he encouraged his disciples to read the Psalms. Here are his specific words recorded in Luke 24 verse 44:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

These words of Jesus launched the Psalms into the singing, teaching, and preaching of the disciples and the first Christians. They did read the Psalms and found there much that had been written about the coming of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus while he was on earth. The Psalms became an important part of early Christian worship which continues even today.

Psalm 98 is filled with references to music and singing, but more important are the many references to “the LORD” that are fulfilled in Jesus. Here is verse one:

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.

These words simply remind us to sing the LORD. The words of our new songs proclaim that Jesus has done marvelous things and that his most important work is salvation.

Verse two increases our understanding of the salvation that Jesus brings:

The LORD has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.

The salvation work of Jesus that was worked out on the cross is not a secret. His salvation has been made known. In fact, the righteousness that Jesus provided has been revealed to all the nations of the world. This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Here is verse three:

He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to the house of Israel
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

The Psalms are the writings of the God’s chosen people “the house of Israel.” God’s love and faithfulness to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus. Through Jesus God provided salvation for all Israel and all peoples of the world. Again, this is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Verses 4 thru 6 are filled with musical terms and instructions for our worship to be loud and exuberant. In these verses we are encouraged to:

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,

and

Shout for joy before the LORD, the King.

Notice that we are to shout “to” and “before” the LORD. Shouting for joy “before” the LORD has references to being in the presence of the LORD. That is a good place to be! Joy to the world, the LORD is come! All the earth, all peoples of the earth are shouting for joy. Israel finally has their perfect and eternal King!

Because the LORD is come verses 7 and 8 state that all of creation is singing for joy:

Let the sea resound,

Let the rivers clap their hands,

Let the mountains sing together for joy;

The Psalms are filled with references to God’s creation singing and praising their Creator.

The final verse of Psalm 98 reminds us that the LORD is also coming as a judge:

Let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the people with equity.

Jesus will come as a judge at the end of time when he comes to earth for the second and final time. Because of sin his judgment of the world and all peoples will be based upon his righteousness and his equity that was displayed on the cross. Jesus rules the world with his truth and his grace. This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Hopefully you have noticed some familiar phrases from the Christmas carol Joy to the world, the Lord is come in my thoughts above concerning Psalm 98. Joy to the world, the Lord is come is Isaac Watts’ hymn paraphrase of Psalm 98. Watts believed that if Christians are to sing the Psalms that the Psalms must be “Christianized.” Thus Isaac Watts penned many references to the incarnation of Jesus in his paraphrase of Psalm 98 and gave us a wonderful carol to sing every December. I encourage you to read and study the verses of Psalm 98 and the four stanzas of Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Then shout for joy with these words:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

What’s the Point of Worship?

I came across a church once whose mission statement on the billboard outside the church building was “You don’t have to stand, you don’t have to sing, you don’t have to give.” (Perhaps this sounds quite appealing at the end of a long week!) As a boy, I think I often equated worship with some kind of penance. I would atone for my bad behavior (particularly regarding my younger brother) through the penance of mind-numbingly long (“I’m so bored I could eat my own shoes”) liturgical services.

I recall first coming across some more contemporary worship music as an adult and it made me cringe. At the time, I found it was just altogether too enthusiastic and overly emotional. So if worship is either profoundly boring or overly emotional, then we have to ask ourselves the question of why the Lord would invite us to worship Him with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our strength. Is God really that self-concerned that He needs all of that attention? Later I would learn that worship is as far from boring as you can get, that it has the power to engage our minds and our emotions, and was always part of the Lord’s gift to us.

To begin with, worship restores intimacy in our relationship with God. God does not need our worship but He does long for it. This is the longing of God that draws us into our longing for Him. The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). Our longing for God comes as a response to His longing for us. So when we read “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are being exhorted to love God like this because this is exactly how He loves us.

Worship is a kind of a dance—a dance that is at the heart of the Trinity (the “perichoresis”: Father, Son and Holy Spirit)—and we are invited into that dance. As Sam Storms writes, “God created us so that the joy He has in Himself might be ours. God doesn’t simply think about Himself or talk to Himself. He enjoys Himself! He celebrates with infinite and eternal intensity the beauty of who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we’ve been created to join the party!” This is intended to be an emotional experience as we are caught up in the dance. We are each going to express that emotion differently because we are all wired differently. I recall inviting a friend to a worship service once. His stony, glazed face rather suggested that I had done the wrong thing. I spent the entire service inwardly planning how I would try to fix this. Afterward, when we got into the car, I nervously asked him what he thought of the service. He answered, “That was the single most profound experience of my life!” All of the movement was on the inside. It really is a matter of the heart. It is about inclining our hearts toward God in the recovery of an intimate relationship with Him.

I have also come to see how worship reshapes us. The Apostle Paul writes, “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son” (Romans 8:29-30). This is what happens in the throne room of God. We find ourselves transformed. We are remade and reshaped.

Have you ever noticed that you arrive at a service of worship with one attitude and leave with an entirely different attitude? Peace seeps in, mercy nudges itself past our own defenses, there is joy when there was not, there is healing where there was pain. And as we surrender more completely in worship, we are reshaped ever more deeply. This is not something that we do; this is something that God does in us. To allow our hearts to be unabashed and selfless in worship is not work but His gift to us. And this unencumbered worship is not just for Sunday, this is about offering all of our lives.”

We might imagine that the kind of wholehearted and “all in” worship described is a very distant thing. And yet many of us know someone who seems able to live with at least one foot in the heavenly chorus line. I had a close friend named Melanie. I met her when I remarked on the beauty of her singing voice from behind me in a worship service. She beamed, introduced herself and told me that she loved to worship God. Melanie also asked me if I would pray for her because, now in her early thirties, cancer had returned to her body. My wife and I got to know Melanie and her husband, Alex, really well. Over about six years we became close friends and we prayed with them often. We saw great breakthroughs in her health, but the cancer finally overcame her.

In all of this time, however, she never stopped worshipping. To visit her was always to have worship music playing somewhere in the house. At the very end, all Melanie could do was to lie with her hand open as the worship music played, swept up in a heavenly chorus that would lift her over the threshold and into throne room. It was as if she were already there. And in that posture, the Lord took her by the hand and led her home. A. W. Tozer wrote, “We must never rest until everything inside us worships God.”

Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.

The Vocabulary of Worship

Anthropologist Franz Boas traveled through the icy waters of Baffin Island in northern Canada during the 1880s, desiring to study the life of the local Inuit people. In his

1911 book, Handbook of American Indian Languages, he let loose the claim that Eskimos have many words for snow. Most academic linguists considered this to be amateur scholarship, and his claim became known as the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest research, however, shows that Boas was correct. Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, in Washington, D.C., has proven that Inuit tribes do indeed have a plethora of words for snow. He also counted 70 terms for ice and 1,000 words for reindeer!

Languages evolve to speak to what is most important in the lives of their speakers. Think how many words we have for coffee. For the people of God, what was supremely important was their great need to worship God, and therefore we discover that within the pages of the Old and New Testaments there is a plethora of beautiful words to describe different aspects of worship. Like a diamond, you can hold these words up to the light and see different facets of God’s invitation to worship freely in His presence.

At first glance, this vocabulary of worship is not apparent in our English Bibles. The original translation of the Old Testament, from Hebrew to Latin to English, compressed or flat-lined multiple Hebrew words, each expressing a distinct facet of worship, into the single word praise. It is not just that our understanding or vocabulary has been compressed, but also, in flat-lining the theology of praise, our worship has become diminished.

Take the Hebrew word halal, which means to celebrate; to be abandoned in worship at the risk of being described as undignified. In this way, David writes, “Let them praise [halal] His name with dancing and make music to Him with the timbrel and harp.” (Psalm 149:3) The God of the Universe made us to praise Him with abandon — like children caught up in the rhythm of a song that makes you want to dance — so you do!

Beneath the drab covers of our word praise we also discover the Hebrew word zamar, meaning to celebrate in song and music. The psalmist writes, “I will sing a new song to You, O God; On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises [zamar] to You” (Psalm 144:9). Zamar is used throughout the Psalms to connote the making of music, celebrating in song and music. It is a word that appears 41 times.

Why? There is a lot going on, physically and emotionally, in music. Music improves visual and verbal skills, and it makes us happier. Studies have shown that music strengthens the heart, and listening to music releases endorphins in the brain that help to improve vascular health. Music improves the quality of our sleep, and even boosts our immune system and reduces pain. Music draws us to one another and increases our sense of self-esteem. Have you ever heard a piece of music and immediately been vividly transported back to a time and a place? According to Christopher Bergland, writing for Psychology Today, if you haven’t heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke even stronger and specific memories of a time and place from your past.

And spiritually, music opens the eyes of our hearts to the in-breaking of heaven. Music is a powerful tool to draw us into a personal experience with God. The prophet Zephaniah tells us that God chooses to quiet us with His love by singing over us. Music disrupts our natural equilibrium and opens an aperture where we behold heaven on earth.

Finally, let me introduce you to the word towdah. This means to extend the hand in praise as a thanksgiving for things not yet received. In the towdah, we lift our hands in the presence of God, not only for what He has done, but also for what we believe He will do. It is to praise God with expectation in His goodness. David wrote while incarcerated, “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises (towdah) to You.” (Psalm 56: 11-12)

When I was at seminary, I did a placement in a poor community on the outskirts of the city. It was a community torn apart by drug abuse and gang violence. I was invited to speak at a gathering called “The Light House,” where people crammed into a tiny sitting room to worship God. They sang along to a mixed tape of worship songs, and they had threadbare photocopies of the cassette box lyrics laid out in tiny, tiny print. Clearly, however, they knew the words. With hands raised, they declared that their story, the story of their community, was not over. That they would rise up and stand in faith. They did not hold back. There was something about this tiny congregation’s declaration of bold faith in the goodness of God — despite all the darkness in their community, all the violence and gang activity, with God at their side they would not back down. They rejoiced in the light of God, holding onto His promises, trusting that He would move. And, God poured out His blessing, and His presence. He inhabited that tiny sitting room.

Is it possible that God wants to take us outside of our comfort zone in worship? Maybe the thought of lifting your hands, or kneeling, or even singing — all feels a little too enthusiastic or emotional? If you feel this way, know that this is not a shock to God and He does not love you any less. But also know this: God desires your full, free expression of praise. In Jesus, we are all called to join with heaven in a holy roar of praise — in all its beautiful facets.

Drew Williams – the Senior Pastor of Trinity Church

Songs about Faith in God Needed Now!

As fear of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) spreads around the world and here in the United States songs about our faith in God are definitely needed.  As Christian musicians and worship leaders we can make this happen. Let’s find those songs that remind us of God’s faithfulness and share them with our family, friends, and congregations. Where do we find those songs? Let’s begin with the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament.

“The book is well named.  It contains the sorrowful expressions of a writer and a nation as they grieve the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C.  Though the text does not identify its author, tradition has attributed Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah. This attribution cannot be proven, but undeniably the writer of these laments shares both Jeremiah’s theological vision and the gut-wrenching experience of Judah’s devastation.”[1]

In chapter three the writer of Lamentations reminds us:

        Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed,
                    for his compassions never fail.
        They are new every morning;
                    great is your faithfulness.
         I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
                    therefore I will wait for him.”
                                Lamentations 3:22-24
 

We now fast forward thousands of years to 1923 when Thomas Chisholm wrote the gospel hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  Even today, his words continue to bring hope and encouragement to Christ’s followers. [2] Here is stanza three and the refrain that is based upon Lamentations 3, verse 23:

         Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
         Thy own presence to cheer and to guide;
         Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
         Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
         Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
         Morning by morning new mercies I see;
         All I have needed Thy had hath provided –
         Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
               Great is Thy faithfulness, Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923
 

We now jump forward almost one hundred years to present day. Now! On February 28, 2020 Vertical Worship released their album Grace Is on Our Side which includes the song “Faithful Now” written by Mia Fields, Jonathan Smith, Hank Bentley, and Eddie Hoagland. [3] Here are the words of the chorus:

         You make mountains move,
         You make giants fall,
         You use songs of praise
         To shake prison walls;
         I will speak to my fear, I will preach to my doubt;
         You were faithful then, You’ll by faithful now.
              Faithful Now, Vertical Worship, 2020
              (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YexUJ2WHik)

It must be stated that the word “You” in this song definitely and absolutely refers to God, the Triune God. The meaning of the phrase “You (God) use songs of praise” should be obvious to Christian musicians and worship leaders. In the last two lines of the chorus notice that the answer to our “fear” and “doubt” is found in the faithfulness of our God; God’s faithfulness in the past, and God’s faithfulness “now.” Ah! Back to Lamentations; back to scripture; back to where all of our “songs of praise” should start.

The God who is eternally faithful to his Believers will enable us to be faithful in singing “songs of praise” during this current time of “fear” and “doubt.” Amen!

[1] The NIV Worship Bible, New International Version (Dana Point: The Corinthian Group, Inc., 2000), 1091.
[2] Reynolds, Willian J., Companion to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), 80.
[3] https://genius.com/Vertical-worship-faithful-now-lyrics, accessed March 21, 2020.