It is not an exaggeration to state that for more than three millennia the Psalms have been not only the center of true spiritual affection for people of faith—those who love the Lord—these poems have served as the common core in both private devotion and in congregational worship of God. It is only in our modern age that the Psalms have seemed to lose some of their historic luster. This is partly due to the fact that, for many people today, the enjoyment of poetry is something of a lost art and the use of the Psalms in public worship in many churches has become more of a novelty than standard fare.
One of the commentaries on the Book of Psalms was written by a Scottish professor whose growing up was in the context of the continuing use of the Psalms in Christian worship. As a boy, he remembers:
It was the custom in Scotland for boys to wear the kilt to church on Sunday; to this day I can recall singing the words of Psalm 147:10, in the Prayer Book version: “neither delighteth he in any man’s legs.” I pondered at that time the problem of whether Scripture condemned the kilt.
The same psalm may seem to suggest that God hates horses also. Yikes.
I am convinced that, even today, only those who have yet to truly encounter the Psalms or those who undervalue beauty or spirituality could fail to love the Psalms. Sadly, there are many folk in our churches who not only do not love the Psalms, they do not even have the Psalms on their personal radar. More’s the pity.
Of course it’s more than something we can shrug our shoulders at; Paul himself commissioned the singing of the Psalms when he wrote concerning music in worship for the churches—congregations that met in homes or villas in his day:
. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. (Eph 5:19)
Paul spoke of three genres of music in these passages. Concerning the first, “Psalms,” there is no debate. The early Christians continued to worship God in their singing of the Psalms of Hebrew Scripture. Likely their singing of the Psalms was more joyous than ever as they saw fulfillment of the old words in the person of Christ.
What’s the Point?
So what are these ancient poems that make up such a huge section at the center of our English Bibles? Why should they be regarded as significant? Aside from pedantry, who cares?
Well, we—the people of faith—should care!
Leaders of the worship of God in the Church should care the very most!
First, the Psalms are the inspired Word of God.
He declares His word to Jacob,
His statues and His judgments to Israel. (Ps 147:19)
There are countless anthems, sacred songs, hymns, praise songs that have been written since the time of Christ—indeed music in a plethora of genres—that are inspiring, motivating, beautiful, lovely, and the like. These are songs that speak to us, through us, and for us. But none but the Psalms (and the other biblical songs and hymns) can be said to be the lyrics that came from women and men in whom the Spirit of God moved so directly as to call their words sacred Scripture. This fact alone should mean much to people of faith. The Psalms are, above all other spiritual lyrics, inspired.
Second, the Psalms have within their parallel lines of Hebrew poetry the artistic expression of the highest desires and aspirations of people of God as well as the lowest feelings of pain, loneliness, and lost-ness one can imagine.
My soul faints for Your salvation,
But I hope in Your word. (Ps 119:81)
The Psalms are the expressions of deep feelings of both divine abandonment and of spiritual exaltedness. The Psalms are, above all other forms of music, real.
Third, the Psalms were composed over a period of a thousand years; a full millennium separates the first biblical psalms written by Moses (Ps 90) in the mid-fifteenth century B.C. and the psalms written during the period of the return to and the rebuilding of Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity (e.g., Ps 147) in the fifth century B.C.
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations, . . .” (Ps 90:1)
“The Lord builds up Jerusalem; . . . “ (Ps 147:2).
Moreover, many psalms are found interspersed through the pages of the biblical narrative outside the Book of Psalms. A few examples include the “first Psalm” in the Bible, the Victory Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, the Psalm of Hannah in 1 Samuel 4, the Psalm of Deborah in Judges 5, the Psalm of Jonah in Jonah 2, the Psalm of Habakkuk in Habakkuk 3, and the Psalm of the Millennium in Isaiah 12. Psalms were written by Jewish poets in the years “between the Testaments,” as is attested by non-biblical psalms among the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Qumran Literature). The pages of the New Testament contain some Hebrew-style psalms as well; consider the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1 and psalm elements in the worship of God described in the Book of Revelation (see chapters 4 and 5). The writing of biblical psalms was, in addition to other things, scripturally pervasive.
Fourth, the Psalms are expressions of lovely art.
But You, O Lord, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head. (Ps 3:3)
It is precisely because the Psalms have such grace, beauty, and style that some influential scholars over a hundred years ago decided that these poems were far too finely crafted to have come from such a rustic age as the superscriptions may suggest—especially the many that are ascribed to David (c. 1000 B.C.).
Yet today we have psalms written in other ancient Near Eastern cultures that predate the Psalms in Hebrew Scripture, sometimes by many centuries. Kenneth Kitchen, a world-class scholar of Egyptology, has compiled a work on the poetry of ancient Egypt. He has printed for the first time what he believes to be the oldest psalm extant from the ancient Near East; he dates it to c. 3000 B.C. This psalm is truly rustic! But it betrays the basic concepts of parallelism that later marks Egypto-Semitic poetry. And it was written two millennia before David got out of Hebrew school or Awana. The biblical Psalms, no matter when they were written, are works of literary art.
Fifth, the Psalms were written to be sung; they were music.
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp. (Ps 150:3)
The meaning of the English word “psalm” is to be found in the Greek word which it transliterates, psalmos—a term that means “to be sung with instrumental accompaniment.” While we may read the texts of the Psalms today, when these poems were a part of Temple worship in ancient Israel, they were perceived and experienced as music.
I like to think that it is God’s mercy that we do not know more about how music was done in the days of the First or Second Temples, for the “music police” would require that such patterns are the only ones that may be permitted by the people of God. We do know an astonishing fact: all of the musical instruments used by the people of God in the worship of God under the blessing of God in the Temple of God (!)—all of them were originally of pagan origin, design, and manufacture. Hebrew people in Bible times adapted instruments from their neighbors and used them for God’s holy worship. Thus, I have argued that “the devil’s instrument” is that instrument that has not yet been mastered by a believer to be used in God’s holy worship. The Book of Psalms is principally a book for the community at worship using the vehicle of music.
For the Hurting
Sixth, the Psalms have been and are of inestimable comfort to hurting people. In times of discouragement and loss, loneliness, and despair, where does one turn in Scripture for help and direction, for comfort and solace, for direction and hope—I suspect that for many, many people it is still in the Book of Psalms.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” “The Lord shall keep your going out and coming in.” “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” “The Lord is for me, who can be against me?”
Filled With Praise
Seventh, the Psalms direct the saddest heart to the worship of God and encourage the gladdest heart to continue to do the same. The Hebrew title for the Book of Psalms is Tehillim, the plural noun that you will recognize from its verb, halal, “to praise.” Many of the Psalms are not actually praise psalms, but the notion of praise is still dominant in the whole and is seen over and over in the parts.
Some psalms are what we call Psalms of Descriptive Praise.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul! (Ps 146:1)
These psalms, such as Psalm 100, call for people to “give a shout out” to Yahweh because of who he is and what he does. Other psalms, such as Psalm 40, are Psalms of Declarative Praise, where God is praised by the psalmist for specific actions and answers to prayer. A major element of the Psalms of Lament is the “vow of praise” or the “recital of praise.” The biblical purpose for prayer as expressed in the Book of Psalms is to have a grand occasion to celebrate God’s goodness when He answers one’s prayer. The Psalms center on the concept of praise.
Eighth, the Psalms have an unusual focus on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You are priest forever,
According to the order of Melchizedek.” (Ps 110:4)
I have written two books on the prophetic passages in the Book of Psalms respecting the first and second advents of Christ. These books join many others in a united testimony, first advanced by Christ himself and then bolstered in the preaching of the Apostles, that Christ is in the Psalms, Christ is the center of the Psalms, Christ is the singer of the Psalms, Christ is the target in the prophetic trajectory of the Psalms. In his human life, our Lord lived in and brought deep, deep meaning to the lyrics of Israel’s ancient worship book. The Psalms find their ultimate meaning in Christ.
A Great Commission
Seems like the Psalms should matter to us. In our 21st century services of worship with all of our innovations and aspirations, let’s sing not only a new song, but also an old psalm! And let’s become passionate about finding the ever-renewing New Song in the Church’s greatest treasure of biblical worship songs.
There is so much to learn from the singing of the Psalms, and we do not have to be constrained by the musical forms of three thousand years ago in our singing. The singing and orchestrating of the Psalms may be done in the most creative and contemporary manner; they may also be sung and used in traditional ways—given the extent of tradition throughout the history of the people of God. But sing them we should and sing them we must.
Recall the words of Paul:
. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. (Eph 5:19)
In addition to his teaching responsibilities at Dallas Seminary, Dr. Allen ministers as a guest professor or lecturer in schools in North America and in numerous countries abroad. He preaches in churches across the country, speaks at Bible conferences, regularly leads study tours in Israel, Turkey, and Greece, and has been a biblical and theological consultant for Maranatha! Music. He has written a dozen books, was one of the senior editors for The New King James Version, Old Testament, and was the Old Testament editor for both The Nelson Study Bible (aka The NKJV Study Bible) and The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. His ongoing research interests are in the worship of God and in studies of the grace of God in Hebrew Scripture.
Many would say “more than two millennia,” but I believe that the first Psalms we have in the Bible were written by Moses in the 15th century B.C. Derek Kidner’s two books on the Psalms remain a fine introduction; Psalms 1-72 and Psalms 73-150, both published in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, edited by D. J. Wiseman (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 12.
The point of this verse is apposite to what may be assumed:
“He does not delight in the strength of the horse;
He takes no pleasure in the legs of a man.
The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him,
In those who hope in His mercy” (Psalm 147:10, 11).
The issue is really this: as much as God the Creator loves horses, and as much as God the Sustainer admires the strong legs of an athlete, He has much more pleasure in the faithfulness of the godly person. One of the hazards in reading any poetry is to make an assumption of meaning before the full context is observed. These two verses provide an example of Hebrew contrastive style—and wit.
All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version. See also Colossians 3:16.
“Hymns” would be the new doctrinal songs that emphasized the person and work of Jesus Christ; “spiritual songs” may have been the first century’s version of the modern praise songs. Donald P. Hustad has written on these issues in Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1980), and other books.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Psalms begins the last third collection, the Writings, after the books of Torah and the Prophets.
Kenneth A. Kitchen, Poetry of Ancient Egypt (Jonsered, Sweden, 1999).
See Ronald B. Allen and Craig H. Allen, The Wonder of Worship: A New Understanding of the Worship Experience (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 160.
See Ronald B. Allen, “Suffering in the Psalms and Wisdom Books,” in Why, O God? Suffering and Disability in the Bible and the Church, ed, Larry J. Waters and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
This is a major element in my book, And I Will Praise Him. See chapter 11, “Why Pray?”
Rediscovering Prophecy: A New Song for a New Kingdom; and Lord of Song: Messiah in the Psalms.
What's Your Reaction?
Over the last 30 years, Worship Leader Magazine has been blessed to have many different contributors on the editorial team - this is their archive.