I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.
The phrase “new song” comes to us from the Psalms, where it appears six times. Four of these are invitations to sing to the Lord a new song (33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 149:1). One is a profession by the psalmist that he will sing a new song (144:9). The other instance of this language, in Psalm 40, identifies the source of a new song: “[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth” (40:3).
Biblical scholars see two possible meanings of the phrase “new song” (shir chadash in Hebrew). Some emphasize the literal newness of the lyrics. Others explain that a new song needn’t be recently written. The psalmist can use this language to refer to a familiar song sung with new meaning and passion. Both literal and figurative meanings of “new song” may well be present in the Psalms.
A New Song in Psalm 40
No matter the precise interpretation of “new song,” the Psalms reveal that a new song comes from a fresh experience of God. This is especially clear in Psalm 40:1-3. David was stuck in a metaphorical “slimy pit,” crying out to the Lord (40:1-2). The Lord heard his prayer and delivered him, setting his feet on a rock (40:2). Thus, David exclaims, “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (40:3). Either David began singing some familiar song with new vigor or he composed a brand new song (perhaps Psalm 40 itself). In either case, he simply couldn’t contain his joy over God’s deliverance. David had to express in music his gratitude for God’s merciful salvation.
Psalm 40 reminds us that a new song flows from the fountain of divine grace. As it washes over us, renewing us, comforting us, freeing us, and empowering us, God’s goodness calls forth our praise. It invigorates us to sing familiar hymns with renewed fervor. And for those gifted with poetic and/or musical ability, it inspires new creations to glorify God.
Worship Leaders and New Songs
All the worship leaders with whom I’ve worked throughout my 20 years as a pastor have been on a quest for new songs. Some have sought hymns and anthems for choir-led worship services. Others have combed CCLI and new album releases for songs suited to their band-led celebrations. Novel, creative, truthful compositions, no matter the genre, can indeed help people worship with fresh insight and emotion.
Thus I applaud the efforts of my colleagues to find new songs that are theologically, poetically, and musically compelling. Yet Psalm 40 encourages us not to get too wrapped up in the songs themselves. What matters most for “New Song” worship is the presence and activity of the living God. When we are experiencing God’s grace and power as He lifts us out of our slimy pits, then, like David, we will find our mouths—and hearts filled with New Song.
For worship leaders, this means that we must be devoted to spiritual renewal above all. Even more important for our leadership than finding outstanding new songs is the continual renewal of our own relationship with God. Honestly, in my experience as a worship leader and preacher, this is much harder than finding fresh content for services. It requires that I devote myself most of all to growing in my own, personal relationship with God.
Moreover, when we keep in mind the divine source of each new song, we who lead worship will remember that we are not crafting emotional and intellectual experiences for people so much as guiding them into a prayerful, transformative encounter with the living God. When God lifts our people out of the mud and mire, when God embraces them in His love, when God heals and empowers them, then they will indeed sing new songs . . . again and again.
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The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, leader, speaker, blogger, and consultant for Christian organizations. Currently, Mark is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. In this role, he provides visionary, strategic, and tactical leadership for the Center, which seeks to serve leaders so they might flourish in life and leadership. In addition to serving leaders directly, the De Pree Center helps churches so they might encourage, teach, mentor, form, and support marketplace leaders. Part of Mark’s work for the Center involves serving leaders and churches by writing Life for Leaders, a daily, digital devotional that is emailed to over 5300 subscribers each morning.