One of the reasons we sing is as a response to God’s nature and his works. As Psalm 96 expresses, we bless his name, declare his salvation, and give him glory because he is worthy of those expressions. And these expressions also serve as a powerful witness to the unbelieving world.
But there is a second reason that we sing that I believe is often forgotten, overlooked, or ignored, and we see it in Psalm 96 as well. I want you to notice a couple key aspects of the poetic development of thought through this psalm. The psalm progresses from God’s people singing among the nations in the first stanza (vv 1–6) to all the families of the earth ascribing him glory in the second stanza (vv 7–9). Is that a present reality? Are all the peoples of the earth currently praising God? Certainly not.
In fact, the call for all people to praise God is even more surprising considering the special focus on the people of Israel in the Old Testament, the original audience of this psalm. For David to address all the families of the people instead of just one family—children of Abraham—seems odd, until we remember that although God chose Abraham and his descendants as his special, chosen people, he also promised to Abraham that through that one family, God would bless all the families of the earth (Gen 28:14). The Old Testament is filled with prophecies indicating that one day all the nations will come to worship God.
Yet even now that hasn’t happened. God’s focus in this age has spread beyond just Israel to the Gentiles, but even now all the families of the peoples are not praising God; they are not all being blessed. So when will that happen?
Before we answer that question, consider how David further develops the psalm in the third stanza (vv 11–13). He has moved from Israel praising God among the nations in stanza one to all the nations praising God in stanza two; where does he move from there in stanza three? Look at verse 11:
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord.
This is not just Israel praising the Lord, or even all the nations of the earth; this is the earth itself praising God! Is that happening now? Well, there is a sense in which even now the heavens and earth are displaying the glory of God and magnifying his greatness in that way (Ps 19). But the heavens are not rejoicing; the earth is not glad; the fields are not joyful; the forests are not singing before the Lord. Scripture tells us that creation is groaning as a result of the curse (Rom 8:22).
Responding to Future Realities
Like the reality of all the families of the people praising God, all the heavens and the earth praising God is something that is yet to come. So when will these things take place? Well, keep reading in verse 13: “For he comes.” In other words, the rejoicing of the heavens, the gladness of the earth, the roaring of the sea, the joy of the field, and the singing of the trees are in response to the coming of the Lord. When does that happen? Keep reading: “for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.”
What is interesting is that the phrase “he comes” is not in the future tense in Hebrew; it is in the perfect tense, which is used to describe actions that have already happened in the past or are considered as already completed. For David and the Hebrews signing Psalm 96, any sort of coming the Lord was entirely future, and yet here they are singing in a sense as if it had already happened. Remember, a good song expresses affections to the Lord in response to who God is and what he has done, and yet here, they are responding to something that hasn’t happened yet as if it has already happened.
Even for us, who live on this side of the first coming of Christ into the world, the coming described here at the end of Psalm 96 is the second coming of Christ; it is yet future—Christ did not judge the world when he came the first time (Jn 12:47); that will happen when he comes again (Matt 25:31–46). In other words, the reality of all the families of the peoples giving glory to the Lord is future, and the reality of all of creation praising the Lord is future; these things will not come to pass until the Lord comes again to judge the world, which again, is future.
Now, it makes sense to sing in response to things that God has done in the past—God made the heavens and he saved us; it makes sense to sing in response to those realities. And it makes sense to sing in response to present realities—God is great, he is majestic, he is glorious and strong, he is righteous and faithful; it makes sense to respond to those things. But why would we respond to things that have not yet taken place as if they have already happened, as this psalm does?
The Formative Power of Song
The answer to that question reveals the second reason we sing. The first reason we sing is a response of thanksgiving; our hearts respond to past and present realities about God’s nature and works, and singing gives us voice to express our hearts toward God in response.
But the second reason we sing, which is highlighted when we respond to something that has not yet taken place, is that singing forms us. In other words, when we sing in response to something that has not yet happened, we are in a sense acting out that future reality and, in so doing, we are formed by it.
You see, response to something implies that you have experienced it. The experience usually comes first, that experience forms us, and then out of what has been formed in us through the experience, we respond. For example, I remember watching the horrors of 9/11 unfold as they were happening that day. I experienced them. That experience shaped me; it shaped my feelings about this country; it shaped my feelings about rescue personnel; it shaped my feelings about terrorists. And now I respond toward all of those things in certain ways as a result of my experience. But how can we respond to something we have not yet experienced? We have not yet experienced all the nations giving glory to the Lord, or all the earth singing for joy, or the Lord coming to judge the earth. How can David expect us to respond to those things?
This is actually one of the great powers of art. Art, like a song, is a way of creating an experience that we have not actually experienced so that we can be formed as if we have experienced it. Consider, for example, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. What is the value of a fictional story about a man traveling toward a Celestial City? We read about Christian’s journey, one in which he is formed by various experiences along the way. Bunyan created an allegory of salvation and the Christian life in such a way that by walking along the journey with Christian, we can be formed by his journey as if we are experiencing his journey ourselves.
This is the power of all art—literature, drama, painting, poetry, and song—they don’t just allow us to express what we have already personally experienced, they also shape our responses through portraying powerfully formative realities that we have not actually experienced for ourselves. This is an important point: the goal of art (like a psalm) is not simply to inform our intellects; the goal of art is to shape the inclinations of our hearts (our worldview), and we do that as we muse on God’s inspired embodiment of true blessedness in the canonical flow of the psalms and in the poetry of psalms individually.
This is why we would sing a poem about a future reality, singing it as if it is happening right now. By singing about all the families of the people praising God, all of creation praising God, and the Lord coming to judge the earth in righteousness and faithfulness, our hearts are shaped as if we are really experiencing those realities right now. It is more than just an expression of hope that these things will indeed happen; through art, we are making the future momentarily present such that it can form us.
This is actually true for past and even present realities as well. Israel at the time of David hadn’t experienced for themselves the Exodus from Egypt, for example. And yet there are many psalms that artistically recreate the Exodus so that as people sang of that experience, they could be shaped by it as if they had been there. Take Psalm 114, for example. The psalm opens, “When Israel went out from Egypt,” and then it artistically portrays the Exodus for those who didn’t actually experience it for themselves. The psalmist employs all sorts of poetic devices to shape the singer’s heart, but the psalm’s position canonically is also formative. Psalm 114, which itself is not a Hallel (Praise) Psalm, is surrounded by Praise Psalms:
Psalm 111: “Hallelujah!”
Psalm 112: “Hallelujah!”
Psalm 113: “Hallelujah! . . . Hallelujah!”
Psalm 114: “When Israel went out from Egypt . . .”
Psalm 115: “. . . Hallelujah!”
Psalm 116: “. . . Hallelujah!”
Psalm 117: “Hallelujah! . . . Hallelujah!”
Simply by its place in the canonical flow, singers would be formed to praise the Lord, with a poetic recreation of the Exodus from Egypt at the center, supporting their praise with objective, historical realities about God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from oppression. Likewise, none of us experienced any of the events of Israel’s history, but by singing artistic representations of them, we can be shaped by them. By singing them as if they happened today, we are making past realities momentarily present so that they can form us once again.
This is also why good songs don’t just express things like joy, praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, they also recount the reasons for those responses, because by also singing the reasons, we are further formed by them as we experience them over and over again through the art.
You see, today Christians often recognize the expressive power of singing in worship. We know that songs give us a way to express our hearts to God. But Christians often fail to recognize the formative power of song. Songs both express and form, and so we need to be careful to discern both what a song is expressing to determine whether what it expresses is accurate and faithful to Scripture, and we must discern how a song forms our expressions to determine whether how it forms us is also faithful to Scripture.
We choose songs to sing in our corporate worship not just because they give us good ways to express what is already in our hearts; we choose good songs that form our expressions, maturing them, growing them, and expanding them in ways that would not necessarily happen naturally. That is what these psalms do: We are singing about past, present, and future realities such that they all become present through the art, shaping our hearts to respond with affections to the Lord that are appropriate for those realities.