Gospel Formation Through Psalm Singing

Scott Aniol

psalms

As the New Testament’s treatment of the Psalms makes clear, ultimately the Psalms point to the true Blessed Man, the King of Glory who opened the gates of heaven to all who put their trust in him and stands as their mediator and intercessor.

In other words, the Psalms encompass the gospel. But the Psalms don’t just describe the gospel, they form the gospel into our hearts, shaping our imagination of what a truly blessed life will be in willing submission to the King of Glory.

The Psalms encompass the gospel. But the Psalms don’t just describe the gospel, they form the gospel into our hearts, shaping our imagination of what a truly blessed life will be in willing submission to the King of Glory.

Revelation

The gospel begins with God revealing himself as holy Creator and judge and of ourselves as sinners deserving of his wrath. As Psalm 14 explains, no one seeks after God. The only way sinners will ever come to know God is if God initiates an encounter by revealing himself. This is why God’s Revelation—the Law of the Lord—is so centrally important in the Book of Psalms. The truly blessed man will meditate on God’s Law, will allow God’s Word to form his image of who God is and what he expects.

This revelation of God is not only important to bring sinners to a saving knowledge of God, however; delight in God’s Word continues to be critically important for believers. The Holy Spirit does awaken the heart of a believer to see “wondrous things” from God’s Word (Ps 119:18), but as the psalms make clear, believers nevertheless still battle sin within and the temptation to walk in wicked counsel. Therefore, we continue to need God’s Word to reveal more of God to us, to admonish and correct us, and also to encourage and embolden us to walk the blessed path.

Confession & Propitiation

As Psalm 19 indicates, delight in God’s Word will lead to confession. After a sinner recognizes the holiness and justice of God, the gospel continues with repentance, trusting in the perfect King/Priest and his sacrifice on our behalf. And this kind of repentance should continue to characterize the life of forgiven sinners.

Sometimes Christians today resist the idea that they need to confess their sins to God now that they’ve been forever justified by faith in the sacrifice of Christ. They know that repentance is necessary for salvation, but now that they’ve been forgiven, do Christians really need to confess any longer? Perhaps this resistance is one reason Christians today avoid singing the psalms that focus on sin and confession. I once had a pastor tell me that he looked in his church’s hymnal for a song of repentance to accompany his sermon on the subject, and he couldn’t find a single one. We’ve been forgiven by the blood of Christ! Surely we do not need to confess our sin any longer, right?

Consider, however, the fact that almost all of the psalms of confession were written by David. What was David’s spiritual condition when he wrote these psalms? Was he an unbeliever, seeking to be justified?

Well, we do not have to wonder. Paul makes clear in Romans 4 that David was one whose faith was “accounted for righteousness,” and then Paul quotes David’s own words:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,

and whose sins are covered;

8 blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”

This is a quotation of Psalm 32, one of David’s psalms of confession. He acknowledges his sin and confesses his transgressions before the Lord in light of the fact that he is one “to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (v 2). As a forgiven man, he confesses his sin because he is justified.

We are no different than David in this regard. Just because David lived prior to the coming of Christ does not mean he was justified in a different way than we are today. This is Paul’s entire point in Romans 4—David was justified by faith in the atoning sacrifice of his Greater Son, just as we are. As Psalm 110 makes clear, David knew Christ was coming and that he would be his redeemer and priest.

We are saved in the same way as David, and thus like David, we must continually confess our sins to the Lord even after we have been forgiven.

We are saved in the same way as David, and thus like David, we must continually confess our sins to the Lord even after we have been forgiven. The New Testament itself describes the confession of believers. Peter “went out and wept bitterly” after he denied Christ, grieving over his sin (Luke 22:62). Paul confronted sin in the church at Corinth, rejoicing that his words led them to sorrow over their sin “in a godly manner” that led them to repentance (2 Cor 7:9–11). When John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), he was writing to believers who were already justified. In fact, he goes on to say that if we do not acknowledge our sin, that just proves we are not actually believers (v 10). All of this reveals that we Christians should, indeed, regularly confess our sin to the Lord—as David admonishes, “everyone who is godly shall pray to you in a time when you may be found” (Ps 32:6).

This is why we continue to need Psalms of confession to form our hearts, to regularly shape us to be people of repentance. And these psalms continually remind us that the Lord is “good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all who call upon [him]” (Ps 86:5). Forgiveness is possible for all who confess their sin through the sacrificial atonement of God’s Anointed Son, Jesus Christ.

Trust & Thanksgiving

One who has been forgiven of sin responds with trust and thanksgiving, which, as the canonical flow of the psalms embodies, is a necessary pathway from lament over sin and wickedness to praise. Artificial stimulation that ignores the realities of a sin-cursed world are insufficient to cultivate true, deep praise in the heart of a believer. Only when we recognize who God is as the benevolent King as well as all of his manifold blessings to us will we respond with the kind of trust and thanksgiving necessary to move us to truly praise the Lord.

For this reason, psalms that express confident trust in God and thanksgiving for his benefits are plentiful. In fact, almost all of the psalms of confession and lament include at least an element of thanksgiving and trust within them. All biblical confession and lament will necessarily lead us to thanksgiving and trust. We do not wallow in our sin and fear; rather, as the psalms embody, proper acknowledgment of sin within us and around us leads us to flee to the only one who can forgive our sin and protect us from adversity—the Lord God Almighty.

After grieving over the depravity of humankind (Ps 14) and his own failure to ascend God’s holy hill (Ps 15), David cries with trust in God, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I put my trust” (Ps 16:1). After his heartfelt prayer of confession (Ps 51) and a series of laments about the wicked nations (Pss 52–61), David confidently prays,

Truly my soul silently waits for God;

from him comes my salvation.

2 He only is my rock and my salvation;

he is my defense;

I shall not be greatly moved. (Ps 62:1–2)

Even in the darkest of the five movements, the editors included a psalm of thanksgiving:

We give thanks to you, O God, we give thanks!

For your wondrous works declare that your name is near. 

(Ps 75:1)

Instruction and Dedication

One who has been redeemed is prepared to hear the Lord’s instructions and respond with obedience. Remember, the Blessed Man delights in the Law of the Lord (Ps 1:2). He conceives of God’s laws like David did:

More to be desired are they than gold,

yea, than much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

and the honeycomb. (Ps 19:10)

The Blessed Man loves God’s Law and commits to obey it. This is a central theme of the most significant Torah psalm, Psalm 119:

1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way,

who walk in the law of the Lord! 

2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,

who seek him with the whole heart! 

3 They also do no iniquity;

they walk in his ways. 

4 You have commanded us

to keep your precepts diligently. 

5 Oh, that my ways were directed

to keep your statutes! (Ps 119:1–5)

As the psalmist makes clear, keeping the commandments of the Lord must come before any possibility of praise: “I will praise you with uprightness of heart, when I learn your righteous judgments” (Ps 119:7). As is unfortunately so common today, praise is not simply an emotional experience divorced from hearing the Word of God, learning the commands of God, and pursuing a holy life. True praise is possible only when one hears and obeys the Word of the Lord.

Praise is not simply an emotional experienced divorced from hearing the Word of God, learning the commands of God, and pursuing a holy life. True praise is possible only when one hears and obeys the Word of the Lord.

Lament and Supplication

The importance of prayers of lament and supplication is clear because of their prominence in the Book of Psalms. Psalms of lament help form within us proper hearts in the midst of a sin-cursed world. They are a necessary step in the progression toward praise.

Consider, for example, one of the darkest psalms—Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept

when we remembered Zion. 

2 We hung our harps

upon the willows in the midst of it. 

3 For there those who carried us away captive

asked of us a song,

and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 

4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land? 

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand forget its skill! 

6 If I do not remember you,

let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—

if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. 

7 Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom

the day of Jerusalem,

who said, “Raze it, raze it,

to its very foundation!” 

8 O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,

happy the one who repays you as you have served us! 

9 Happy the one who takes and dashes

your little ones against the rock! 

One commenter wrote about Psalm 137, “Most psalms are cherished by Christians. This one is not.” Surely of all the psalms in the collection, this is one that has no relevance, no direct application for Christians today, right? On the contrary, this psalm was an important, formative prayer for those who had experienced for themselves the Babylonian exile. But we, too, are God’s people in exile. We are citizens of another kingdom (Phil 3:20) living as exiles in a hostile land (1 Pet 1:17, 2:11). Like the Hebrews returning from exile, we need these songs of lament to help move us to thanksgiving and praise.

This kind of formative benefit is the value of all of the psalms of lament and supplication. God has given them to us as a necessary means to move us to thank and praise him in the midst of our time of exile.

Classifying the Psalms for Worship

Ever since the influential work of Hermann Gunkel in the early twentieth century, much attention has been given to classifying psalm genre. In fact, I would suggest that Gunkel’s emphasis on isolating each psalm’s genre is one of the factors that has led to a loss of understanding regarding the canonical flow of the psalms. However, as we consider how we ought to use the psalms in corporate, family, and individual worship, it is helpful to classify the various psalms, as long as we don’t lose our grasp of how they all fit together in sequence.

Recognizing how the gospel is embedded in the psalms helps us to see, not only their value for our personal growth and sanctification, but also their importance in corporate worship. Historically, covenant-renewal worship services have been shaped by the gospel similarly to how I classified different kinds of psalms above. Worshipers begin with God’s call for them to worship him, followed by adoration and praise. They then confess their sins to him and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. They thank him for their salvation, they hear his Word preached, and they respond with dedication. Worshipers then offer prayers of supplication, enjoy communion at Christ’s Table, and are sent back into the world with God’s blessing. All of the Scripture readings, prayers, and songs in this order are carefully chosen for their appropriateness in a particular function within the gospel-shaped structure.

This is why it is helpful to classify the psalms based on their function in what we might call a “gospel-shaped liturgy,” that is, how individual psalms function in a service that helps us to reenact our covenant relationship with God through Christ:

Revelation8, 24, 29, 30, 33, 45, 47, 48, 50, 65, 66, 67, 68, 76, 81, 84, 87, 95, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 122, 134, 145
Adoration92, 93, 97, 99, 103, 104, 105, 106, 111, 112, 113, 115, 116, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150
Confession & Propitiation6, 14, 15, 25, 32, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 102, 130, 143
Thanksgiving9, 16, 18, 20, 21, 34, 75, 107, 118, 124, 136, 138, 144
Instruction1, 2, 19, 37, 49, 73, 78, 119, 125, 127, 128, 133
Dedication23, 46, 62, 63, 91, 101, 110, 131
Supplication3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 22, 26, 27, 28, 31, 35, 36, 42, 43, 44, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 86, 88, 89, 90, 94, 109, 120, 121, 123, 126, 129, 132, 137, 139, 140, 141, 142
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author psalms

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.