One of the Enthronement Psalms, Psalm 96, is a perfect example of the power of song to respond in thanks to the Lord’s blessings.
1 Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established;
it shall never be moved
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
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, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
This psalm is taken from David’s hymn of thanks composed by King David on the occasion of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem.1The psalm is an almost exact reproduction of 1 Chronicles 16:23–33, with a few minor changes. David’s hymn has an important function in the canonical flow of the five books of Psalms, and it particularly helps us to understand the nature and purpose of singing—musing on God’s music.
Psalm 96 is a hymn comprised of three stanzas: stanza 1—vv 1–6; stanza 2—vv 7–9; stanza 3—vv 11–13.2Verse 10 stands alone, for reasons we will see shortly. A hymn is a call to praise God in response to the nature and works of God. Tremper Longman notes that in the Psalter, hymns always “begin with a call to worship,” and then they “continue by expanding on the reasons why God should be praised.”3Tremper Longman III., How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1988), 24. You can clearly see this in the structure of the psalm. Verses 1–3 are calls to worship the Lord, and verses 4–6 describe the reasons for worship. That marks the first stanza of this hymn. A similar pattern follows in the second stanza beginning in verse 7, and in the third stanza beginning in verse 11. In each case, this song is an expression of worship in response to understanding truth about God.
Understanding this structure will help us to discern why God would have us sing this psalm, any psalm, or any song in worship for that matter. There is no question that Psalm 96 is a call to sing. In fact, David emphasizes this fact by repeating the call to sing three times right at the beginning:
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name.
Notice the nature of singing in this psalm. What is it? What are we doing when we sing to the Lord?
Well, David communicates something of the nature of singing very clearly in how he develops the ideas of the psalm. The psalm opens with three commands to sing—Sing … Sing … Sing—followed by three verbs set in parallel with the three commands to sing: bless … tell … declare. David is developing what it means to sing with this additional set of three verbs. To sing is to bless the Lord, it is to tell the good news of his salvation, it is to declare his glory.
In fact, David uses verbs grouped in threes in this psalm a couple more times to develop what it means to sing to the Lord. Consider verse 7: “ascribe … ascribe … ascribe.” To sing to the Lord is to ascribe to him something he deserves, namely, glory and strength, the glory due his name. The next group of three verbs starts in verse 8: “Bring an offering … worship the Lord … tremble before him.” This is what we are doing when we sing. The next group begins at verse 11. In the English we read, “Let … let … let,” which reflects well the underlying Hebrew.4The second “let” in verse 11 isn’t actually there in the Hebrew, so this is another grouping of three verbs. These are called jussives, which are third person imperatives. In other words, these are verbs commanded not directly toward us, but toward others—in this case, the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the field. But still, we have here a grouping of three verbs that explain the nature of the command to sing: “rejoice … roar … exult.”
You see, David intentionally gives us these groupings of three verbs to expand and explore the nature of singing to the Lord. His use of parallel groupings of three reveals that these are not separate ideas; he does not command us to sing and then separately command us to bless, proclaim, declare, give, and so forth, as if these are just lists of things we should do. Rather, in expressing these commands in parallel groups of threes, David is poetically developing one central thread of interconnected ideas. When we sing, we bless the Lord, we proclaim his salvation, we declare his glory, we give to him the glory and strength due his name, we rejoice, we express, and we exult him.
In other words, when we sing to the Lord, we are not just making music. We are not just doing something pretty or enjoyable. The verbs in these groupings poetically embody the reality that when we sing to the Lord, profound things are taking place. We are expressing weighty affections from our hearts like joy and exultation; we are magnifying God’s glory and strength; we are proclaiming what he has done. And there are other kinds of expressions that are not in this psalm but are described elsewhere throughout the Psalter. Singing helps us express thanksgiving, lament, contrition, praise, confession, grief, love, and so much more.
In fact, singing helps us to express those things to the Lord in ways that would not be possible if we didn’t have song. Singing gives us a language for the expression of our hearts when words alone would be inadequate. We can and should certainly bless the Lord with simple words—we ought to proclaim his salvation, declare his glory, and exult him with just words alone. But singing helps us to do all of that in nuanced and expansive ways that words alone cannot capture. Augustine said, “The sound of jubilation signifies that love, born in our heart, that cannot be spoken. And to whom is such jubilation due if not to God; for he is the ineffable One, he Whom no words can define. But if you cannot speak him into words, and yet you cannot remain silent, what else is left to you if not the song of jubilation, the rejoicing of your heart beyond all words, the immense latitude of the joy without limit of syllables.”5McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 356. That’s the power of singing.
Singing as a Response
But I want you to also notice that these expressions of our hearts through singing do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they for their own sake. Rather, singing to the Lord is a response—a response to who God is and what he has done, which is at the heart of true thankfulness. We can see this just in the structure of this hymn. David gives a call to express through singing, and then reasons for those expressions, another call to sing followed by reasons for singing, and then a final call to sing followed by reasons for singing.
In fact, in two of the three stanzas, this is clearly seen with another grouping of three. Consider verse 4: After the threefold call to sing and the threefold development of what that means, we find “For great is the Lord … For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols (v 5) …” and then implied also in verse 6, for “splendor and majesty are before him …” These are three reasons we sing. Something similar appears in verse 13. After the threefold call for the earth, the sea, and the field to sing, we find “For he comes, for he comes to judge the earth,” and again implied, for “he will judge the world.” And although we do not find this grouping of “for” in the second stanza (vv 7–9), that stanza, too, is filled with reasons for the singing.
This is important to recognize, because this is a central reason we sing. We sing not simply as an expression of emotion. We sing not even to simply express emotion directed toward God. Nor do we sing as simply a recitation of facts about God—our songs are not simply a collection of correct theological statements.
Our singing contains both expressions of appropriate affections directed toward the Lord and theological reasons for those expressions. A song that contains only descriptions of emotion can easily devolve into sentimentalism or emotionalism, and a song that contains only statements of theological facts defeats the whole purpose of singing and leads to dry intellectualism. Biblical singing avoids both extremes by expressing both the heart’s affection toward God and the reasons for those affections, as modeled in Psalm 96.
Reasons for Singing
So what, then, are the reasons David gives for singing to the Lord? First, we sing because of the worthiness of God. He is worthy of the kinds of expressions described here; his very nature and character are worthy. He is great, and therefore he deserves praise (v 4). In fact, the pagan gods are worthless compared to him (v 5). “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (v 6). Glory and strength are due his name (v 8). He is righteous and faithful (v 13). In other words, God is great, he is majestic, he is glorious and strong, he is righteous and faithful, and therefore he deserves expressions of praise, adoration, fear, trembling, and rejoicing.
But not only is God’s nature and character worthy, he is also worthy because of what he has done, and David lists many of God’s “marvelous works” (v 3) in this psalm. He saved us (v 2). He made the heavens (v 5). He is coming to judge the earth (v 13). Each of these acts of God deserves our response, and so David proclaims such a response.
But there is also another profound reason we sing beyond the worthiness of God, and it is also at the core of the progression of thought in this psalm. According to David, this singing is not supposed to take place just in isolated conclaves of God’s people. Rather, singing is supposed to take place, according to verse 3, “among the nations … among all the peoples.” Why? Isn’t it true that this singing is only for the redeemed people of God? Is it not true that only God’s people can worship him? Is it not true that this singing is to God and for God? Yes, that is true. Only the redeemed people of God can sing these kinds of expressions, and the primarily audience of this singing is God. But we are to do so among unbelieving peoples. Why?
Well, the reason we are to sing among the nations is not stated in this psalm overtly, but it is expressed by means of the psalm’s development through its three stanzas. Remember, this is poetry, and one of the powers of poetry is its ability to communicate in an embodied way instead of overt expression. Notice that this command in the first stanza to sing among the nations and among all peoples progresses into the second stanza (vv 7–9), where the command to give glory to the Lord to given to all “the families of the peoples.” There is an expansion from the people of God alone singing to him among the nations (vv 1– 6) to all the nations ascribing glory to him (vv 7–9). It progresses from one singular people of God singing his praises to all the peoples of the earth. How does that happen? It happens because, as God’s people sing to him among the nations—as they bless his name, as they proclaim his salvation, and as they declare his glory, this serves as a powerful witness to the unbelieving people of the world. It leads those same people to join in with the praise.
You see, there is nothing more evangelistic than God-centered worship in which we bless his name, we magnify his glory, we delight in his splendor, and we recount his works of creation and salvation.
And notice that this kind of singing in worship is a powerful witness without changing what we sing or how we sing in order to attract or appeal to the unbelievers. In fact, this song explicitly calls the pagan gods worthless—that doesn’t sound very seeker sensitive! No, what is the greatest witness to the unbelieving world is when we faithfully recite the works of the Lord in our worship and respond rightly with our hearts, expressing these things verbally through singing.
So, according to Psalm 96, we sing in worship because it helps us express thanksgiving toward God in response to the worthiness of his character and works, which both glorifies him and is a powerful witness to the unbelieving world.
|1||The psalm is an almost exact reproduction of 1 Chronicles 16:23–33, with a few minor changes.|
|2||Verse 10 stands alone, for reasons we will see shortly.|
|3||Tremper Longman III., How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1988), 24.|
|4||The second “let” in verse 11 isn’t actually there in the Hebrew, so this is another grouping of three verbs.|
|5||McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 356.|