Psalm singing has declined in Evangelical churches, and the case I have made in my new book is that a core reason is that modern Christians do not understand the purpose of the canonical structure of the Psalter and its poetry to shape our inner conception of true blessedness under the rule of God in the midst of a sin-cursed world. The formative power of the Psalms is meant to lead us to praise God, but not in a sort of way that ignores reality. The Book of Psalms ends with all creation praising the Lord without exception and without hindrance in Psalm 150, but the book doesn’t start there; the book gives much attention to the reality of wickedness around us and sin within us, and one of the functions of how this book is organized is to help us progress from lament over this wickedness to praise in the midst of it. This is why we must sink ourselves deeply in the Psalms. Understanding the purpose and power of God-inspired poetry will help us to recover what we have lost and allow God’s music to form us as he intended.
The central purpose of the Book of Psalms is to shape our image of what it truly means to be blessed such that we will be able to praise the Lord, even in the midst of a wicked world and our own sinful flesh. Psalms 1 and 2 present the foundation to this image of blessedness as a proper conception of life under God’s rule. God is King, he has set his Anointed One on Zion, his holy hill, and all who submit to that rule and actually take refuge in him will be blessed like a tree flourishing by streams of water. However, if you conceive of God’s rule as something that is burdensome, if you seek to cast off the rule of God and his Anointed, if that’s your image of what it means to be blessed, then you will perish.
The Book of Psalms traces out the conflict between these two images of life under God’s rule throughout all of history in such a way that we will be able to know how to praise the Lord in the midst of that conflict. It might look like the wicked are prospering, but God is on his throne, he has determined the destiny of the wicked and the righteous, and all who take refuge in him will be blessed.
Allowing the Word of God to form that image in our hearts—musing on the music of God’s Word—is what will lead us out of the lament toward praise. It is what will help keep us from despair when we look around us and see so much chaos and wickedness, and it’s what will keep us from giving in to the counsel of the wicked that tempts us to follow a different path, one that conceives of the good life apart from the rule of God.
But this is also why it is important to understand the overarching flow of the Psalter and the image it is seeking to form in us. The Book of Psalms’ five-movement cantata traces the outworking of God’s rule through his Anointed One in the midst of a wicked world, not tracing it in terms of historical events—that’s the purpose of the historical books in Scripture—but in creating an artistic image of that outworking of God’s plan that can form our imagination more powerfully. Movement I shows the preservation of David, God’s Anointed King; Movement II unfolds the continuation of the Davidic rule over his enemies and extended to his son, Solomon; Movement III portrays the anxiety created by the Babylonian exile that God had abandoned his covenant to David; but Movement IV reaffirms that God is still on his throne and that his steadfast love endures forever; this leads to Movement V anticipating the coming of David’s Greater Son and progressively moving to thanksgiving and trust, until the last five psalms break forth with unhindered praise to the Lord.
The Book of Psalms in Hebrew was called Tehilim—“Praises.” The goal of these 150 songs is certainly that God’s people would praise him for who he is and what he has done. But the Psalms are called “praises,” not because that is the only content we find there; in fact, the theme of praise really doesn’t feature until the very end of Movement IV and into Movement V. Rather, the first four movements are filled with songs of lament, confession, thanksgiving, and trust, all with the purpose of forming hearts of praise in the midst of wickedness around us and sin within us.
Sing a New Song
One particular term in the Psalms, “new song,” encapsulates the formative goal of praise that I explore in my book. It appears six times in the Psalms:
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings,
with loud shouts. (Ps 33:3)
He put a new song in my mouth,
A song of praise to our God.
Many will see it and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Ps 40:3)
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth! (Ps 96:1)
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him. (Ps 98:1)
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you. (Ps 144:9)
Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly! (Ps 149:1)
It also appears one other time in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 42:10, where it is used similarly to its use in the Psalms:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,
you coastlands and their inhabitants.
Though the Book of Psalms contains much more than praise, praise is certainly the goal, and from its use in these verses, the “new song” is clearly connected in some way with that goal of praise. In fact, we are commanded to sing this new song of praise.
Out of the Pit
Yet this new song of praise is not an artificially-engineered, escapist euphoria that ignores the realities of sin and adversity. Rather, it is a song of praise that comes out of experiences of turmoil. Psalm 40 perhaps portrays it best:
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Ps 40:1–3)
This metaphor of a pit or “the depths” (Ps 130) pictures a place of desperation. This “pit of destruction” in Psalm 40 could be as a result of David’s own sin or external adversity, but either way what is clear is that the new song comes as a result of being delivered from a desperate situation.
You see, the fact of the matter is that praise is sweeter when it comes in response to deliverance; praise is deeper when preceded by lament. A kind of “praise” that is worked up artificially through means that ignore the realities of a sin cursed world is empty and baseless. That kind of “praise” will not sustain you when the trouble inevitably comes.
But as the psalms make clear through their thematic progression and through the structure of many of the individual psalms themselves, the goal of praise is reached when we walk through the dark valleys, confessing our sin and crying out in lament, all the while having our hearts formed to trust God and thank him for his many blessings.
Song of the Redeemed
Interestingly, the term “new song” also appears two times in the New Testament, both in the book of Revelation, when Jesus the Lord comes to judge the earth.
The first is in Revelation 5. This is John’s vision of heavenly worship when the Lord comes. Chapter 4 describes angels surrounding the throne of God, and it relates two songs that those angels are singing to God day and night. The first is “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty,” and the second is “Worthy are you, our Lord and God.” But then in chapter 5, John sees “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of Jesse,” a Lamb standing, “as though it had been slain.” John sees the Anointed One, Jesus Christ, proclaimed as the only one worthy of opening the scroll that would establish his right to rule the Kingdom of God. This kind of scroll with seals was used as a title deed for land. We see this kind of thing, for example, in Jeremiah 32:6–15. Jeremiah buys a field, he signs the terms and conditions of the purchase, and then that title deed is sealed, just like the scroll in Revelation 5.
If we were to read through chapters 6 through 11 of Revelation, we would see Christ open each of the seven seals one by one. With the opening of each seal, another divine judgment is poured out upon the earth, just as Psalm 96 sang—“For he comes to judge the earth.” There is war, famine, death, and earthquakes. And when the seventh seal is opened, seven trumpets sound, which are seven more judgments poured out on the earth—hail, fire, meteors, locusts, and a third of the people on earth are killed. What is the purpose of all of these judgments? Remember, this scroll that contains all of these judgments is a title deed. These judgments are the terms and conditions of a land purchase. What is this land being purchased?
When the seventh trumpet is sounded, we discover the result of these judgments:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:15)
This scroll—this title deed—is a record of how the Anointed One will receive the promises first given to Adam, and then given to David and his seed:
11 When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. 13 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, 14 but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever. (1 Chron 17:11–14)
It is a fulfillment of Psalm 2:7–8:
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
It is a fulfillment of the promise in which Solomon continued to have hope:
1 Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
(Ps 72:1, 8)
It is what exiled Israel worried would not be fulfilled:
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
Yet through their arrangement of the Psalms, the editors urged the people to continue trusting in the steadfast faithfulness of God to keep his promise to David and his seed:
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord,
for he is good; for his steadfast love
endures forever! (Ps 118:19–29)
When the seventh seal is opened, the trumpets sound, and when the seventh trumpet blows, Christ receives the kingdom of the world.
And in response to this revelation, Revelation 5 tells us that the angels and the elders sing “a new song,” saying:
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:9–10)
You see, this new song is a song in direct response to the finished work of Christ on the cross and his worthiness to receive the throne of dominion promised so long ago—it is a song of the redeemed.
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom
and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
In fact, when this song appears again in Revelation 14, it says in verse 3 that “no one could learn that song except [those] who had been redeemed from the earth.” A new song is a song that rises out of the heart of one who has experienced the Lord’s salvation, who has experienced the goodness and greatness of God, and even more specifically, one who sings as if the Lord reigns already; as if he has come already to judge the world; as if all the families of the people are already ascribing him the glory due his name; as if the very heavens and earth and seas and fields and trees are singing for joy to him.
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever! (Rev 5:13)
It is a song that expresses right affection toward God in response to who he is and what he has done; it is a song that blesses his name; it is a song that tells of his salvation from day to day, that declares his glory among the nations; It is a song that shapes and forms us, molding our minds and our hearts such that we cannot help but believe and affirm and adore and sing,
The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established;
it shall not be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity. (Ps 96:10)
Forming Hearts of Praise with the Psalms
This is why evangelical Christians today so desperately need to return to singing the Psalms. We need the songs of lament; we need the penitential psalms; and we need the psalms of trust, and the wisdom psalms, and litanies, and the psalms of praise. We need them all to form within us a true and proper and realistic imagination of what a truly blessed life in this world happily submitting to the gracious rule of God will be like. Only then can we truly sing a new song; only then can we give thanks and praise that is due the Lord and his Anointed.
Having been so impacted by post-Enlightenment, scientific modernism, modern Christians conceive of the core of Christianity to be purely intellectual. We have forgotten the fundamental importance of a Scripture-formed imagination in directing our paths. Art, then, becomes an enjoyable diversion at best, and a distraction at worst. Modern evangelicals stress the importance of sound doctrine, but liturgy, poetry, and music are treated merely as means to excite us about doctrine or make doctrine more interesting. It is no surprise that modern evangelicals use only the “exciting” psalms, if they use them at all. And so much contemporary worship music consists of happy-clappy escapist, feel-good ditties that form snowflakes rather than warriors.
But if a careful exploration of the Psalms reveals anything, it is that the artistic elements of our worship are not incidental; they fundamentally orient our paths by forming our imagination of true blessedness. And it is an imagination that does not ignore the reality of wickedness without or sin within. This is particularly evident in the progression of the Psalter’s organization and why we must not simply pick and choose the praise psalms that give expression to what is already in our hearts, or worse are used to escape the reality of a sin-cursed world.
Without the Psalms—the entirety of the Psalms, churches are forming men without chests, brains filled with knowledge, but unable to navigate the realities of life in a sin-cursed world. But when we truly recognize what the Book of Psalms—God’s music—does for those who muse on these songs, the absolute necessity of singing them all becomes apparent.
Hope is formed in our hearts in the midst of wickedness around us and sin within us by musing on the Torah of David, by traveling along this path the psalm editors created for us from darkness, through adversity, to blessedness. We sing our way through the Psalms from songs of lament and repentance, through songs of thanksgiving and trust, to songs of praise.
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