The Bible’s Hymnal

ELW PsalmsThe Psalms are often overlooked and neglected. They have historically been an essential component in the liturgy of the people of God across the Testaments. I recently decided to reinstate the chanting of the Psalms in our assembly with the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a very appropriate time to commit to the Psalms, especially because the content of the assigned Psalms captures the mood of the season so well. There are many good reasons for including the Psalms in our liturgy, and I’ll start with three.

The Psalms are the Bible’s hymnal. Literally, the Psalms are a collection of 150 poems that are intended for singing. These poems were written and compiled across the centuries before Jesus was born. The Psalms are the hymns of Israel. They are the songs of faith that have sustained God’s people for thousands of years. The use of Psalms in worship can be traced all the way back to the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem (957 BC, 2 Chronicles 7:3). Even earlier, Moses’ song of praise at the deliverance of Israel in Exodus 15 is the archetype for the Psalms. Typically the Psalms are used in Christian worship as a response after the first reading from the Old Testament. When we sing the Psalms we are connecting our voice to millions of ancestors in the faith. They sang the very same words to God that we do.

There is a healthy spectrum of human emotion expressed to God in the Psalms. The Psalms teach us that God is big and loving enough to handle any human emotion that can be thrown God’s way. The Psalms contain some of the highest praises as well as some of the darkest emotions. The Psalms demonstrate to us that we can laugh, scream, and sob our prayers to God – and God finds them all acceptable. Psalm 136:1 declares with gladness, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.” By the next chapter, Psalm 137:1 despairingly states, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Each Psalm can be divided into different categories: Royal Psalms (songs from the king, who idealizes himself as the entire nation of Israel), Songs of Thanksgiving (individual or national thanksgivings for God’s deeds), Laments (individual or corporate cries of lament), and Didactic Psalms (that teach or try to influence people).

Jesus sang the Psalms. The practice of singing in Christian worship is deeply influenced by the singing of Psalms by the Hebrew people. Paul encouraged the faithful to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). Jesus, as a person shaped by the Jewish faith, would have relied on the Psalms in his own prayer life. We have a record of this in Matthew 27:46, at the time of Jesus’ death. From the cross Jesus cried out the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of Psalm 22 were the heart response of Jesus in his moment of sacrifice. But Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 was also a prophetic fulfillment of God’s redemption made available through Jesus: “future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it” (Psalm 22:30-31).

Why do we sing hymns?

First we should settle on a definition of what a “hymn” is. For some it’s already a loaded term. But I’d like to boil it down to what actually makes a hymn different than any ole song.

A hymn is a sacred poem addressed to God, intended to be sung.

So to break it down:

  • Hymns are sacred – they are set aside for holy purposes, doesn’t mean they’re perfect, they’re just employed for a higher purpose.
  • Hymns are poems – they have a poetical structure, they use poetical devices, they are beautiful language.
  • Hymns are addressed to God – they can be about God, or they can be to God, God can be the subject, or God can be the recipient of the hymn.
  • Hymns are meant to be sung – this is what makes it different than a poem, a musical element or melodic delivery is intended

So now that we know what a hymn is, why do we sing them? Because singing hymns is a Biblical directive.

EPHESIANS 5:18-21 (ESV)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Singing hymns is how we are to be filled with the Spirit! Singing hymns is a way to give thanks to God for every blessing we have in Jesus.

Singing hymns is also supposed to be a heart response. The physical act of singing doesn’t create worship. It needs to be sung from the heart.

Is it possible to worship and glorify God without singing hymns? You bet. Otherwise the mute person wouldn’t be able to worship. But God has a special role for music in worship. Music and worship have been uniquely joined together by God’s design.