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).

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Is it a hymn, a song, or a chorus?

 

One of the things I like to do is respond to questions about worship or liturgy. I don’t claim to know everything, but I can share my two cents. During a recent conversation this question came up: what do we call the songs we sing in our services? Are they hymns, or songs, or choruses, or what?

 

It’s a tricky question. If you want to get technical, there are dozens of categories within the broader sacred music genre. There are chorales, gospel hymns, scripture songs, contemporary worship songs, spirituals, and doxologies, just to name a few. Even our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal can be perplexing. Pages 92-93 in ELW map out the pattern for worship in our context, but say that a “Gathering Song” can be either a “Hymn” or a “Psalm.” The ELW pattern also calls music during communion a “Communion Song” and music during the sending a “Sending Song.” However, the section of the hymnal that contains the music is titled “Hymns” (beginning at #239). And to add to the confusion, the “Hymns” section in ELW contains several songs that are staples in many contemporary worship services (like #857 “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and #821 “Shout to the Lord”)!?!

 

Maybe the best solution is to take it back to basics and what the Bible says about music in worship. We know in two separate occasions the Apostle Paul mentions songs in his letters. In Ephesians 5:18-20 and in Colossians 3:16 Paul says that we are to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” So we know for sure that there were at least three categories of songs that the earliest Christians used in their communal worship. Psalms are biblical songs from the Old Testament book by the same name, but likely included other songs (like the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 and Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2). Hymns are songs addressed to God and to Jesus as the Son of God. Possible examples of the first hymns of the Christian era are included in the New Testament (like Philippians 2:6-11 and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55). Spiritual Songs were most likely short, extemporaneous songs that arose within individual Christian communities. These songs were probably songs of testimony, fellowship, witness, and were very reflective of the community from which they came. The songs are called “Spiritual” because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 

One thing is certain – God’s people are encouraged in Scripture to sing a variety of songs in worship. No matter what we call them, the church has been given the gift of music for the purposes of singing God’s praises.

Got a question? Leave me a comment…