Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Psalms and Christian Lyrics

Christians tend to argue frequently concerning what Christian lyrics are acceptable for singing during Sunday services. Since God is holy, it is understandable that Christians would want to get this right.

A place which seems to be a good place to look in the Scriptures for determining God’s will for appropriate praise is the Book of Psalms. Since the Psalms are inspired by God, some in the Reformed Tradition only use the Psalms for praise during Sunday worship (They really want to get this right!). Someone may object that the Psalms are of the Old Covenant and do not explicitly mention Christ, which is central to the New Covenant witness. However, in the Letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul says:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16).

In this letter we see that the Apostle Paul encourages the Colossians (Christians) to sing Psalms. Because the Psalms can legitimately be looked at as a hymn book in the Bible, I read them and paid attention to different styles and types.

The most frequent type of Psalm was that which praised God for what He had done. They focused on God’s actions and told of His redeeming work. Second, were Psalms that were prayerful in content and expressed dependence upon God. Third, were Psalms that were intensely emotional and contained what I would call “jubilant singing.” And fourth, were Psalms that described the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. There were other types of Psalms, but these were the types that occurred frequently.

Me Centered Psalms

For all the Christians that like older hymns and hate contemporary Christian music, you are probably filled with joy since number one on the list were Psalms that told what God had done. But that begs another question. Are there Psalms in the Bible that are personal and individual in content and nature? Many that despise contemporary Christian lyrics, often put it down for its rampant use of the 1st person singular noun, “I.” They claim that contemporary Christian lyrics are to “me-centered.” This may be true. But is it necessarily wrong? Are there Psalms in the Bible that closely resemble this type of Christian song? I will give a few examples from 6 out of the 18 Psalms I found to resemble contemporary Christian lyrics.

I love you, O LORD, my strength…The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me…For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God…I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt” (18:1, 20, 21, 23).

“Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering…I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD…O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells” (26:1, 6, 8).

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry…I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (40:1, 8).

I will sing of your love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life— when will you come to me? I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me. Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil” (101:1-4).

I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the "gods" I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name” (138:1-2).

Even if one despises contemporary Christian lyrics they have to admit some resounding resemblances to the Psalms above. The lyrics, “I will worship…I will bow down” are taken directly from Psalm 138 and 95:6. The song “Better is One Day in Your Courts” is taken from Psalm 27 and 84. “Your love O Lord, reaches to the heavens” is taken from Psalms 36, 57, 71, and 108. The expression of the "joy" of the Lord arriving "in the morning" is taken from Psalm 30. The "deer which panteth for the water" is taken from Psalm 42. "Giving thanks to the Lord for He is good" comes from Psalms 106, 107, 118, 136.

However, to those who prefer traditional hymns, contemporary Christian lyrics could improve themselves by including more of a balance towards God-centered songs rather then always emphasizing the individual aspect.

Emotional Songs

For Christians who love contemporary Christian music, you probably are happy that number three on the list were emotional and contained jubilant singing. For the contemporary worship haters, a frequent dissatisfaction is how the songs elicit the emotions which can lead to praise that is not genuine. While this is true, funeral dirge style hymns may fail to elicit the emotions and produce the same results. However, the point is that there are a large number of Psalms that are emphatically emotional and express actions of worshippers that traditionalists would have problems with. For example:

“Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place” (28:2).

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (30:11).

Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (47:1).

“I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands” (63:4).

“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp” (149:3).

I have heard it said that raising/clapping hands and dancing in the sanctuary are unacceptable. I realize that dancing may sound extreme, but it’s in the Psalms. Book IV of the Psalms contains a large number of songs that are emphatically joyful. Here are 3 examples out of 29 Psalms I found to resemble contemporary songs:

“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing” (100:1-2)!

“Praise the LORD! I will extol the LORD with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly” (111:1).

“Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD” (113:1)!

To the defense of those who prefer traditional hymns, contemporary Christian lyrics could do a better job balancing the emotional joy filled songs with somber/reverent songs. Alternately, traditional hymns could add more songs that are joyful and emotional. Too many of the older hymns sound like funeral dirges, as if Christ did not rise from the grave!

Songs Lack Doctrinal Content

It is commonly said that contemporary Christian lyrics do not contain much doctrinal content and are “empty.” However, after reviewing the Psalms I noticed that many contained no doctrinal content neither. I guess simplicity is acceptable at times as well. For example:

“Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD” (117)!

Above is Psalm 117 in its totality. Is it empty? I think that would be offensive to God’s Word to insist that. Does it have a lot doctrinal content? No. Is it simple? Yes. Other Psalms that have as much or less doctrinal content then contemporary Christian lyrics are again primarily found in Book IV. In agreement with those who prefer traditional hymns, it is true that some contemporary songs do contain false doctrine. And these obviously should be omitted.

Final Words

For those who insist on no instruments or only the organ as an acceptable instrument for worship, the Psalms indicate that the harp and lyre (Psalm 71:22; 81:2; 92:3; 98:5; 108:2; 144:9; 147:7; 149:3; 150:3), tambourine (81:2; 149:3; 150:4), trumpet (81:3; 98:6; 150:3), lute (92:3; 150:3), horn (98:6), pipe (150:4), and cymbal (an ancient type of drum!) (150:5) shall be used to praise God. This illustrates that God desires that we use all instruments to praise Him for He has given us no restrictions concerning instruments.

For those that insist that God is only pleased with their hymn books to the detriment of new songs written recently, their cry is directly opposed to the Scriptures. God’s inspired word tells us repeatedly in the Psalms that He desires that we “sing a new song” (Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144, and 149). To those who criticize new songs as being fads that will not last, God seems to like fads. He doesn’t desire to hear the same song repeatedly, and doesn’t mind if they go out of style. This is not to suggest that we should never sing some of the great hymns of old. I am only suggesting that God likes to hear new songs and so we should use our creativity to create them. God has not restricted us to singing songs written prior to the twentieth century.

In conclusion, God’s call for our lives is that we put away our snobby personal preferences on this matter and appreciate the diversity of ways God is worshipped. For it is not necessarily the style God is concerned with, but with our heartfelt responses in praise and adoration of Him. The Pharisees were rebuked by Christ because they confessed God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Matthew 15:8). God desires people to worship Him in spirit and truth and we should put no additional requirements on Christians either (John 4:23).


Blogger Loescher said...

Psalm 118, "Forever."
Psalm 104, "How great is our God"

to name two, and there are hundreds more, are nothing except "singing Psalms." I guess I would ask for any critique of those two Psalms, Perhaps we should take them out of the Bible?

Empty theology ?? Hmmm. we turned Psalm 104 into natural knowledge, revealed Christian knowledge, what does "fear" and love mean, went to the third verse of How great thou art and discussed. The Cross, Grace, etc. also touched on Romans 10:13-18 and the Office...

All in 45 minutes, 10 of which were playing the CD. Not bad for an empty dittie??

Sun Jun 11, 09:47:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Elijah the Tishbite said...

Is the style unconnected to the theology?

Thu Jun 15, 12:37:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Augustine said...

Dear Elijah the Tishbite,

Just to clarify, I am solely talking about Christian lyrics in my original post, not the totatlity of the public service. So yes, the lyrics MUST be in accordance with our theology. Lyrics that contain fale doctrine must be rejected.

Thu Jun 15, 12:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Elijah the Tishbite said...

I was primarily responding to this comment: "For it is not necessarily the style God is concerned with, but with our heartfelt responses in praise and adoration of Him."

Fri Jun 16, 04:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Augustine said...

Hi Tim,

Thank you for being more specific. Now I know what you are talking about.

In my previous statement, "style" had to do with type of song it was. For example, the Psalms contain God-centered, me-centered, emotional, and somber songs. Regardless of the type, God desires heartfelt singing as we praise, magnify, honor and adore our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sat Jun 17, 11:12:00 AM EDT  
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