Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship: Curtis

                                      Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1997) 285-96

          Copyright © 1997 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

                 ANCIENT PSALMS AND

                    MODERN WORSHIP

 

                                       Edward M. Curtis

 

            Despite disagreement and uncertainty about a number of

issues1 related to the Book of Psalms, scholars generally agree

that the psalms were used in Israel's worship. The book is often

referred to as "the Hymnbook of the Second Temple."2 Since the

psalms were used in Israel's public worship, it seems likely that

they reflect patterns for worship that can and should be incorpo-

rated into congregational worship today.3 Throughout the history

 

Edward M. Curtis is Professor of Biblical Studies, Talbot School of Theology, La

Mirada, California.

1 Debate continues about whether the canonical psalms originated out of the per-

sonal experiences of individuals and were later incorporated into Israel's worship

or whether they were largely written specifically for use in Israel's worship. Some

discussion continues about whether the only significant Sitz im Leben for under-

standing a psalm involves the setting in which it was used in worship or whether

the setting out of which the psalm originated is equally useful. Of course in many

cases neither setting can be determined with any degree of confidence. While there

is general agreement that stereotyped language and stylistic considerations

strongly determined the forms of the various types of psalms, the extent to which

the creativity of individual authors modified these artistic canons is unclear.

Scholars continue to discuss whether psalms should be categorized on the basis of

form or content. The extent to which psalms, composed by a single author, were

modified by the priestly community to address the needs of subsequent generations

is not certain. Also the extent to which the roots of Hebrew psalmnody are to be

found in oral tradition is unclear as is the role poems such as these played in the

lives of individual Israelites apart from public worship. Gerald Wilson has argued

that the psalms that introduce each book in the psalter and the seam psalms be-

tween each book reflect a specific agenda on the part of the editor who organized

the Book of Psalms (The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter [Chico, CA: Scholars,

19851). Also see John Walton, "The Psalms: A Cantata about the Davidic Covenant,"

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 21-31.

2 Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-literary Introduction (Philadel-

phia: Fortress, 1985), 525. As Gottwald indicates, most scholars today recognize that

much of the material in the Book of Psalms is earlier than second temple times.

"Psalms thus gives us a compressed sampling of texts from the first and second

temple programs of worship" (ibid.).

3 As Peter Craigie points out, "the book of Psalms as a whole contains Israel's

songs and prayers which constitute the response of the chosen people to their reve-

 

                                                            285



286                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997

 

of the church, the psalms have been used extensively in personal

devotions and meditation, and the relevance of these psalms for

both public and personal worship is almost universally acknowl-

edged. Miller says, "It is in the conviction that the psalms belong

both at the center of the life and worship of Christian congrega-

tions and in the midst of the personal pilgrimage that each of us

makes under the shadow of the Almighty, that I have written this

book."4 Many recent books on worship find numerous examples

from the Book of Psalms to support their points.5 Despite the

widespread agreement about the relevance of various individual

psalms for worship today, important dimensions of application

are sometimes overlooked.

Several difficulties are encountered in an attempt to transfer

the use of psalms in Old Testament worship to worship today.

First, few details are given about how psalms were used in Old

Testament worship. That they were used is clear from numerous

comments in the Bible6 as well as from tradition.7  "That there

was a great number of activities accompanying poetic ‘recita-

tions’ is clear from allusions in the poems themselves. However,

there is not a single complete ritual preserved in the Hebrew

Scriptures that would indicate exactly the place and kind of ac-

companiment of prayer or song."8 "Both the descriptions of such

cultic processions and the allusions to them in other Old Testa-

ment texts and his own imagination [are needed for the inter-

preter] to recall a picture of the definite situation from which such

 

lation from God" (Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word, 19831,

39). As such they stand as appropriate models for believers' responses to God to-

day.

4 Patrick D. Miller Jr., Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), vii.

5 An example is Ronald B. Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the

Missing Jewel (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1982).

6 The title to Psalm 92 reads, "A song for the Sabbath"; the superscription of

Psalm 100 suggests it was used in connection with the thanksgiving offering (cf.

Jer. 33:11). Numerous references throughout the psalms indicate their connection

with temple worship (e.g., Pss. 5:7; 63:2-5; 66:13-17). In addition several passages

outside the Book of Psalms (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:4-36; Amos 5:23 [speaking of worship

at Bethel]) describe worship that used psalms. Nehemiah 9 describes a worship as-

sembly in which a salvation-history hymn was sung.

7 According to the Psalm scroll found at Qumran, David composed 364 songs to be

sung at the altar with the daily sacrifices, 52 songs to accompany the Sabbath offer-

ings throughout the year, and an additional 30 songs for the new moon festivals and

other festivals (J. A. Sanders, The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll [Ithaca, NY: Cornell

University Press, 19671, 134).

8 Erhard Gerstenberger, "The Lyrical Literature," in The Hebrew Bible and Its

Modern Interpreters, ed. D. A. Knight and G. M. Tucker (Chico, CA: Scholars,

1985), 426.



Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship                     287

 

a psalm cannot be separated,"9 A second difficulty in transfer-

ring worship patterns from Old Testament psalmnody to worship

today is created by cultural differences between present-day set-

tings and ancient Israel. Despite such difficulties it is possible to

make some general suggestions about worship on the basis of

material in the psalms and to identify certain specific patterns in

the biblical psalms that can be applied today.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF MEDITATION IN WORSHIP

Rylaarsdam has argued that proclamation was a fundamental

element in Israel's worship, and he sees Deuteronomy 6:6-9 as

the model for that proclamation.10 "These words ... shall be on

your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and

shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk

by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you

shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as

frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them on the door-

posts of your house and on your gates." The same emphasis on

constant attention to God's instruction and reflection on His

works is found regularly in the Book of Psalms.

Psalm 1:3 describes a person who "prospers" or succeeds in

what he or she does. The secret of that success results from de-

lighting in the instruction of the Lord and meditating on that in-

struction (1:2). Meditation is a central theme in the worship re-

flected in the psalms. The importance of the idea is not seen so

much in the occurrence of the Hebrew word hgAhA ("to meditate"), for

the word is not used frequently. Rather, the word is but one of a

number of general synonyms used in the book. In Psalm 1 hgAhA is

used in parallel with CpaHA ("to delight") and the two terms refer to

similar though not identical activities. In Psalm 77:12 hgAhA is used

in parallel with the words rkazA ("to remember," v. 11) and HayWi ("to

muse," v. 12), while a few verses earlier a similar idea is ex-

pressed in verses 5-6 with bwaHA ("to consider"), rkazA ("to remem-

ber") HayWi ("to muse"), and wpaHA ("to search out" or "ponder"). To this

list could be added the frequently encountered ideas of reflecting

on and studying the works of God (e.g., Pss. 111:2; 143:5). The

form of the psalms and their use in worship almost certainly en-

couraged the focus and meditation on God's truth and deeds that

are often called for in Scripture.

 

9 Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship (New York: Abingdon,

1962):5.

10 J. Coert Rylaarsdam, "The Matrix of Worship in the Old Testament," in Wor-

ship in Scripture and Tradition, ed. Massey Shepherd (New York: Oxford Univer-

sity Press, 1963), 45.



288                 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997

 

THE FORM OF PSALMS AND EFFECTIVE WORSHIP

The language of the psalms is poetry, which effectively commu-

nicates feeling and experience. The poetry enables readers to feel

something of the psalmists' pain, frustration, or joy.

Because the author of Psalm 137 had been taken into exile in

Babylon, he was deeply homesick for his hometown, Jerusalem,

and the temple where God's presence had dwelt in a special way.

The psalm expresses the psalmist's painful longing for home in a

way that moves readers today to feel his sadness as well. The de-

light and profound joy of the exiles when they, in God's gracious

providence, were able once again to return home is beautifully

expressed in Psalm 126.

The figures of speech in the psalms help readers today enter

emotionally into the experiences of the authors. In Psalm 42:7 the

psalmist wrote, "All Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled

over me." Certainly his figure of speech goes beyond the physical

fact of the description and conveys the desperation and helpless-

ness a person would feel as he or she struggled to survive in a sea

or river during an intense storm. Even the geographical refer-

ences used in Psalm 42--the land of the Jordan, the peaks of

Mount Hermon and Mount Mizar--give to a reader familiar with

the area a sense of the isolation felt by this psalmist who was ex-

iled from his beloved Jerusalem and the temple.

Comparing the enemies of the righteous with vicious, attack-

ing animals in Psalm 7:2 or 22:12-13, enables people today to feel

both the ruthlessness of the enemies and the terror experienced by

the psalmist as a result of their attack.

The use of such emotive images in Israel's hymns suggests

that the proper focus of worship, at least as seen in these psalms, is

neither a cold intellectually stimulating sermon nor a mindless

emotionalism devoid of intellectual content. Rather, the worship

reflected in the psalms addresses the needs of the whole person11

and is both cognitive and affective. Present-day worship needs to

be designed with both of these dimensions in mind.

The biblical psalms were set to music in Israel's worship,

 

11 Hoekema's comments are interesting in this regard. While rejecting a monistic

model, he nevertheless comes to the conclusion that Scripture views man as a

whole person rather than as the sum of a variety of parts (Created in God's Image

[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 222-23). He sees certain practical implications

flowing from this conclusion. "The church must be concerned about the whole per-

son. In preaching and teaching the church must address not only the minds of

those to whom it ministers, but also their emotions and their wills. Preaching that

merely communicates intellectual information about God or the Bible is seriously

inadequate.... teaching should aim at a response that involves all aspects of the

person" (ibid.).



Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship                     289

 

and their poetic and musical form make the truth easier to re-

member than is often true in sermons today. As Allen and Borror

say, "An idea (either good or bad) set to a good melody, given

rhythmic intensity and harmonic consistency, can really work

its way into our minds.... music is a powerful way to get ...

ideas implanted and affect the behavior of mankind. . . . What

we sing we remember, because we have combined the power of

intellect with emotion."12 It is amazing to see how quickly chil-

dren pick up television commercials or the theology contained in

songs they learn in Sunday school or children's church. No doubt

more long-lasting and life-changing results would be effected if

worship services communicated a few basic biblical truths in

ways that would more effectively impact both mind and emotion.

Reinforcing a few basic ideas throughout the service in various

ways could increase the probability that people would remember

and reflect on those truths after the service ended.

The use of word pictures and images throughout the psalms

would also help establish ideas and themes in the minds and

memories of those exposed to them in worship, thus encouraging

the meditation and reflection called for in passages like Psalm 1.

Such images can also contribute to worship in another important

way. Ryken talks about the power of images to influence attitudes

and behavior.

People may assent to the proposition that the true end of life is

not to make money and accumulate possessions, but if their minds

are filled with images of big houses and fancy clothes, their actual

behavior will run in the direction of materialism. People may the-

oretically believe in the ideals of chastity and faithful wedded

love, but if their minds are filled with images of exposed bodies

and songs of seduction, their sexual behavior will have a large

admixture of lust and sexual license in it.13

 

Today's Western culture is particularly adept at filling the

minds of believers with images that an intellectually stimulat-

ing sermon--even one that evokes plenty of "Amens" from the

congregation--will have great difficulty erasing. Ryken points

out that poetry and music and effective storytelling techniques

derive their power from the images they leave in the minds of peo-

ple, and techniques such as these are regularly found throughout

the psalms.

Worship, as seen in the psalms, focuses one's attention on the

Lord in a way that stimulates both intellectually and emotion-

 

12 Allen and Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel, 162-63.

13 Leland Ryken, "The Creative Arts," in The Making of the Christian Mind, ed.

Arthur Holmes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 106.



290                 BIBUOTECA SACRA / July-September 1997

 

ally. It encourages worshipers to remember, reflect, ponder, and

meditate on the character and works of the Lord in ways that

make it difficult to forget the images through which the principles

were taught. Such worship glorifies God, elevating His reputation

and impacting believers so that the principles are not forgotten

when the benediction is pronounced.

 

LAMENTS AND THANKSGIVING HYMNS

Looking more specifically at two types of psalms--laments and

thanksgiving psalms--leads to further implications for worship

today.

Laments outnumber every other kind of psalm in the Psalter;

almost a third of the psalms belong to this category. Laments have

their origin in situations of distress from which the psalmists

cried out to God for help and deliverance. These psalms follow a

generally similar form, though they stem from a wide variety of

specific situations. Sometimes they reflect community concerns;

sometimes they are the cries of individuals. They reflect a wide

assortment of troubles--political pressure, physical illness, lone-

liness, oppression, and a variety of spiritual needs.

Interestingly every lament includes an element of praise. As

Anderson points out, the laments do not reflect "a pessimistic

view of life," nor is there in them "a morbid concentration on

human agony and guilt."14 As Barth has noted, "All the psalms

are concerned not with distress as such, but with taking it before

God, who they know is the judge and at the same time the re-

deemer with sovereign power over all distress."15 The psalmists

cried out to God from the depths of their distress, confident that He

had the power to release them from their dilemmas. The laments,

then, are actually expressions of praise-praise offered to God in

situations where His help was needed. As Miller says, the psalms

are "always moving toward praise." Even in laments, "praise

and thanks are in a sense the final word, the direction one is

headed, in the relationship with God."16

Most prayers of believers today probably belong in the cate-

gory of laments. However, it seems that the biblical laments are

seldom used as models for prayers that express grief and dis-

tress. The quality of corporate worship could be enhanced by se-

 

14 Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 56.

15 Christoph Barth, Introduction to the Psalms, trans. R. A. Wilson (New York:

Scribner's Sons, 1966), 38.

16 Patrick Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 66.

 



Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship                     291

 

lecting biblical laments appropriate to the needs of the congrega-

tion and creatively incorporating them into worship services.

Thanksgiving psalms are closely related to the lament

psalms. As Kraus notes, "The todah [thanksgiving hymn] stands

in a clear and unequivocal relation to the laments of the individ-

ual."17 Some have suggested that the thanksgiving psalms are an

expansion of the praise element already present in the laments,

though there is clearly a difference between the two in that

thanksgiving hymns come after the prayers of the laments have

been answered. It is one thing to praise God in anticipation of His

deliverance or on the basis of confidence that God has heard one's

prayers. It is another thing to praise God in response to deliver-

ance already experienced. Thanksgiving psalms were sung by

people who in distress had experienced the goodness of God.

That the laments and thanksgiving hymns are related is

seen in the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2. Hannah's inability

to have children and the taunting of her husband's other wife,

Penninah, caused her great distress. On one occasion when the

family was at the sanctuary at Shiloh to offer sacrifices, Hannah

was too upset to remain with the family at the sacrificial meal.

She went into the sanctuary to pray. As she prayed, she was so dis-

traught that her lament was not audible. Eli the priest saw her lips

moving, and, not hearing any words, he supposed she was drunk.

Hannah explained her situation and he assured her that God had

heard her prayer and He would grant her request. Samuel was

born to Hannah and after he was weaned, Hannah took him to the

sanctuary to dedicate him to the Lord, and there she prayed the

thanksgiving psalm found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

The thanksgiving psalms seem to have been used in public

worship, often in conjunction with a thanksgiving offering.

They were meant as praise to God and also as a testimony to the

congregation of God's saving work. Sometimes these psalms

were stated in association with a vow made in connection with the

lament. What was vowed in the laments was carried out in the

psalms of thanksgiving; perhaps these psalms were sung as the

worshiper brought a thanksgiving offering to the temple to cele-

brate the deliverance he had experienced. Psalm 66 begins with a

description of God's deliverance, summarized in verse 12, "We

went through fire and through water; yet Thou didst bring us out

into a place of abundance." Verses 13-14 express thanksgiving:

"I shall come into Thy house with burnt offerings; I shall pay

Thee my vows, which my lips uttered and my mouth spoke when I

 

17 F. Crusemann, cited by Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, trans. Hilton C. Os-

wald (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 47.

 



292                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July--September 1997

 

was in distress." The purpose of doing this is made clear in

verses 16-17, which call for others to listen to what God had done

to rescue the psalmist. "Come and hear, all who fear God, and I

will tell of what He has done for my soul. I cried to Him with my

mouth, and He was extolled with my tongue." Verses 19-20 add

words of praise: "But certainly God has heard; He has given heed

to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away

my prayer, nor His lovingkindness from me."

The public expression of thanksgiving is also clear in

Psalm 40, though that psalm has no mention of an offering. The

psalmist wrote, "I have proclaimed glad tidings of righteousness

in the great congregation; behold I will not restrain my lips, 0

Lord, Thou knowest. I have not hidden Thy righteousness within

my heart; I have spoken of Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation; I

have not concealed Thy lovingkindness and Thy truth from the

great congregation" (vv. 9-10).

Psalm 116 provides another example of the public thanksgiv-

ing and praise that seem to have been a regular part of Israel's

worship. Verse 3 recounts the distress faced by the psalmist, and

in verse 4 he explained what he did in his trouble. "Then I called

upon the name of the Lord: 0 Lord, I beseech Thee, save my life!"

God heard the psalmist's prayer and granted his request. The

psalmist's response is recorded in verses 12-19. He wrote, "I

shall pay my vows to the Lord; oh may it be in the presence of all

His people" (v. 14). Then in verses 17-19 he affirmed his offering

of thanksgiving to the Lord. "To Thee I shall offer a sacrifice of

thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the Lord. I shall pay my

vows to the Lord; oh may it be in the presence of all His people, in

the courts of the Lord's house, in the midst of you, 0 Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord!"

This psalm [is] the personal tribute of a man whose prayer has

found an overwhelming answer. He has come now to the temple

to tell the whole assembly what has happened, and to offer to God

what he had vowed to Him in his extremity.... Such psalms ...

would help many another person find words for his own public

thanksgiving.18

Regarding verse 19 Kidner writes,

We may note that the intensely personal faith and love which

mark this psalm are not in competition with the public and local-

ized expressions of godliness. This flame is not withdrawn, to burn

alone. Placed in the midst it will kindle others, and blaze all the

longer and better for it.19

 

18 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers

Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), 407.

19 Ibid., 411.



Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship                     293

 

Anderson says about this psalm, "In the OT, individual experi-

ence and public worship are frequently fused into one whole to the

advantage of the entire congregation."20

The importance of thanksgiving is reflected in the frequency

with which it appears in the psalms; thanksgiving clearly consti-

tuted an important element in Israel's worship. There are pas-

sages that suggest that the very act of giving thanks is pleasing to

God and is one of the ways believers glorify Him. "I will praise

the name of God with song, and shall magnify Him with thanks-

giving. And it will please the Lord better than an ox or a young

bull with horns and hoofs" (Ps. 69:30-31).

 

CELEBRATING DELIVERANCE

Two aspects of the thanksgiving psalms can be incorporated into

worship today. The first stems from the clear connection between

laments and thanksgiving songs found in Scripture. Church

congregations are often informed of a need and encouraged to

pray about that need. Sometimes those laments may even ap-

proach the intensity of the biblical laments. Often, though, when

the prayer is answered, there is little public acknowledgement of

the fact, and rarely if ever does the congregation celebrate the de-

liverance effected by God in the way suggested by the thanksgiv-

ing hymns.

Even testimonies in church services of what God is doing in

people's lives fall short of the biblical examples. Such testimonies

often come from the same individuals and often deal with trivial

matters. The pattern in the psalms, however, reveals the proper

connection between a petition, its answer (i.e., God's powerful,

gracious response), and the believer's thankful response before

the congregation.

One should note, nevertheless, that the thanksgiving hymns

do not seem to be correlated specifically with lament psalms.21

Nor does the Bible refer to individuals going to the tabernacle or

 

20 A. A. Anderson, Psalms, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1972), 790.

21 In a statement typical of most commentators, Tremper Longmann III says, "The

amazing thing about the psalms is that though they were born out of particular life

experiences, their content is remarkably devoid of any references to the particular

events that brought them into being" (How to Read the Psalms [Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity, 19881, 42). He further notes that this lack of historical specificity in

the psalms is in strong contrast to what is found in other parts of the old

Testament (e.g., Judg. 5 or Exod. 15). Anderson says that "any reconstruction of the

particular circumstances (such as is often attempted in the exegesis of the Psalms)

presents us with a generalization of what often happens in typical cases" (Psalms

30). This is because "they were, primarily, intended as vehicles to convey the feel-

ings and attitude of any worshiper in a similar situation" (ibid.).



294                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997

 

temple to voice a lament psalm and then going later to offer a

thanksgiving song along with their thankoffering. Kraus,

though, has suggested that "during the great worship festivals of

Israel one who was rescued from distress and suffering had op-

portunity to present his thankoffering in the circle of family

members, friends and other witnesses, to report concerning dis-

tress and deliverance and to sing praises."22

Several factors do suggest that a connection between lament

and thanksgiving was recognized in Israel's worship. For ex-

ample the psalm in Jonah 2 is set in a context that clearly implies

it is a lament; the contents of the poem, though, read like a

thanksgiving hymn. The poem was no doubt written after the de-

liverance had been accomplished, and given the situation out of

which it came, a public lament would hardly have been possible.

At the same time the connection between the difficulty/lament

and the thankful public response to God's deliverance is clearly

seen in the poem.

The association between lament and thanksgiving is also

made in the part of the standard thanksgiving psalm form that

reviews the difficulty and usually mentions the psalmist's cry to

God for help. Often the thanksgiving is connected with a vow

made to God during the difficulty, which helps show the associa-

tion between the two types of psalms.

 

DIDACTIC DIMENSION

A second feature of thanksgiving psalms that could be incorpo-

rated into worship today is their didactic dimension. Comment-

ing on Psalm 22:22-31, Miller says, "The singer who has been

delivered stands in the midst of the congregation and tells of the

Lord's power (cf. 35:18; 40:9) that the children of Israel hearing of

God's great power and goodness will themselves praise and glo-

rify the Lord."23 Psalm 34, which has characteristics of both a

thanksgiving psalm and a wisdom psalm, illustrates the didactic

element well. The author praised God for delivering him from a

difficult situation, and he took his experience as normative for

others. He cried out to God from his distress and God heard and

delivered him. That then became the pattern for others, and the

psalmist encouraged them to "taste and see that the Lord is good"

(v. 8), to experience the blessing that comes from trusting Him.

In these songs the poets saw in God's deliverance a concrete

example of His grace and power and so their experience became

 

22 Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 52.

23 Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, 72.



Ancient Psalms and Modem Worship                     295

 

an occasion for stating what God is like. With the focus in these

psalms on the character and power of God, the psalmists called on

others to learn from their experience and to join them in giving

praise to God. The psalmists' experiences pointed to the works of

God the community could meditate on, thus learning more about

His character. These expressions of thanksgiving were directed

to God and elevated His reputation, and in this respect the biblical

pattern seems to stand at variance with at least some modern

practice. As Longman observes, "The ‘sharing times’ that occur

in modern church services and fellowship groups are too often an

excuse to praise ourselves. The psalmist is a model for ‘sharing’

as he directs the attention of the congregation away from himself

and toward God."24

Psalm 107, containing elements of both thanksgiving and

praise, suggests how these psalms might be used in worship.

Scholars are not agreed on the literary history of this psalm and

the way it was used.25 It begins, however, by calling those whom

God has redeemed from difficulty to acknowledge that fact.

Verses 4-32 mention four groups that can attest to the Lord's

goodness in delivering them. In each instance they faced a diffi-

cult and threatening situation: "they cried out to the Lord in their

trouble; He delivered them out of their distresses" (vv. 6, 13, 19,

28). Each example provides a basis for the redeemed to "give

thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness, and for His wonders

to the sons of men!" (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31). According to verse 32, they

were to "extol Him also in the congregation of the people, and

praise Him at the seat of the elders." Anderson suggests that this

"psalm may have been used at a communal thankoffering at

which various groups of people offered their thanksgiving sacri-

fice and their grateful praise."26 Certainly this thanksgiving

psalm could easily be used as a basis for a service in which people

from the congregation who have experienced God's deliverance

from various difficulties could publicly give thanks to God for

His ds,H, ("lovingkindness" or "loyal love") and for His wonders.

The thanksgiving psalms also share a perspective with sal-

vation-history psalms--a category to which they are related. The

perspective is related to the idea of meditation and reflecting on

the works of God found throughout the psalms, and this perspec-

tive may help account for their use in Israel's worship. Examples

 

24 Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 146.

25 A summary of the suggestions and a helpful bibliography is in Leslie Allen,

Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 60-63.

26 Anderson, Psalms, 749.

 



296                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997

 

of salvation-history psalms are Psalms 78, 105, and 106, which

review significant events in Israel's history, and Nehemiah 9

shows how one of these songs was used. When the postexilic

community in Jerusalem gathered to confess their sins, the

Levites used a salvation-history psalm similar to those found in

Psalms. The hymn recounts God's past dealings with His people,

beginning with His choice of Abraham and moving through the

Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and the Conquest. Both the

faithfulness of God in keeping His promise to Abraham and the

unfaithfulness of the Israelites in responding to that goodness are

declared. The people's reflection on their history caused them to

sign a covenant as a people (Neh. 9:38), in which they agreed to

"walk in God's Law . . . and to keep and observe all the com-

mandments of God" (10:29).

Thus reflecting on and studying the works of God--both in

history (the salvation-history psalms) and more recently in the

lives of individuals (the thanksgiving psalms)--provides con-

crete examples of what God is like and gives a firm basis for

praising Him. It also provides important reference points for be-

lievers as they move into an unseen future.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The psalms affirm the importance of reflecting and meditating

on God's truth and His works. The psalms are structured in a

way that encourages in worship the same persistent focus on God

called for in Deuteronomy 6. Israel's worship facilitated and en-

hanced this concentration, and the psalms reveal several tech-

niques that contribute significantly to the effective accomplish-

ment of this goal. Worship that involves the entire person and

that focuses attention on God and His graciousness both in history

and in the lives of His people today encourages the kind of medi-

tative reflection on God and His truth that is essential for spiri-

tual success and the enjoyment of God's blessing. Worship that

effectively uses stories, poetry, and music to plant and reinforce

images of God's truth in the minds of the people can contribute

greatly to their growth toward maturity. Worship that displays for

people the connection between crying out to God in their distress,

the gracious deliverance that God brings, and their public

thanksgiving to God for His help serves an important didactic

function and helps establish good habits in God's people. Recog-

nizing principles such as these in the Book of Psalms and incor-

porating them into the life and worship of the church today can

play a major role in helping believers develop godly character

and in equipping them to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu