The Book of Psalms is an inspired collection of Hebrew poems intended for use in worship. Inspired compilers put them in their present order for several reasons, including authorship and affinity of ideas. The compilers did not organize them in the order in which the psalmists (hagiographers) wrote them. Each psalm is the expression of an inspired writer who responded to God in the light of his circumstances when he wrote. Consequently, there is no argument or logical progression of thought as the reader makes his or her way through the book. There are connecting or contrasting ideas, and words and phrases that sometimes link two or more psalms together, however.
The subject of the Book of Psalms is WORSHIP. Worship is the act of offering to God what is due to Him because of who He is. The Hebrew word translated “worship” (shachah) means to bow oneself down, or to do obeisance. The psalmists used it to describe prostration before God, or some angel, or another human being. It pictures an attitude of submission to a superior person. This word occurs only 15 times in Psalms with God as the object, but the idea of worshipping God is present in every psalm.
In Psalms, the object of worship is God. Its practitioners are people. Its center is Jerusalem: the place of God’s manifest presence. Its primary method is song. The psalmists referred to God as Yahweh, Elohim, or Adonai primarily, though many other titles appear in the book. Those worshipping Him are individuals, kings, nations, and all the earth. His temple (Israel’s central sanctuary) and His holy hill (Mt. Zion) were the central places of worship. Fear, awe, and joy are the primary attitudes prominent in this worship.
God’s people throughout history have loved the Psalter (The Book of Psalms). There are several reasons for its popularity. First, it is a collection of songs that arise out of experiences with which we can all identify. It is very difficult to find any circumstance in life that does not find expression in some psalm or another. Some arose out of prosperity, others out of adversity. Some psalms deal with holiness, and others with sinfulness. Some are laments that bewail the worst of situations, whereas others are triumphant hymns of joy and thanksgiving. Some look back to the past while others look forward to the future.
The psalms are great because their writers composed them out of their most profound experiences. Great poetry arises out of great living. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). They are also great because the writers brought these profound experiences into God’s presence. They show how people behave when they are conscious of God—the only truly realistic way to live. Therefore, the permanent value of the psalms lies in their revelation of worship.
There are three great revelations regarding worship in the Book of Psalms: the object of worship, the attitudes of worship, and the activities of worship.
First, the Psalter reveals the person of God, who is the object of worship. The primary revelation of God’s character in the psalms is His names. The writers employed dozens of titles and figures of speech to describe God, but the three names of God that they used most are Yahweh, Elohim, and Adonai. Simply from understanding these names, we will want to worship God.
The name “Yahweh” captures the essential being of God. He is who He is (Exod. 3:14). This name occurs more often than any other in the psalms. Essentially it means that God is the eternally self-existent Person who becomes all that His people need. God’s being is never the subject of debate in the psalms; the writers assumed His existence. As Yahweh, God is always an adequate resource for whatever His people need, whenever they have needs. That is because the Name Yahweh describes God in covenant relationship with His people. Translators normally render it LORD in English translations. Psalm 139 is perhaps the greatest exposition of the essential being of God, and Psalm 23 the chief revelation of His becoming all that His people need.
The second great name of God in the Psalter is “Elohim.” Normally this Hebrew word translates as “God” in our English Bibles. It is a plural word in the Hebrew, which does not necessarily signify plurality of number but immensity. God, as He reveals Himself, is so infinite that no singular word can express Him adequately. “Elohim” suggests God’s essential might and the fact that He is extremely powerful. God’s strength is not just potential, but kinetic (i.e., in motion). It is latent, but also active. Such power elicited the awe of the psalmists. Psalm 68 is perhaps the greatest revelation of God’s essential might in the Psalter, and Psalm 46 sets forth His great power at work most impressively.
The title “Adonai” (Lord in the sense of Master) does not occur frequently in the psalms, but the idea it expresses is constantly present. This title expresses the sovereignty of God, the fact that there is no one higher in authority than He. He is the King over the whole universe and the ultimate ruler over Israel. Perhaps Psalm 86 sets forth the sovereignty of God more magnificently than any other psalm. Whenever a person, king, nation, or race conceives of God as Yahweh, Elohim, or Adonai, the result is worship. We can do nothing else but prostrate ourselves before such a One. That is what the writers of these psalms did as they reflected on their experiences in the light of who God is.
The second great revelation of the Psalter is people’s attitudes in worship. Briefly, we see people responding to the revelation of God joyfully, trustfully, and submissively (but occasionally angrily, disappointedly, or quizzically). When we understand that God Himself is an adequate resource for us, regardless of our needs, we should worship by rejoicing. When we appreciate God’s mighty power, we should worship Him by trusting Him. When we learn that God is sovereign, we should respond in worship by submitting to Him. When we appreciate God’s grace in providing all we need, we should rejoice.
In the psalms, we see joy manifesting itself in love and gratitude. Love and gratitude manifest joy in the following way. We have God’s promises of forgiveness if we confess when we sin. Forgiveness for sin is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind. It is not something that we can earn or deserve. It is a gift of God based ultimately on a work that God has done for us through His Son. The penitential root attitude blossoms into adoration for God’s grace. The sweetest music comes out of hearts broken by sin, hearts aware of their total bankruptcy before God. The most glorious praises spring from the lips of those who most sense the great gifts God has given to them. This is the reason some of the most radiant Christians are those who suffer the most.
Trust in God’s almighty power expresses itself in honesty and courage in the psalms. Fear is the internal response to power, and courage should be its external manifestation. The person who really fears God’s power will be open and honest because he or she believes God will exercise His power to defend him. He will be willing to take risks because he is relying on God’s supernatural power to sustain and uphold him. The psalmists expressed themselves, and behaved honestly before God and people, because they believed in His sovereignty. They also faced danger courageously because they believed God could and would provide adequate help for them.
Submission to the sovereignty of God expresses itself in reverence and obedience in the psalms. Reverence is the external evidence of submission to God, and obedience is the core proof of it. The person who really believes that God is the ultimate authority will respect Him. He or she will also yield to God’s superior authority submissively. We see the psalmists expressing their reverence for God and bowing humbly to His will throughout the Psalter. Their commitment to trust often followed their frustration.
The third major revelation concerning worship in the psalms is the activities of worship. As we have observed, one’s conception of God leads to worship, and one’s attitudes shape worship. One’s activities also demonstrate worship.
The psalms reveal that worship grows out of something God has done for man. Man does not worship because there is something intrinsic within him that must come out. Worship is always a response to something that God has done. God elicits worship. Man does not initiate it on his own. Throughout the psalms, the psalmists responded to God’s dealings with them. God is always the initiator and man the responder. This fact helps us see that God is worthy of worship.
Human response in worship involves opening the soul to God. David’s confession in Psalm 32 is a good example of this (cf. 51). He rejoiced in his open relationship with God, especially when he acknowledged his sin. He also received God’s gift of pardon. Then he offered praise to God. These are the essential human activities of worship: confession, praise, and thanksgiving.
After God initiates worship, and man responds by worshipping, God becomes to the worshipper all that he or she needs. God is true and faithful in His dealings with worshippers. He becomes for us everything we need when we worship Him. Thus, the activities of worship begin and end with God. They begin with His initiating situations in life. They end with His drawing us to Himself. In between we bare our souls, receive His gifts, and offer our praise.
The message of the Psalter then is, “Worship God!” Turn every situation into an occasion for worship. If we are sad, we should worship. If we are glad, we should worship. If we are in the dark, we should worship. If we are in the light, we should worship. The Apostle Paul expressed it this way in Philippians 4:4 and 7: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice… And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The Book of Psalms closes with this word of exhortation: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord” (Ps. 150:6).
VU June 1, 2019