- Exodus 15
- Deuteronomy 33
- Judges 5
- Acts 4
- 1 Samuel 2
- Luke 1:46-55
- Ezekiel 33:30-33
- Exodus 15:14-18
It would be difficult to overstate the impact and influence of the Book of Psalms on the history of Israel, and on the subsequent history of the Christian church. As Luther once said, the Psalms are a “Bible in miniature,” and the way the Psalms are given to us, they are asconstructive as they are retrospective. But more on that shortly.
“Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: The sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee With the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (Ps. 45:6–7).
Psalm 45 is a triumphal wedding day psalm, celebrating the marriage of the king. The author of Hebrews picks up on a phrase from the psalm, telling us that it represents God speaking to His Son, the Messiah. “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom” (Heb. 1:8). Note that the Son is the bridegroom in the psalm, and that God the Father addresses Him as God. We will come back to the importance of this kind of thing shortly.
The Book of Psalms is actually a collection of five psalters, each one ending with a doxology. Some of the psalms in the collection are ancient, going back to the time of Moses (Ps. 90), for example, but the majority are from the time of David and shortly after. The principal poet and musician represented is David (73 psalms are attributed to him), while other composers include Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, and Heman.
The five books are set up as follows: Book One (Ps. 1-41), Book Two (Ps. 42-72), Book Three (Ps. 73-89), Book Four (Ps. 90-106), and Book Five (Ps. 107-150). The doxologies that conclude each book are: Ps. 41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, 150:6. The first book is overwhelmingly from David. The second contains psalms from three sources—David, sons of Korah, and Asaph. The third is largely from Asaph and the sons of Korah. It is good to remember that the last book contains a section known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). Because of the murky history of how these books were assembled, we are not really in a position to use these divisions practically, although it is good to know that they are there.
A commonplace notion is that poetry cannot be translated. If a great poet wrote in a language not your own, then you are simply out of luck. Now certain things cannot be brought across with the same effect—that is true enough. We commonly signal the presence of poetry in hymns by means of rhyme, which the Hebrews didn’t do at all. We use meter, and other languages don’t. We use meter differently than do other languages that use meter, although Hebrew poetry didn’t at all, and so on.
Some aspects of Hebrew poetry can be transferred across the language barrier. One of the use of thought rhymes in the common use of parallelism. In English, this technique is used in the blues, but rarely elsewhere. The parallelism can have variations— synonymous, contrasting, constructive, and so on.
Another technique that carries across, and is actually common to all high poetic expression, is the use of metaphorical imagery. Some of this imagery is quite striking and indelicate. Consider the psalm where God is compared to a warrior who is awakened while sleeping off a drinking binge (Ps. 78:65-66). Now was that quite necessary? Three very common images for God in the psalms would be God as king, God as warrior, and God as fortress.
God is a king on a throne (Ps. 93:2), and He rules over much territory (Ps. 47:6-7). He is a maker of laws (Ps. 93:5), and one who makes covenants with conquered peoples (Ps. 25). And we clearly see the kingship of God in the psalm of our text. At the end of the day, all Christians are necessarily monarchists. Jesus is Lord, Jesus is King. God is a great warrior. His artillery is fearsome (Ps. 18:12, 14). He parts the heavens and comes down to fight (Ps. 18:9). He trains us how to fight (Ps. 144:1). We do not worship a pacifist God. God is a fortress, a shield, a great protection. He defends His people from harm (Ps. 18:1-2). This also is a military image, albeit a defensive one.
But we find more than just images of God. Here are some images for the wicked, those against whom we must stand. They are snakes (Ps. 58:4), bulls (Ps. 22:12), bees (Ps. 118:12), dogs (Ps. 22:16), and those are just a few of the images. What is being done in the use of imagery and metaphor? You are learning more about what you do not know from what you do know. This means carries over.
One of the most obvious things about the psalms is how they were born in acutely personal circumstances. Their origin is individual. David wrote Ps. 52 in response to Doeg the Edomite. But when God used His servants to place these psalms in the corporate worship of Israel (and afterwards the Church), the result necessarily was two- fold: one was identification with the plight of the original author—he is our father, and we are with him. The second was application of these words to our own circumstances. Who is your Doeg? The meaning of the psalms, the import of the psalms, was therefore meant to expand. This hymnbook was intended to grow in meaning. What David used to refer to battles a thousand years before Christ (Ps. 68) was rightly appropriated by French Huguenots who made it into their battle hymn. “God shall arise and by His might, put all His enemies to flight.”
Another way of saying this is that the Psalter is alive. It is living and active. Take care not to fall into a destructive liberal/conservative dichotomy. The liberals love living documents—that’s how they kill them. Too often conservatives love preserving dead documents–Scripture is not under glass in a museum behind the velvet rope, with a brass plaque saying it is “alive.” Now we are not denying inerrancy here—that is the baseline minimum—but we are saying something much, much more than that. The Word of God is seed. What does that image mean?
The apostle Paul tells us that Christian churches are called to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Some Christians overstate the case when they say we may sing nothing but psalms, but that is not our most widespread error. The most widespread error is that of singing songs of our own invention, without reference to God’s model for hymnody. Singing should be one of our central vocations as disciples.
The apostle Paul wanted to sing in the Spirit, but wanted to sing with the mind also (1 Cor. 14:15). In a similar way, we come here week after week to worship God in the Spirit of God. But it is important for us to understand what we are doing, and why we are doing it. Otherwise we will drift into a mindless routine—which is quite different from a Spirit- led routine.
And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ. As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving (Col. 2:4-7).
In verse 4, Paul warns against the seductive power of a certain kind of religious approach, the kind that always fails to approach Christ. Even though Paul was not present with the Colossians (v. 5), he was with them in spirit. He rejoiced as he beheld their order (taxis), and the rock solid nature of their faith in Jesus Christ. The word taxis is a military term, and should be understood as a kind of regimentation. But note that this order was both disciplined and alive. It was not the order of a row of gravestones, but rather the order of a military troop, arms at the ready. It was more than such order that pleased Paul, but it was certainly not less. Paul then urged the Colossians to walk in Christ Jesus in just the same way they had received Him (v. 6), which was of course by grace through faith. As they did so, they would be rooted and built up in the Christian faith, in just the way they had been taught. The overflow of this, when it is happening, is abundance of gratitude. As with all things of this nature, we measure whether or not it is happening by the fruit. That said, why do we do what we do?
Consider first the broad outline of our worship service. We find five basic elements there:
Call to Worship—we invoke the name of God, and enter His gates with adoration and worship
Confession of Sin—we wipe our feet at the door
Consecration—we offer ourselves up to God as living sacrifices
Communion—we sit down for table fellowship with our God
Commissioning—we are sent out into the world.
The first and last elements “bookend” the service. The first invites us in from the world to assemble before the Lord to worship Him. The last sends us out into the world in order to function as ambassadors of Christ and of His gospel. The center three elements follow a basic biblical pattern of sacrifice. In the worship of the Older Covenant, God commonly required three kinds of sacrifices together. When they were offered together, they came in this order. First was the guilt offering (confession of sin: Lev. 17), then the ascension or burnt offering (consecration: Lev. 16:24-25), and then the peace offering (communion: Dt. 12:17-19). We see this overall pattern in Lev. 9 and 2 Chron. 29:20-36. Our name for worship that deliberately follows this basic pattern is called covenant renewal worship.
We find in various places of Scripture that certain particular practices are called for in New Covenant worship. One of the things we do therefore is look at the nature of that practice and decide where it would best fit within this structure. For example, the Bible requires the public reading of Scripture in worship (1 Tim. 4:13). So where do we put it? It seems to fit best under Consecration. The Bible commands us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). Where do we place the different kinds of songs? We are commanded to have preaching (1 Tim. 4:2). Where does it go? In doing this, we are seeking to be obedient while arranging our worship intelligently.
A very common temptation among the Reformed is to over-engineer the intellectual aspects of our faith. Reason and systematics have their place, but not every place. Reformed people need to be reminded that they have bodies, and that these too are involved in worship. This is why we lift up holy hands in the Gloria Patri (1 Tim. 2:8), and why we will kneel in confession as soon as it becomes logistically possible (Ps. 95:6). We stand in order to show deep respect for God’s Word (Neh. 8:5). Our overall demeanor is to be solemnity mixed with gladness. “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1).
Worship is a time of meeting. During this time, God speaks to the people through His ordained representatives (as in the Scripture reading, assurance of pardon, or the sermon.) During this time, the people also speak to God, either through their appointed representatives (as in the prayers of petition), or all together with one voice (as with a hymn or psalm, or the creed). We should therefore learn how to think of the worship service as a large conversation, with a direction and theme, and not as a disparate collection of random spiritual artifacts, crammed into a shoebox. In the Call to Worship: God says, “Come, meet with Me.” We say, “First, let us praise Your majesty.” Having done so, God warns us through the Exhortation not to approach Him with unclean hearts. We respond by Confession. God responds by declaring that we have Assurance of Pardon. This is a conversation in which you all are called to actively participate. As you do, you are following the most important conversation in the world, which is between God and His people.
One other thing. And last, we return to the passage in Colossians. The order we are cultivating here is not the order of porcelain figurines in a china hutch, neatly arranged on a shelf. The order we are pursuing is alive and disciplined, the order of a well-trained military unit. And why? Because every Lord’s Day we go into battle. But as God’s people we fight on earth from the high ground of heaven.
We ascend into the heavenlies in our worship and meet with our God there (Heb. 12:22). But this heavenly worship is not something that has fearfully run away from the enemy on earth. Rather, as the book of Revelation shows in great detail, the worship of the saints in heaven accomplishes God’s judgments on earth. The twenty-four elders worship God in heaven (Rev. 4:10), and the seven seals are opened in heaven (Rev. 5:5). But this does not leave the earth untouched or unaffected.
It is our custom to have a “state of the church” message every year around this time. Sometimes the message has to do with the church nationally, and other times the point is more local, pertaining to our own congregation. This year I want to focus on this congregation, and the point of this message is to reiterate some of our basic distinctives. What are we about? What are we trying to emphasize?
“Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe” (Phil. 3:1).
The church at Philippi had particular challenges, and Paul addressed them all by urging them to rejoice. This is a response that is always appropriate because God is always sovereign and God is always good. Not only is it appropriate for Christians to rejoice all the time, it is appropriate to bring repeated reminders to them to do so. To repeat the same exhortations should not be a grief to ministers, and it should be received as a means of keeping us all safe.
One kind of distinctive arises from what we believe the Scripture teaches and requires of all believers. We focus on it because we believe that all believers should focus on it. This would be a principled distinctive, coupled with an ecumenical invitation.
A second kind of distinctive would arise from our particular circumstances. These are tactical circumstances, tailored to the life and situation of each congregation. Are we in an urban setting or in a small town? Should we build this kind of building or that kind? Should we build a Christian school or is there already a good Christian school? These are tactical questions.
A third kind of distinctive is sinful. This is what happens when a group tries to separate itself from other Christians through various kinds of doctrinal vainglory or ministry showboating. This is what the disciples were arguing about on the road (Mk. 9:34). We are not immune to this temptation (why would we be?), and so we want to resist it everywhere we find it. The place to look is under your breastbone.
That said, what are our principled distinctives?
We worship God because He is worthy. We do not do it for any of the results that might come about from it. Rather, we do everything else for the results it might have in helping us to glorify God. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).
Worshiping God is not a means to another end. Worshiping God is the highest calling that a human being has, or that the entire human race has. It requires no other justification. Whatever you do, it should drive you to this great end. Whatever you do, it should culminate here, in the glorification of God. There is great wisdom in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism here. This is our chief end.
Dangers: one danger is that you make something you call worship into a great big deal, but it is not spiritual worship at all. Another danger is that of trying to get worship to “do” other things, like evangelism. But this is backwards.
Components: Learning the structure of covenant renewal worship, growing in our musical wisdom and literacy, teaching your families the importance of worship, weekly communion, and practical Bible teaching.
We want to emphasize basic and foundational issues in our teaching—personal piety as measured by relational piety (1 John 4:20). We want our doctrine to revolve around practical Christianity, Christian living that is meant to be lived. This is why there are recurring themes in the teachings, conferences, books published, and so on. We emphasize things like confession of sin, dealing with bitterness, maintaining relationships, how to read your Bible, the importance of Christian education, and so on.
Dangers: the danger here is that of reducing everything to a moralistic or legalistic approach. But the biblical approach is always credenda before agenda.
Components: Understanding the Apostles Creed, true Christian education for Christian kids, parish studies, having our lives intertwined in koinonia fellowship, and being driven by an eschatological optimism.
Jesus is Lord, and this means that He is relevant to all things. No area of human endeavor lies outside His authority. Our evangelism is not an attempt to helicopter victims out of a disaster area, but rather is the work of rebuilding a disaster area. Everything is relevant, and everything is related to Jesus.
The Christian faith has cultural ramifications. The Christian faith is political. The Christian faith is public. We have no business taking this light of His and putting it under our own bushel.
Dangers: one danger is the obvious one of calling it cultural engagement when we just drift along with whatever it is the world is dishing up. Another is the cowardice of shutting up because of the pc police. Or that of using a Jesus stamp on all of your personal prejudices.
Components: real Christian education (again), and a willingness to get out of our comfy little ghetto. In order to learn cultural engagement, we have to engage. We must not capitulate, and we must not run away. We must engage. This means knowing, loving, and praying for non-believers—without trying to become like them.
In the coming year, and in the time after that, there will no doubt be a number of times when we have practical and tactical decisions to make. A good example would be the issues surrounding the building of our new sanctuary. We have been without one since this congregation was established in 1975. We have a church that we planted just ten years ago that has its own building now, and we still don’t, which is the coolest thing in the world.
But when we come to build our own building (or if we do anything else), make sure that everything is brought back to these three areas. How will this help us do that? Unless we make a point of doing it this way, we will be like a crotchety bachelor deciding to get married in his late forties. What could go wrong?