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Corporate Worship - Old Testament, Part 2 (Psalms) Print E-mail
Corporate Worship

I.  Introduction:

Tonight we're going to continue to look at corporate worship in the OT, but we're going to narrow our focus a little.  We're going to look primarily at the Psalms, and we're going to talk primarily about expressiveness in worship, and the different forms that takes in the Psalms.

Let's begin with the definition Brother William gave us last week: corporate worship is our public response as believers to all that God is and all that He has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ. He went on to describe that as a sort of dialog initiated by God.  God acts, God initiates a relationship, and that elicits a response from us.  Now I want to expand that idea just a little bit and say that this is in one sense a genuinely reciprocal dialog.  There is a very real and dynamic give and take in this relationship.

And actually we saw several examples of that dynamic at work in Moses' relationship with God in the book of Exodus.  God would engage Moses, Moses in response would fully engage God, and sometimes even plead with God to take a different course of action than He had proposed.  And the amazing thing is that God would then respond to Moses.  And that's what I mean when I say that our dialog with God is an ongoing reciprocal dialog.  Not only does the Bible teach that we respond to God's initiative, but it also teaches, amazingly, that it pleases God, in His infinite grace, to respond to us.

I want you to see what a picture of grace that is.  Why would the almighty God of the universe, who needs NOTHING--He doesn't need us, and He doesn't need anything we could give Him--why would He respond to us?  The only answer I can give, and I think it's the biblical answer, is because He graciously chooses to.  He really does respond to our sometimes weak and feeble movements toward Him.  I want all of you together to complete this sentence: Draw near to God, and He ____ ____ ____ __ ___.  Do you see that?  If you move toward God, draw near to Him by faith, what will happen?  He will move toward you, draw near to you.  And that is an act of amazing grace.  In no way do we deserve that, but it's what God does.

I wanted to emphasize that because in one of the Psalms, we encounter the idea that one of the very specific things that God responds to is the corporate worship of His people.  Turn to Ps. 22:3. I want to read this verse, state the principle, and then look at a couple instances in 2 Chronicles where that principle is illustrated. Ps. 22:3: Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. The ESV Study Bible note on v. 3 says that God was "especially present in Israel's worship," and I believe that what was true regarding Israel's worship is true regarding ours.  We find the same principle in other passages of Scripture.  In John 4 Jesus said that God seeks those, goes after those, who worship Him in Spirit and truth; He moves toward true worshipers.

Here's how I want to state the principle: It pleases God to reveal His presence and power and glory when His people passionately praise Him in corporate worship.  Examples: 2 Chron. 5:11-14; 2 Chron. 20:21-22.  Now those are both dramatic examples.  Obviously, God's response to our worship is not normally that dramatic, but those examples clearly illustrate the principle found in Ps. 22:3: It pleases God to reveal Himself when His people praise Him in corporate worship.

What I want to do tonight is to make a few observations from the Psalms about corporate worship and then ask how we should respond to those.

II. Observations:

A. The Psalms Hold a Unique Place in Scripture. 

Most churches have some sort of hymnal or songbook.  Israel's hymnal was the book of Psalms.  They were specifically inspired for use in corporate worship, and for that reason alone we can learn a lot about corporate worship from them.  I believe there are a couple of things that make the Psalms unique in Scripture: they have a unique purpose; and they occupy a unique position of prominence in the NT, and I just want to touch very briefly on the uniqueness of the Psalms.

Their Unique Purpose. The Psalms, unlike most of the rest of Scripture, were not written to be read. They were songs.  They were written to be sung.  John Piper says, "If you read the Psalms only for doctrine, you’re not reading them for what they are. They are psalms, songs, poetry. They’re musical, and the reason human beings express truth with music and poetry is to awaken and express emotions that fit the truth."  Do you hear what Piper's saying? The purpose of the Psalms and other "music and poetry is to awaken and express emotions that fit the truth." We have got to realize that it's not inappropriate to be emotional about God. In fact, I would say that based on the teaching and example of the Psalms and all the rest of Scripture, that what's actually inappropriate is to not be emotional about God.  How could we not get emotional about the ONE thing, the one PERSON, in all the universe that really matters--GOD Himself!  He's the one who created our emotions, and HE is the one who inspired the Psalms which are designed, as Piper points out, to stir up those emotions and strengthen our affection for God.  The Psalms have a unique purpose.

The Psalms also hold a Unique Position of Prominence.  No OT book is quoted in the NT more often than the Psalms. Jesus quoted from them as he hung on the cross.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  The apostles quoted the Psalms in their sermons and in their letters to the churches.  During the Reformation, the Psalms actually became the primary songbook of the church (I'll say more about that in a few minutes).  The Reformers believed the Psalms had just as much value for the church in corporate worship as they had for Israel.  Martin Luther said: the Psalms "might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended."  John Calvin said, "when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory."

I think it's obvious both from Scripture and from church history that the Psalms are somewhat unique and that a careful examination of them can be very instructive.  The second observation I would make about corporate worship from the Psalms is this:

B. The Psalms Begin with a Basic Assumption That It's Right to Worship God Expressively.

I think we see that in at least 3 different areas.

They Assume that it's right to worship God with creative expression. Human beings are naturally creative, and that's because we were made in the image of a creative God.  Every comfort and convenience you enjoy at home is due to the creative, inventive impulse in human nature.  So it's not surprising to find in the Psalms what I think is encouragement to use our God-given creativity in corporate worship.  For instance, there are several Psalms that talk about singing a new song to the Lord (Ps. 33.3; 40.3; 96.1; 98.1; 144.9; 149.1).  The extensive use of musical instruments in the Psalms (see Ps. 150.3-5) is another example, I think, of creativity in worship.  It almost seems from Psalm 150 (and other places in the OT) as if various combinations of instruments were used to create new sounds and compose new songs of praise to the Lord.  All of that suggests that it's normal and right for us to create and incorporate new songs and new melodies into our worship, and even to use a wide variety of musical instruments in creative ways to make God's praise glorious (Ps. 66.2).

They Assume that it's right to worship God with emotional expression.  Every imaginable human emotion is expressed in the Psalms, all the way from indescribable joy and comfort, to the deepest depths of sorrow, and agony, and even total despair (Ps. 88).  The emotion is so raw and brutally honest at times, that it's almost shocking.  But the fact is (and if you've lived very long you know this), life can be hard--devastatingly hard.  And sometimes we struggle.  We saw a good example of that in the Psalm Brother William preached this morning.  When we struggle, when we're discouraged, we should turn to the Psalms, pray them, sing them, make up a tune if we want, but use them to pour out our heart to God.  So whether we are crushed under the weight of sorrow and grief, or whether our hearts are bursting with joy, there is a Psalm that matches and gives expression to our deepest emotions.  And the Psalms assume that it's appropriate to express every possible human emotion in worship.

They Assume that it's right to worship God with physical expression. Here all I want to do is look at the variety of physical expressions that are mentioned in the Psalms.  We've already discussed two of those expressions--singing and playing instruments--but here are several others.  Bowing Down (Ps. 95:6); Kneeling (Ps. 95:6); Lifting hands (Ps. 63:4; 88:9; 134:2; 143:6); Clapping (Ps. 47:1); Shouting (Ps. 32:11; 33:1, 3); Dancing (Ps. 30:11; 149:3; 150:4); Standing in awe (Ps. 33:8); Crying aloud (Ps. 27:7; 77:1).  I could go on giving other expressions, and additional references, but you get the point.  The Psalms are filled with joys and sorrows that simply can't be contained; they just have to be expressed.  Let me read through this list one more time..... Those are all assumed to be normal ways to express our love and affection for God.

The question I want to ask at this point is, how do we handle those observations?  What do we do with them?

III.  Our Response:

I want to try to answer that question by dividing all these physical expressions into two broad categories.  We'll look at singing in a category by itself, and then lump all of the other physical expressions of worship into another category.  And I want to do something a little different in this section.  I want to take a look at how the church responded to these observations at one particularly critical point in church history.  I think that doing so can shed some light on how we should respond to what we've seen in the Psalms.

Most of you know that John Calvin was born 500 years ago this last July, and there've been a lot of celebrations this year of the contributions that Calvin made to the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, coming up on Oct. 30 we're going to have our own Reformation Day Celebration and we're going to take look at Calvin's life and legacy.  So in light of our upcoming celebration, and especially because Calvin had a lot to say about the Psalms, and singing, and even about physical expressions of worship, I want to share a few quotes from his writing in this section.  Some people think of Calvin as sort of a cold, detached intellectual, but that's a terrible misconception.  I think you'll see, as you listen to some of the things that he wrote, that he was actually a very warm and devotional writer who was passionate about the glory of God.

The question I'm asking is this---in light of the physical expressiveness in the Psalms, how should we respond?  The first category I want to look at is singing, and I think the answer is obvious.

 We should sing. 

Singing is mentioned so often in the Psalms that it really stands out from all the other physical expressions of worship and that's why I put it in a category by itself (Word "sing" or "singing" approx. 66 times, "song" approx. 57 times).  So right in the middle of our Bible we have this major collection of 150 inspired songs.  The simple fact that they are songs makes each one of them a clear example and reminder of the fact that God's people can't help but sing.  Turn to Psalm 147:1.  The Psalms are saturated with statements like that.  How can we ignore that?  I don't think we can without being openly disobedient to God.

Here's where I want to take a quick look back at church history.  The first Protestant churches in Geneva, Switzerland used a songbook called a Psalter.  It was nothing more than a collection of Psalms that were slightly reworded to make them easier to sing.  John Calvin wrote the preface to that Psalter, and in the preface he said some remarkable things about music and singing.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

As for public prayers, there are two kinds. The ones with the word alone: the others with singing. And this is not something invented a little time ago. For from the first origin of the Church, this has been so, as appears from the histories. And even St. Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth: but also of singing. And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal...

And yet the practice of singing may extend more widely; it is even in the homes and in the fields an incentive for us, as it were, an organ of praise to God, and to lift up our hearts to him, to console us by meditating upon his virtue, goodness, wisdom and justice: that which is more necessary than one can say [meaning singing]...

But still there is more: there is scarcely in the world anything which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another...

Those are strong words about the power of singing.  And I think they are exactly right.  Listen again to this one phrase: "Singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal."  There's a lot more that could be said about all of the biblical reasons to sing, but for now, I just want to let John Calvin's words sink in.  I pray that we would sing, and that as we do, our hearts would be inflamed to praise God vehemently.  I don't see how we can NOT sing without disobeying God and hurting our own souls.

What about all the other physical expressions of worship in the Psalms?

I just want to lump all of those together here and talk about them as a whole.  What do we do with those?  The first thing that I want to say is that none of those other physical expressions are mentioned nearly as often as singing, but that doesn't mean they're insignificant.  In fact, I think they're an indispensable aspect of biblical corporate worship.  Again, I want to quote John Calvin.  This excerpt comes from his commentary on the book of Acts, but it applies just as well to the physical expressions of worship that we see in the Psalms.  Listen to what Calvin says:

The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a twofold use. The first is that we may employ all our members for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because in this way the sons of God profess their piety, and they inflame each other with reverence of God. But just as the lifting up of the hands is a symbol of confidence and longing, so in order to show our humility, we fall down on our knees.

I love that.  Writing at two different times in two different places Calvin talks about having our hearts inflamed, set on fire, by singing and kneeling and lifting up our hands.  I want to summarize that last statement.  Through outward expressions of worship, three profoundly important things happen:

   1. we…employ all our members for the glory and worship of God
   2. we are…jolted out of our laziness
   3. [and we] inflame each other with reverence of God.

I just don't think there's anything I can add to that.  That is a good and right and biblical understanding of the importance and the impact of outward physical expressions in corporate worship.  And that's what I want for us as a church.

IV: Concluding Thoughts

I've really just scratched the surface of this topic, but I do hope it's enough to create a hunger in all our hearts to praise and worship and love and adore our great and glorious God more whole heartedly.

There are some dangers that we need to keep in mind as we try to conform our hearts and conform our corporate worship to this biblical pattern.  I want to mention just two:

1. There is a danger of putting too much emphasis on the outward expressions of worship; of being preoccupied with external concerns while our hearts are really far from God.  Jesus, quoting from the book of Isaiah, told the Pharisees, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Matt. 15:8).

2. But there's also the opposite danger of putting too little emphasis on outward expressions of worship; of thinking that they don't really matter.  I want to be very emphatic about this.  Outward expressions of worship matter, or they would not have such a prominent place in Scripture.  In fact, I believe that the Bible assumes that worship is incomplete if it's not outwardly expressed in some way.

I want to take a little closer look at Jesus' words.  "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."  That's a sobering statement, and we need to weigh them carefully, but we mustn’t try to make it say more than it does.  What Jesus' words do imply is that we can put on a convincing outward display of worship without having any corresponding inward love for God.  I don’t want anyone here to miss that.  It is a real and terrible danger that we all have to guard against.  We've all been guilty of it at times.  Jesus strongly condemned the Pharisees for it.

But what Jesus did not say (or even suggest) is that outward expressions of worship are therefore inappropriate or undesirable.  Jesus Himself lifted up his hands in prayer (Luke 25:50); Paul, in his letter to Timothy, commands us to lift our hands.  Outward expressions of worship are not, in and of themselves, inappropriate.  It's true that God is fundamentally concerned about our hearts.  But listen to me--he has designed us so that our lips and our hands and our feet fulfill their true purpose when they outwardly express the inward passions and pleasures of our hearts.  And to the extent they do not do that, authentic biblical worship is to some degree short-circuited, and we are less than fully engaged with God.

Full engagement is what God desires and it's what he rightly requires of us.  Jesus said "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength."  I take that to mean we are to love God with every fiber of every part of our being–our mind, our hearts, our emotions, our will, our bodies--every fiber of every part.  As worship is portrayed in the Psalms, it consists (at least in part) of a deeply affected heart-response to God which is in some way physically expressed.

Have you ever wondered why God gave us bodies?  What are we supposed to do with them?  According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “…You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body.”  God intends for you to express your love and adoration for him with your body and your emotions, just as much as he expects you to express it with your thoughts and attitudes.  The question I want to close with tonight is this.  Why would any of us not want to, as Calvin said, "employ all our members"--every part of our physical body--"for the glory and worship of God"?  Why would we not long to do that? 

~ Barry Wallace ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 28 October 2009 )

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