Psalms 81–83: Worship & Song

Read the Bible in 2011 ◊ Week 28: Wednesday

Sing for joy to God our strength;
Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, strike the timbrel,
The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
At the full moon, on our feast day.
Psalm 81:1–3

Wednesday’s Bible reading is Psalms 81–83. These are the last of the twelve psalms of Asaph, Psalm 50, and Psalms 73–83.

Psalm 81 is a joyful and exuberant call to shout and sing for joy to the Lord. M’Caw and Motyer write this psalm used is in celebration at the Feast of Tabernacles:

This psalm is best associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, though some link it with the Passover….All the great feasts of Israel were, however, based on the Exodus and Tabernacles associates well with this psalm in that it regularly placed God’s law before the people (Dt. 31:9ff.; cf. vv. 8–10) and was the feast of the ingathering (Ex. 23:16; 34:22, cf. vv. 10, 16).

…The Feast of Tabernacles began in the middle of the 7th month, i.e., at full moon (v. 3b).1

Charles Spurgeon, (1834–1892), the great London preacher, wrote over 100 years ago of the connection of joy and the heart and exuberant singing from those who know and love their God:

To whom do men give honour but to those upon whom they rely, therefore let us sing aloud unto our God, who is our strength and our song. Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. The God of the nation, the God of their father Jacob, was extolled in happy music by the Israelitish people; let no Christian be silent, or slack in praise, for this God is our God. It is to be regretted that the niceties of modern singing frighten our congregations from joining lustily in the hymns. For our part we delight in full bursts of praise, and had rather discover the ruggedness of a want of musical training than miss the heartiness of universal congregational song. The gentility which lisps the tune in well bred whispers, or leaves the singing altogether to the choir, is very like a mockery of worship. The gods of Greece and Rome may be worshipped well enough with classical music, but Jehovah can only be adored with the heart, and that music is the best for his service which gives the heart most play.2

I love those last words, …that music is the best for his service which gives the heart most play. Singing and music is a physical expression of our relationship with God (and what a fabulous expression it is!). When we sing we physically mark a change of pace from whatever we have been doing and we physically live out our joy in Christ and what it means to know Him. Music is such a marvelous gift of God to us. God can use it so profoundly to touch and pierce the heart. I have found that singing makes a significant difference in our time together.

When teaching a women’s Bible study in the evening, I learned how singing together helped us so much by marking a change of pace from the day’s events and work. Music was invaluable in helping us to quiet our hearts and minds and focus on the Lord.

Singing is such an important part of our worship together as a church. The words and the music both matter. Repetition of the same words over and over may build up emotionalism, but they don’t express the emotion of the heart. Dreary tunes, no matter how fine the words, will not help us give voice to our praise.

A friend of mine linked to this article, Seven Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Worship Leaders, by J. Lee Grady and I thought he had some excellent points. Here’s his list.* Read the article for his explanation of each one.

1. Give us something to shout about!
2. Please give us content.
3. Spare us the concert.
4. Don’t run a song into the ground.
5. Please don’t burst my eardrums.
6. Show us the lyrics.
7. Honor the Word.3

I also think it’s time to stop calling them worship leaders and call them song leaders. The preaching of the Word of God is also part of our worship. In fact, the Reformers considered it to be the high point of the worship service.

Another thing I’d like to see changed is for the songs not to be bunched together; I miss having the pastor comment on the meaning of a song or pray between songs. When the songs are all back to back, I feel as if the purpose is to pump up the congregation rather than to worship God. There’s not time to think about what each song is saying. It can also be very moving to a have a hymn or song at the end of the sermon that reflects it; the congregation sings a response to the Word of God.

Music is important to the life of a church and the life of each Christian. Music is important to our history as Christians. We are a singing faith. One reason I love music and song written throughout the history of Christianity is because as I sing it I know I’m singing something that has been sung by Christians before me who are now with the Lord Jesus.

Martin Luther wrote:

Music is a fair and glorious gift of God…Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable.  I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art than can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart.

So let us:

Sing for joy to God our strength;
Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, strike the timbrel,
The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
At the full moon, on our feast day.
Psalm 81:1–3

Isaiah 42 Photograph: – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications
1Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Psalm 81.
2Leslie S. M’Caw, J. A. Motyer, “Psalms,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., 502.
3J. Lee Grady, “Seven Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Worship Leaders,” Charisma.

*UPDATE: I’ve now added Grady’s list to the post.

Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter

5 thoughts on “Psalms 81–83: Worship & Song

  1. Wow, Iwana. Where do I begin? You have touched on some things here that should give us all pause. Church services have become so standardized, as they always do, that attempting change is difficult. You wrote kindly and gently, but are proposing radical change in the eyes of many. Congregational gatherings generally do not lend themselves to your suggestions. There is only so much time. There must be a sermon. Therefore, singing/praise/worship/entertainment must be bunched together. But I certainly like your ideas. It is very clear to me that if the Spirit of the Lord Jesus was in charge, our meetings would be different, unique, free-flowing, touching, heartfelt, much more real, and fulfilling. I’ll look over what Lee has to say. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks, RJ. I think you’re right that many would think this as radical change—which is ironic considering I’ve suggested things I’ve seen done in the past. This is a topic on which I think having seen changes come and go provides some perspective.

    Even before I became a Christian I grew up singing in choirs when most musical accompaniment was either piano or organ or both with the occasional use of brass or string instruments for special services such as Christmas or Easter. I love many hymns, and it was wonderful to have been part of a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas. I also sang as a young adult in a choir for a couple of years.

    I don’t think some of the music that burst forth from Christian musicians in the late 60s and early 70s was originally meant for group singing, but was simply music those individuals and groups wrote to praise God and to sing of their relationship with Him. Some songs were easily adapted for people to sing, but some were not.

    In my early days as a believer I certainly saw many long-haired new Christians with all sorts of backgrounds fervently sing old hymns as well as newer choruses. Our Sunday evening worship service was attended by many college students and every week requests for songs were usually taken. Wonderful Grace of Jesus ©1918, was a hands-down favorite. Our pastor would ask people if they knew what Bible verse lyrics of a hymn made reference to and he would use that as an informal time of teaching.

    I love some of the old music and some of the music of the last few decades. I think In Christ Alone is an example of excellent contemporary music for congregational singing. Before the Throne of God Above is a song that’s currently sung in churches with lyrics written in 1863 by Charitie Bancroft and music from 1997 by Vikki Cook. It’s a great combination! In the 1980s 2nd Chapter of Acts came out recordings of hymns. The box for their Hymns Collection says, “They chose hymns that exalted God’s power and majesty. And as they stood in the studio listening to the first vocal playback of “Holy, Holy, Holy”, they all began to weep. The Lord had impressed upon them His desire to breathe new life into these hymns for their generation, and their own hearts were the first to be touched.”

    You can find poor tunes in both old and new, and poor lyrics, but the lyrics of the last few decades have become increasingly mindless with a lot of vain repetition. There are also songs that qualify for a “God is my girlfriend (or boyfriend)” category. If our music reflects our understanding and knowledge of God, well, we have a lot of things we need to take stock of and change. My daughter is a vocalist and we’ve had many conversations about music.

    At some point church groups that should have sung one song for a piece of special music to help the congregation sing, started singing a lot of those songs and expecting everyone to sing with them. Along the way the group up front started being there for entertainment rather than to lead other believers in singing. I can’t tell you exactly when some of this transitioned into a norm for many churches, but it’s not good for either the singers or the rest of the congregation to see music in a worship service as entertainment. That’s one reason I included the quote from Spurgeon because I think the praise groups of today are a problem comparable to what happened with the formal choirs of his day over a 100 years ago.

    It is to be regretted that the niceties of modern singing frighten our congregations from joining lustily in the hymns. For our part we delight in full bursts of praise, and had rather discover the ruggedness of a want of musical training than miss the heartiness of universal congregational song. The gentility which lisps the tune in well bred whispers, or leaves the singing altogether to the choir, is very like a mockery of worship.

    Well, as you can tell this is a topic dear to my heart, and I have even more to say, but I obviously need to write some more posts on it in the future. I love music—as it expresses our hearts from the very deepest parts, it can touch our hearts in the very deepest parts.

    Another point of remarkableness to all of this, you should know that I became seriously hearing impaired as an adult. Music is a gift from God—as is hearing—given to glorify Him and simultaneously give voice to our hearts. We need to remember that and honor Him accordingly.

  3. You just wrote another post, and a very good one. I love music but I’m not a musician or singer, so I’m not aware of the many nuances of which you speak. But you are describing the exact thing that has happened to American Christianity in general. Mindless lyrics, vain repetitions, and something I never heard of before, “God is my girlfriend/boyfriend songs.” That’s a shot, and right on. The dumbing down process has dumbed out a lot of the good stuff. The old hymns were so FULL, and so Scriptural, and the music was incredible. I cut my teeth singing old songs out of hymnals, and it was great.
    I have been a longtime Phil Keaggy fan, have been to several of his concerts, and really appreciate the Christian music of the early-seventies era. It was groundbreaking and fresh, and not one bit contrived. Some of our present stuff is pretty good, but it seems music made not to be sung by a congregation is much better (I’m sure I just broke a bunch of syntax rules). In reading your post I realized I save most of my real singing for the car. I follow along to songs I like that have the message I like. Maybe our social settings have simply become listening sessions because we are so used to listening and being entertained.
    I used to get really ticked off when the best voices always graduated to the mike (and sometimes fought for it), whether their heart was right or not. Imagine what would happen if we simply outlawed entertainment in our meetings. Yet, preaching has become entertainment. What do we expect? We structure our services in the exact mode as theaters, with a stage and all seats facing forward. The structure forces the eventual outcome.
    You should consider writing an extended version of your reply, a book chapter if you will. You have a lot to share and we certainly need it.

  4. Pingback: Music |
  5. Thanks for your thoughts, RJ. I’m sorry to take a couple of days to get back to it–busy Monday!

    The boyfriend/girlfriend line isn’t original—I don’t remember where I first heard it, but it is descriptive.

    Perhaps worship —> entertainment from some combination of the growing cultural norm is that music is for pros in concert + pride + intimidation that others have more musical talent. I don’t know—I’m really not an expert on the history, I comment from what I’ve known and seen.

    I don’t know if people in general even sing the way they used to sing. In elementary school we sang numerous traditional American songs. My 6th grade teacher was a fabulous pianist, and she’d play and we’d sing. Do kids in general even take piano any more or is it only for the talented? (Or was that a Southern thing that people tried to get their kids to take piano or sing in choir? Or is this more of the general dumbing down of the culture?) I’d love to see some stats.

    It does seem to me that music isn’t something we do anymore—it’s not for everyday people—it’s something we watch. That ties in with your comment about the good voices going to the microphone. To hear a congregation singing a song in harmony is a powerful, incredible thing to hear, but it seldom happens. If there was more of it, then I think it would actually help those who are not trained musically to sing out because they would feel held up by others. Does that make sense?

    As far as writing, I’ll put together some posts eventually. One of my former pastors, Mike Braun, is the guy I want to write a book on worship services. He has other projects going on–he’s now retired from being a pastor–but he is a powerful expositor of God’s Word, and he understands music and congregational singing in a worship service. I learned so much from him from having him as a pastor.

    You mentioned seating arrangement. One thing I saw Mike do is that the musicians were usually to one side perpendicular to the congregation—not facing them. Mike sometimes led singing, and sometimes he would sit on the front row and no one would be standing in front of everyone. We had communion monthly with usually two testimonies. The people giving their testimony would stand up where they were to tell how they became a Christian. I think this helped emphasize worshiping together with those who were gifted in song or preaching serving the congregation with their spiritual gifts, but they weren’t entertaining.

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