Using the Psalms as They Are Meant to Be Used (Michael LeFebvre)
I asked Michael recently if we could feature a chapter of one of his books here at Gentle Reformation, and he graciously agreed. This article is taken from chapter five of Singing the Songs of Jesus by Michael LeFebvre, published by Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland (www.christianfocus.com) and is used with their permission.
Nails are efficiently designed for what they do. With the forceful swing of a hammer, your nail will sink through one board and secure it to the board behind.
Screws, likewise, are well-designed for their purpose. Although similar to the nail in many ways, the screw has the added feature of spiraled thread running up its shaft, and a notched head. But the screw’s distinct design requires a distinct action. It must be turned into the surface with a screwdriver, not pounded like a nail. For the screw to function at its best, it must be used according to its design.
The same is true of the Psalms. The ancient hymns of Israel (the Psalms) are as different from modern hymns as screws are from nails. Not only do the Psalms lead us in praise in the train of our Mediatorial King, but they also lead us in a very different ‘method’ of praise than modern church songs. Although the Psalms serve in generally the same capacity as modern hymns (to praise God), they are different in how they function within the heart as they stir that praise of God.
To be specific: modern hymns are typically designed to prompt praise through declaration. For instance, one of Martin Luther’s well-loved favorites, ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ declares,
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills, prevailing…
In that beautiful song, Luther calls Christians to declare the stedfast protection of God. It is a declaration of God’s greatness.
The Psalms are full of declarations of praise also, but the Psalms also include doubts, contradictions, problems, and expectations of judgment—all of which feel very awkward if our worship is shaped by the expectations of modern hymnody (rather like the awkwardness of driving screws with a hammer). But these ‘messy’ features—complaining, judgment, and the like—are part of the distinct design of the biblical hymns; and, it is a distinct design which calls for a distinct ‘heart activity’ as we sing them.
In the Psalms, praise is the expected outcome, but meditation is the underlying activity which we undertake in Psalm singing. Unlike modern church songs which are primarily about ‘getting right to the point’ and declaring praise, the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise.
The fact that the Psalter is a collection that lifts us to praise, but is itself full of much that is not praise, highlights the importance of rediscovering the use for which they were designed. Singing them and expecting ‘to declare praise’ like modern hymns tend to do, is a bit like hammering with a set of screws in your hand. These Psalms require a different kind of ‘heart motion’ as we sing them—meditation rather than mere declaration.
An example: Psalm 73
A great example, for illustrating the meditational nature of the Psalms, is Psalm 73. The Psalm opens with a grand declaration of God’s goodness: ‘Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart’ (v. 1). This is a truth that we learn from God’s Word. Throughout the Scriptures, we are taught to trust in God’s faithful goodness to his people, and to devote ourselves to holiness. But no sooner than Psalm 73 makes this assertion, it invites questions (vv. 2–3):
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
I came ‘this close’ to abandoning my faith in God’s goodness, our Psalm-leader leads us in confessing. First of all, those whom God calls wicked are actually the ones who seem to receive all the good things in life (vv. 4–12). Furthermore, all my own efforts to remain ‘pure in heart’ (v. 1) seem only to be rewarded by increased sufferings and mocking (vv. 13–15). Over half the Psalm is spent moaning and complaining about how doubtful this declared truth appears in my own experience of life.
But at verses 15–17, our perspective is anchored by drawing our attention to the fuller glory of God’s goodness. Though God’s goodness is not always visible in my present experience, nonetheless, his goodness remains certain. And it is in worship (‘I went into the sanctuary of God;’ v. 17) that I am enabled to experience that goodness of God in his promises, even if I do not yet see them worked out in my experience.
The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 18–28) helps me to ponder the certainty of God’s promises to his people and of divine judgment upon the wicked. This talk of judgment is not to tantilize us with some kind of cruel excitement over the destruction of the wicked who now prosper; rather, in understanding that God is a good judge, and that he will undo every wrong done to me (by judging the wicked) and will reward all holiness (despite my present suffering for it), my soul is nourished. If it does not all take place in the course of my experience now, God’s good rewards are eternally certain for those who love him.
Indeed, by the end of the Psalm, we are led in words of praise to resolve: ‘for me it is good to be near to God; I have made the Lord God my refuge.’ (v. 28).
Thus, Psalm 73 does more than merely declare the truth, ‘God is good to Israel’ (v1). The Psalm helps us to examine that truth amidst the real problems and paradoxes we experience. The Psalm helps us to meditate on God’s promise in a way that leads us to praise, even if it takes a lot of complaining and confusion before we get there.
This kind of meditational singing is typical of the Psalms. Furthermore, it is a call to this kind of praise which is set at the head of the Psalter—in Psalm 1.
A Call to Meditation: Psalm 1
It is generally recognized that Psalm 1 serves as an introduction to the whole Book of Psalms. Notably, it is a Psalm that exhorts us to meditate on God’s law.
Psalm 1 tells a story. If you have your Bible handy, open it to Psalm 1 and read it. The Psalm tells the story (in poetry) of a man who is joyful (‘how blessed/happy is the man’), even though he is lonely and surrounded by sin and temptation (‘the counsel of the wicked,’ ‘the way of sinners,’ and ‘the seat of scoffers.’)
But the reason he is so happy is because he possesses a grand hope. One day, the congregation of the righteous will stand in God’s presence in community together (v. 5). Right now, he is a ‘lonely outsider’ in a society of sinners (vv. 1–2); but one day, he will be an ‘insider’ in the congregation of the righteous gathered in God’s courts (v. 5). The heart of the Psalm is to show us how this man draws upon that eternal joy even now in his lonely condition in a wicked world. It is by ‘meditating day and night’ on God’s law (v. 2).
The Hebrew verb translated ‘meditate’ in Psalm 1:2 is hagah. This word is often used in reference to sung meditations (e.g., Psa. 63:6; 71:24; 77:12). That is certainly its primary intention, here, as well. As an introduction to the Psalter, Psalm 1 is showing us the power of these Psalms to bring us joy as we use them to meditate on God’s Word amidst a sinful and scornful world (cf., Col. 3:16).
The rewards of such meditational Psalm singing are as glorious as the visions of praise and heaven held out to us in its songs. But this also explains why the Psalms seem awkward to Christians who have not been taught the meditational character of singing. Christians today often expect songs to be merely declarative (getting right to the praise); they do not understand the process of wrestling the Psalms lead us through in order to get us to praise. The Psalms are designed for a different kind of ‘heart motion’ than many today are used to in our worship songs. We pick up screws and expect to pound them; we pick up Psalms and expect to declare praise with them (rather than stirring praise with them). So they feel awkward.
But the problem is not with the Psalms, but with our changed expectations of what a hymn is supposed to accomplish. To make the most fruitful use of the Psalms which Christ has given us, we have to recover a meditational approach to singing.