A Crescendo of Praise
Last Sunday we began a four-week miniseries, within our larger series on the Psalms, on the topic of worship. And we started with Psalm 33, where we saw that worship involves a whole life directed towards honouring the Lord. Psalm 33 showed us that worship involves fear and awe and waiting and trusting and hoping and obeying. And that’s not a complete list—we’re going to see more in the weeks ahead. Because worship involves our whole life, the ways that we express worship to God are many.
But Psalm 33 showed us that one of the key ways the gathered people of God worship Him is through loud, vocal, musical praise. And the sense you get from the Psalm is that this singing of praise to God isn’t just one way of worshipping Him that you could swap out for any other expression of worship. Instead, you get the sense that worshipping God together through song is a particularly appropriate and fitting way of worshipping Him.
And I’d suggest that the rest of the Bible bears this out. When we see God’s greatness, singing together is one of the best things we can do. We see this in the history of Israel. Time and time again, after God delivered His people from their enemies, they responded by singing praise to Him (Exodus 15, Judges 5, 1 Samuel 18:6, 2 Samuel 22). Psalm 96 says that when God comes to judge the earth, “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord” (Psalm 96:12b).
Isaiah 35 describes the final salvation of God’s people, and tells us that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:1-2a, 10).
And in Revelation 5, after Christ takes the scroll from the right hand of the Father, the ones surrounding the throne “sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals’” (Revelation 5:9a). Twice more Revelation mentions the gathered redeemed people singing (14:3, 15:3), not to mention the many times it describes “loud voices” “crying out” in praise to God.
So the sense you get is that praising God together with song is an especially appropriate way to respond to Him in worship. It’s not the only way to worship God. We worship Him with our life. We’ve worshipped Him this morning as we’ve prayed together and been silent together and, you worship Him when you give financially. We’re worshipping Him right now as His word is preached and we receive it by faith. But there’s a reason we’re going to respond to this message with a song.
If a life of worship is like a big ocean wave, worshipping God in song is like that point at the top of the wave that curls over and crashes all over the beach in white foam. And maybe that’s not a perfect picture, but it’s my way of trying to capture what Psalm 33:1 means when it says that “praise befits the upright.” Or what Psalm 147 means when it says “it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is peasant, and a song of praise is fitting.”
And one of the best places where we see this idea—that praise is like the crest of the wave of worship—is Psalm 150, which is the last Psalm. And it’s there on purpose. We need to understand that the Psalms aren’t just a random collection. Bible scholars have come to understand that the Psalms reached their final form sometime after the exile to Babylon, which is why we have Psalms about the exile in here. And they are arranged in a way that follows the history of God’s people, starting with David, moving into the darkness of exile, and then ending with the hope of promised deliverance when God makes all things right.
And then the whole book ends with Psalm 150, which just praises God in the most loud, exuberant, full-throated way possible. Just think about that. Put here on purpose by a people still in exile, this last Psalm is not a Psalm of lament. It’s not asking for deliverance from enemies. It’s just a crescendo of praise. It’s a statement of faith that God will win. God’s enemies will not have the last word. Even though the throne was empty, the son of David was going to come, God would keep His covenant promises, and one day there would be no more lament—only the response of joyful praise.
Understood that way, Psalm 150 looks forward to the victory of Christ, the son of David, who did save His people from their sins, and will come again to be surrounded not by enemies but by loud songs of praise from His redeemed people.
But perhaps you’re still wondering: why singing? Why songs of praise? What does music have to do with all of this? And what does music have to do with praise and worship today?
Those are questions we want to ask as we look closer at Psalm 150 and see as this wave of worship crests into praise. We want to ask some questions of Psalm 150 and also look through this Psalm to the ways that the people of Israel used songs in their praise of God. And hopefully by the end we’ll have a more clear idea of how we can and should use songs to praise God today.
Questions for Psalm 150
1. Where Should God Be Praised? (v. 1)
Now the way Psalm 150 is set up, it’s almost as if it’s written in answer to four key questions. And the first question is “where should God be praised?”
“Praise the Lord!” Where? “Praise God in his sanctuary.” That’s the temple. God’s people here on earth are to worship Him in the place He’s chosen to set His name.
We know that, through Christ, God’s people are now His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). And everywhere they gather on earth they can worship God.
But earth is not the only place God is to be praised. Verse 1 goes on to say, “Praise him in his mighty heavens!” These words are most likely addressed to the angels and the heavenly lights, calling on them to praise the Lord as well.
It’s almost as if our human worship isn’t enough to give God the glory He deserves. God deserves to be praised everywhere there are creatures able to praise Him—below and above.
Charles Wesley captured part of this truth beautifully in the words we sang earlier, “Glory to God and praise and love be ever, ever given by saints below and saints above—the church in earth and heaven.” God deserves cosmic worship from everywhere in creation.
2. Why Should God Be Praised? (v. 2)
A second question for Psalm 150: “why should God be praised?” We spent a lot of time answering this question last week from Psalm 33. Psalm 150, being much briefer, provides only a summary. First, God is to be praised for what He’s done. Verse 2: “Praise him for his mighty deeds.” Not just what He’s done, but also what He’s promised to do. God is to be praised for His mighty deeds.
Second, God is to be praised just for who He is. “Praise him according to his excellent greatness.” God’s surpassing greatness is seen in his acts, as this word is used throughout the Bible to describe His power to save those on the brink of death (Psalm 79:11), his deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 9:26) and the way He revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:24).
But these actions simply reveal a God who is, in Himself, far, far greater than anything else that exists, has existed, or will exist. And God deserves to be praised for this.
Even though verse 2 is brief, we can see the same general idea as last week: God’s people praise Him for reasons, joyfully responding to the truth of who He is and what He’s done.
3. How Should God Be Praised? (vv. 3-5)
Now we get to the third question for Psalm 150, which is “how should God be praised?” And the answer to this question comes in verses 3-5 and a series of six statements that tell us to praise God with musical instruments.
We’re told to praise God with wind instruments: “Praise him with trumpet sound” (v. 3). The word there is “shofar,” a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. Verse 4 says to praise God with the “pipe,” a word that could refer to a flute or to any number of wind instruments in general. God’s people are to praise Him with string instruments. Verse 3: “Praise him with lute and harp!” Verse 4: “praise him with strings.”
God’s people are also to praise Him with percussion instruments. Verse 4 talks about a “tambourine,” which was a little different form modern tambourines—it was like a shallow drum held in one hand and played in the other. And then verse 5 says to praise God with “sounding cymbals” and “loud clashing cymbals.”
There are some churches that teach that drums are inherently sinful, and based on Psalm 150, we can confidently say that God does not agree with that position. God was to be praised with a variety of instruments, including percussion instruments.
Finally, God was to be praised with, as verse 4 says, “dance.” Now this is a tough one to wrap our heads around because dancing in ancient Jewish culture was so different from the various examples of dancing we often see in Canada today. We’re used to seeing couples dancing, or bar and nightclub dancing, or performative dancing where som people do it and the rest watch, or even the overtly religious dancing that some cultures practice.
The dancing referred to here was folk dancing, the kind of thing where a whole group would gather in a circle, from young to old, and they’d all dance together to celebrate something good that had happened.
We’ve probably seen this kind of thing in movies. Some of you have maybe experienced different kinds of folk dancing as you’ve travelled the world. Maybe even some of our grandparents remember a time when the community would gather in a barn and a couple of guys would play fiddles and everybody would get in there and it was innocent and joyful. And God is honoured by His people joining and dancing together in celebration and praise before Him.
Honestly, I’d love to see us be able to recover something like this, but I have no idea how, or if it’s even possible, or what it would even look like. Some of you might be thinking, “I’ll wait until heaven, thank you very much.” But let’s at least recognize that dancing, along with instruments, was a part of Israel’s worship. Done well, done properly, it honours God.
4. Who Should God Be Praised By? (v. 6)
Let’s ask the final question for Psalm 150: “who should God be praised by?” And the answer is: everything that can. Verse 6: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6).
God deserves the worship of everything that’s breathing. And this final call of Psalm 150 has its answer in the victory of Christ, and John’s vision in Revelation 5:13 when he “heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”
God is to be praised by all that has breath, and one day He will be.
Now there is some beautiful truth here in Psalm 150 and some strong fuel for our faith in the Lord. But this morning, in the context of our focus on worship, we want to ask a key question from all of this: why music? Why does Psalm 150, this crescendo of praise, spend so much of its time talking about musical instruments?
If worship is a response to the truth about God, what does music have to do with that? If praise is saying something good about someone, how can a trumpet or cymbals do that?
To answer these questions, and to bring Psalm 150 into shaper focus, let’s start by looking at a number of Bible passages that describe how Israel actually used music in their worship of God.
1. How Israel Used Music
The first is 1 Chronicles 13:8. This chapter describes David’s first attempt to bring the ark of God up to Jerusalem, and we read that “David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets” (1 Chronicles 13:8).
Later on, on their second and successful attempt to bring the ark into Jerusalem, we read that “David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy” (1 Chronicles 15:16).
When the ark was established in Jerusalem we read that David “appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4). And then we read that they “were to play harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brothers” (1 Chronicles 16:5–7).
When the temple was dedicated, we read that “all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with 120 priests who were trumpeters; and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever’” (2 Chronicles 5:12–13).
Years later, when Hezekiah restored worship at the temple, we read in 2 Chronicles 29 that “he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished” (2 Chronicles 29:25–28).
In Nehemiah’s day, when the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and dedicated to the Lord, we read that they found “the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. And the sons of the singers gathered together from the district surrounding Jerusalem and from the villages of the Netophathites” (Nehemiah 12:27–28).
Nehemiah then brought “the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks” (Nehemiah 12:31).
And we read how “both choirs of those who gave thanks stood in the house of God.. and the priests…with trumpets… And the singers sang with Jezrahiah as their leader. And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (Nehemiah 12:40–43).
Do you see a pattern here in these verses we’ve read together? The pattern is that these instruments were used in worship to accompany singing, whether the singing of the priests and the singing of the people themselves.
In fact, so tight was the connection between instruments and singing that in In 1 Kings 10:12 we read that Solomon made “lyres and harps for the singers” (1 Kings 10:12). Or Psalm 71:22 can say “I will sing praises to you with the lyre.” Instruments supported singing.
Bible scholar Leslie Allen wrote these words about Psalm 150: “The role of music in temple worship was to aid the efforts of praising voices. Here every type of instrument—wind, string, and percussion—is called to perform its distinctive part so that their players’ skill may promote and amplify the praise of voice and heart.”1Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (Revised), vol. 21, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 404.
That singing was full of words. Words about God. Words of thanksgiving. The words we find in the Psalms. And the instruments were like the soundtrack to those words of praise.
2. The Soundtrack of Praise
Now I used that word “soundtrack” is on purpose, because I’d suggest that a soundtrack is actually a really helpful way of thinking about exactly what music is doing as we praise God.
Recently we were watching a documentary with our kids about fish in the ocean and the music was all happy as we looked at what the happy little fish were doing. But then the camera showed one particular fish swimming through the water, and the music got all dark and scary. And as it did that, the music was telling us something. The music was communicating to us that that this was a bad fish who was going to hurt the other fish. And the music helped us feel some of the tension that the other fish must have felt when they saw that barracuda coming for them.
Now, we still needed the voice of the narrator giving us the facts. On its own, music can’t convey information. But when paired with a display or a description of reality, music can help us perceive that reality on a deeper level, and respond to that reality with our emotions more appropriately.
And as we think about this, I hope it’s becoming more clear how music can be used to praise God. When paired with words, music can help us grasp the beauty and the glory of the truth about God. And it can help us respond emotionally to God’s truth in a more appropriate way.
This is not about using music to manipulate our feelings, or to create emotions out of thin air. Music can give you the feels, and that’s not necessarily worship. But when music accompanies words that are full of truth, it can help us perceive that this truth is wonderful and glorious, and it can help us respond to that truth with proper emotion.
Biblical scholar Mark Futato wrote this about Psalm 150, “God does not simply want us to comprehend the message; he wants us to be moved by it, moved in every aspect of our being, and music has a unique power to move the human spirit. God wants to move us, so he communicates in a way that touches the mind and the body and emotions and the spirit. Music does that. The praise of God is to be exuberant, and music is a channel for that exuberance to come to expression.”2Mark D. Futato, “The Book of Psalms,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 7: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Proverbs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 440.
So this is at least part of the answer to the question “why music?” God is praised with music when that music accompanies the thoughtful praise of his people, helping them grasp His greatness and respond to him with the joyful worship He deserves.
At the risk of over-simplifying, we could sum this up just by saying this: music helps us feel the truth.
3. Lessons for Today
Now there’s a lot more we could say. Honestly, I felt in over my head with this message this week. We’re probably just scratching the surface. But with what we’ve seen so far, what can we learn from for our life together as a church today? What are some of the few key lessons we can take from Psalm 150, and Israel’s history, as we think about how we use music today?
1) First, let’s remember that music should support the singing of God’s people, not replace their singing. We saw this with the way Israel used musical instruments, and it’s especially clear as we look at the instructions given us in the New Testament. Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
God has told us to sing. So if we’re going to us instruments, it’s to support that singing, not replace that singing.
We need to emphasize this because over the last 200 years, there’s been a shift in Western Christianity towards less and less participation and more and more performance in our gatherings. You can trace this in architecture, seeing how church buildings slowly started to look more and more like theatres or performing arts centres. We see it today in churches where the lights in the audience are dim or even turned off, and the stage is bright and flashy, and the band is so loud that nobody can hear themselves sing, and so lots of people don’t even bother.
There’s even a whole market today for “worship tracks,” where churches can play parts from professional recordings so that their band can sound even more slick and polished then they actually are.
And it all ends up feeling like a concert instead of a gathering where everybody is involved. Which is really sad, because biblically, we see that instruments are not a replacement for thoughtful worship. They don’t push the truth of God out to the sidelines and replace it with a mindless emotional experience. The instruments support and amplify the thoughtful singing of God’s people.
Here’s a way of thinking about it: on Sunday mornings, you are the worship team. You’re not here to listen to the band. The band is here to support your singing. Let’s not forget that.
2) Second, we should also remember that the music we use on Sundays does matter and should be excellent. Psalm 33:3 said to “play skillfully on the strings.” When Psalm 150 talks about praising God with these various instruments, it probably doesn’t picture them all squeaking and honking and strumming randomly. Because that’s not going to help anybody praise God.
So on the one hand, some of us have been in settings where the band has distracted us from worshipping God because they were putting on a show and all we could think about was that sweet guitar solo. But on the other hand, some of us have been in settings where the band has distracted us from worshipping God because they hadn’t practiced or they made mistakes constantly or they played every song at the wrong speed or they just otherwise sounded terrible.
If the instruments are going to help support our singing, there needs to be a measure of skill and excellence. Not so that everybody notices them, but so that they don’t distract from their job of helping people respond to God’s truth.
3) Third: this should be obvious by now, but we want to remember that music should be paired with solid and biblical words about God. If music is supposed to help us better see and respond to the truth about God, there needs to be some truth to see and respond to.
By itself, a trumpet or a cymbal or a flute can’t tell us about God’s mighty deeds or excellent greatness. We need words for that. And then the music helps us understand those words at an emotional level.
Great music without great words is like going to a movie with a beautiful soundtrack, but the screen is so blurry you can’t see anything. We want to always make sure our music is paired with words that are true and reflect what God has told us in His Word.
And that means we’ll need to be discerning. Some people have simple rules like, “the older a song is, the better.” We had one visitor a few years ago complain that we didn’t sing enough of the “old hymns,” even though we had just sang a bunch of songs packed full of beautifully written truth. Would it surprise you to hear me say that here’s actually some “old hymns” that are quite flaky when you actually look at the words? And there’s loads of newer songs full of God’s truth. We need to pay attention to the words instead of getting hung up on when a song was written.
4) Fourth, let’s remember this singing we’re talking about is a corporate experience. This is something we all do together. And that means that on any given Sunday, some of us will be singing things that don’t exactly line up with our musical preferences.
We all have different preferences in music. For example, over the last twelve yers, I have tried and tried to get my wife to appreciate Petra. And it hasn’t worked.
But seriously, I grew up listening to “Petra Praise,” and when it comes to worship music, I love big guitars and big drums. You have no idea how much I was holding myself back this morning. But that’s because when we come together to sing, we want to not just think about ourselves and our preferences, but the body. A body with all different ages and preferences. And we want to do our best to remember each other when we sing together.
5) Finally, let’s remember what this is all about. Let’s remember that as Israel sang Psalm 150 all those years, they were singing it in faith. They were singing it believing that God would win, and lament would fade away, and one day all that would be left was everything with breath praising the Lord.
We can see so much clearer than them. We can see the Son of David, crucified for our sin, risen from the dead, already begun His reign at the Father’s right hand, gathering the nations to Himself even today. And in churches all over the world, including ours, we see little previews of heaven. People from diverse backgrounds, diverse nations, gathering together to praise the Lamb of God who has already won the victory.
Like a trailer for a movie, our singing together is a preview of the final triumph of Christ over heaven and earth, when the wave of worship will crest in joyful praise over all creation.
So we respond to the call of Psalm 150. We will praise the Lord together here on earth for His mighty deeds and excellent greatness, with all the musical skill we can bring, as we rehearse for the day when everything that has breath praises the Lord.