The Worship God Seeks
Introduction: How Should We Worship?
If I were to ask us why we gathered this morning, my guess is that many of us would answer, “for worship.” If I were to ask us what we just did together, my guess is that many of us would answer, “worship.” If I were to ask what this gathering we’re doing together is called, I’d guess that many of you would answer, “a worship service.”
But what if we were to ask some more specific questions, like, “What is worship?” or “What does worship include?” or “What should worship feel like, and look like?” or “Where should we find our answers on how we should worship?”, I wonder if our answers would start to look at little bit different from each other.
I’ve been involved in Sunday morning worship for most of my life. My Sunday morning ministry role, starting at age 10, was doing overheads at the church where we attended. Back before computer projectors, we had a box with a light and words printed on transparencies, and I spent a lot of time up there on the platform, with the band, watching them lead in worship and watching the people in the congregation respond.
I picked up the guitar when I was 13, and over the next number of years I helped lead the music part of worship in all kinds of churches—all different sizes, all different denominations, with a bunch of camps and seniors homes thrown in for good measure. I’ve gotten to work with numbers of worship leaders and worship pastors and music directors, and I’ve talked to all kinds of people about worship and music and singing and everything connected to that.
And what my experience tells me is that when it comes to answering the big questions about music and worship, many Christians have not begun with the Bible. Many Christians have not started by asking “What has God told us about worship?”, and then worked their way out from there.
Instead, in my experience, many Christians have had their understanding of worship shaped simply by the songs that they like singing or the trends in church culture that they got used to. And their whole approach to worship is shaped far more by the preferences they’ve developed over the years as opposed to what God has told us in His word.
And this applies to all ages. I’ve met plenty of young folks whose theology of worship is only as deep as the latest worship song burning up the charts. But on the other hand I’ve interacted with plenty of seniors who prefer the “old hymns” not for biblical reasons, but simply because they like how those familiar songs make them feel. It’s just what’s familiar to them.
Many churches have been through the “worship wars,” and how many battles in those wars have not been about what God has said in HIs word, but have simply been squabbles over different preferences and opinions?
And if that’s true, isn’t that kind of backwards? Shouldn’t we start any conversation not with what’s familiar and normal to us, but with what God has told us in His word?
Now EBC has not, to my knowledge, had any “worship wars” in recent history. But we’re in a series on the Psalms. The Psalms are about many things, and worship is one of them. This was Israel’s song book!
And so it seemed like a good idea to the elders, as we’re now on our third summer through the Psalms, to take the last four weeks of this summer series to focus on worship. We want to make sure that what we’re doing here isn’t based on a consensus of our opinions and preferences. We want to make sure that we’re allowing God, through His word, to shape our worship.
And so today we’re starting with a general look at worship as we consider a song of praise known as Psalm 33. This Psalm, in the broadest of strokes, paints for us a big picture of the kind of worship that God seeks.
And in the next three weeks we’ll fill in that picture some more. And by the end, we won’t have looked at everything the Bible has to say about worship, but we’ll hopefully have uncovered a few truths that we can build on as we keep seeking to worship God in the way that He’s called us so.
Outline of the Psalm
We’re going to start by just looking at the broad strokes of how this Psalm is set up. First, the Psalm begins with a call to worship. Look at how, at least five different times, verses 1-3 calls God’s people to worship Him:
- “Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.”
- “Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre.”
- “Make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!”
- “Sing to him a new song”
- “Play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Psalm 33:1–3).
Then, starting in verse 4, it gives us cause for worship. In other words, it gives us reasons to worship. “For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness” (Psalm 33:4). And on from there it goes.
Then, in verse 8, we find a renewed call to worship. “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” (Psalm 33:8). And then, starting in verse 9, we see this word “For” again, and all the way down to verse 19 we see more and more causes or reasons for worship.
“Worship God, and here’s why. Worship God, and here’s why.” That’s the basic layout of the Psalm.
Finally, the Psalm finishes in verses 20-22 with a response to everything that we’ve just heard about God. This is the worshipper responding to the call to worship and all the causes for worship by expressing their trust and confidence in the Lord.
So that’s the big picture. But within that big structure, there’s a lot more that we want to see. As we look at the call, causes and response, we want to ask four big questions about worship that will help us really dig up the truths and lessons that this Psalm has to offer us about worship.
1. Who Should Worship?
So first, let’s ask, “Who should worship?” I wonder if that’s a question you’ve asked before. Who are the people whom God seeks to worship Him?
Look at what Psalm 33 tells us in verse 1. “Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.” The Psalm calls the righteous to worship. And as the rest of verse 1 says, there is nothing better or more fitting for the righteous to do than praise God. (See also Psalm 32:11 24:3–4.)
The opposite point is reflected in prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who report that God hates it when the wicked pretend to worship Him (Isaiah 1:10-18, Amos 5:20-23). God is not just interested in our words and our songs, but in our hearts.
The worship that God seeks is worship that comes from a heart, and a life, that is bent towards honouring Him.
Now, we need to understand that the words “righteous” and “upright” do not describe prefect people who never sin. In the Old Covenant, the righteous and the upright were those whose lives were marked by covenant faithfulness to the Lord, and when they sinned, they repented of their sin and offered the right sacrifices and trusted God to atone for their sin.
In the New Covenant, we know that our perfect sacrifice is Christ, who has paid for our sins with His very life and has robed us in His righteousness. And we also know that when we are righteous in Christ, our hearts will seek to live for and to please Him. The gift of a righteous status leads to a righteous life.
So God is not honoured by people who ignore Him for six days of the week and hope that a few songs on Sunday morning will keep Him happy. God is honoured by the worship of His redeemed people who know that they are only righteous through Christ, and because of that are seeking to honour Him in righteous lives.
And God is seeking worshippers of this sort from all the nations of the earth. Verse 8: “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” (Psalm 33:8). God deserves the whole-life worship of everything that breathes, and through the gospel He is creating worshippers from every tribe, language, people and nation.
And this is why we bring the gospel to all the peoples of the earth. So that God might receive the worship He deserves. “Missions exists because worship doesn’t” as John Piper so helpfully summed up.
So, who should worship God? Redeemed people, made righteous in Christ, who by the power of the Spirit are living to honour and obey Him in all things, from every nation on earth.
2. What Does Worship Involve?
Let’s move on to the second question. What does worship involve? What does it look like to worship the Lord?
We’ve already seen part of the answer: it includes a whole life that’s seeks Him and is marked by righteousness as a result.
But that life of honouring the Lord bubbles up and reaches its peak in particular expressions of worship that this Psalm describes. So, what does it look like to worship the Lord?
For starters, it looks like shouting, which is the first word there in verse 33. One Bible dictionary describes this word as, “a loud, enthusiastic, and joyful shout.”1Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 1129.
Verse 3 also speaks about “loud shouts,” this time from a different Hebrew word that comes from the idea of a war cry. What’s obvious from this is that God wanted His people to worship Him with loud sounds.
Verse 1 also uses the word praise to describe what we should bring God. “Praise befits the upright.” Now “praise” here is not a particular style of music. I’ve heard people say that “worship” is the slower stuff and “praise” is the more upbeat stuff.
Bit that’s not what the word means. The basic idea of “praise” is saying good things about someone. Again, it’s defined as “an expression of appreciation and a response to good qualities."2Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 1035.
If someone cooks you a good meal and you say, “wow, that was great,” that’s praise. Praising God, then, involves describing who He is and what He’s done, and responding to that in a way that gives Him honour.
Worship also involves giving thanks as verse 2 describes. In Hebrew, the word for “thanks” has the basic idea of thoughtful acknowledgement. It’s not like English, where we say “thank you” to a waitress and then ignore them for the rest of the meal. In Biblical Hebrew, “thanks” had to do with thoughtfully acknowledging a person and what they had done. Thanking God and praising God were totally connected.
In verse 2 we begin to see that worship involves music. We are to give thanks to the Lord “With the lyre,” which was like a small harp. Verse 2 goes on to say “make melody to him,” and verse 3 says “sing to him a new song, play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.”
Humans are wired to sing and make music. For as long as we’ve been on the earth, we’ve sung. Before the advent of recording technology, it was normal for everybody to sing, whether you had a good voice or not. And we’ve always sung about the things that are important to us. Even today, if you turn on the radio, you’ll hear people singing about what matters most to them.
And the Psalms are full of calls that we use this gift of music to express our worship to God. Now we’re going to spend a whole week, next Sunday, considering the place of music in worship, but for now we just need to see that it’s there.
And that’s not all. Verse 8 shows us that a proper response to God involves fear and awe. This points again to the heart, the inner person, someone who knows God and responds with fear and awe before His greatness.
Down in verse 20, we see that a response to God also includes waiting for Him. This is a posture of active trust that God will keep His promises. Like verse 21 says: “we trust in his holy name.” Or, as verse 22 ends with, “we hope in you.” God is honoured as His people wait, trust, and hope in Him to keep His promises.
Taken together, we could sum up what we’re seen by saying this: worship involves a life of following, fearing and trusting the Lord, which expresses itself in loud, vocal, musical praise that thoughtfully acknowledges who God is and what He’s done.
3. Why Should We Worship?
Now we come to the third and perhaps most important question—“Why should we worship?” And I say most important because this is where Psalm 33 spends most of its time. Verse 4 opens with the word “For” and from verses 4 to 7 and then verses 9 to 19 we see reason after reason for why God is to be praised.
Verses 4 & 5 give us the summary of this whole section: “For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 33:4–5).
Notice what these verses say about who God is: His word is upright; He loves righteousness and justice. This is who He is. Notice also how these verses speak about what God has done: “All his work is done in faithfulness… the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.”
What God does is a reflection of who He is. Everything he does, He does out of his steadfast, reliable faithfulness, such that the whole earth is full of His covenant-keeping love. Every new day, every changing season, every animal and plant and person is a witness to this God.
And we could stop right there and spend a bunch more time trying to unpack these words. But that’s actually what the rest of the Psalm does for us. The rest of the Psalm unpacks the meaning of verses 4 and 5 as it shows us God’s glory.
Verse 6 shows us God’s glory in creation. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” God makes things with His words. Can you do that? Our words are powerful, but not that powerful.
The most powerful people on earth can’t make a single star with their breath, let alone billions of galaxies of billions of stars. None of us can do verse 9, where we simply speak, and it comes to be; we command, and it stands firm, just like that.
A couple of weeks ago Aimee and I were out on our deck, and a bright orange moon was rising over the field to the east, and the sky was bright with stars, and the northern lights were dancing in all directions, and it just felt magical. And my soul is stirred to know that God made all of that using nothing but words. Does He not deserve our worship?
Not only does God’s word rule over the galaxies, but also over the forces of nature here on earth. Verse 7 says that “He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses” (Psalm 33:7).
Because we can fly everywhere these days, we’ve forgotten how big and fearsome and uncontrollable the ocean is. My grandparents were once caught in a storm at sea and it was so terrifying it left a mark on them for years. And to ancient Israel, the sea represented everything dark and chaotic and dangerous.
But so powerful is God that to Him, the oceans are like bottles on His shelf. He proved that in creation, dividing the waters from the dry land. He proved that in the flood, in the parting of the Red Sea. He proved that when Jesus walked across the waves like it was nothing. Again and again, God has shown that He is way more powerful than the forces that are way too powerful for us.
God is the king of creation, and He deserves our worship.
But not only is God the king of creation. Beginning in verse 10 and following, we see that He is the King of history. He rules over everything that happens on this world that He has made. And the includes people.
Verse 10: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.” God decides what to do with the oceans, and God decides what to do with the plans of people.
People are going to make their plans. Nations will scheme. But in the end, it’s what God wants to happen that will happen. Verse 11: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.” Whatever God wants to happen is what happens. Whatever He has planned is what will stand forever.
That’s why James tells us not to boast about our great plans. “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).
Because God is sovereign. That’s what we mean by that word. He does what He wants, when He wants, and nobody can get in His way or take Him by surprise. And because all his work is done in faithfulness, and because He loves righteousness and justice, this is good news. We wouldn’t want it any other way. We wouldn’t want God to abandon history to the whims of man. We’re glad that it’s His plans, not man’s plans, that stand.
And this truth of God’s sovereignty was especially good news to Israel, whom God had chosen and promised to bless and protect. How many times did the nations plan to destroy God’s people? Isn’t is good that He frustrated those plans for the sake of His chosen people? That’s the point of verse 12: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”
And there’s more. Verses 13-15 tell us that God should be worshipped because He pays attention to the people He’s created. “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds” (Psalm 33:13–15).
If you hate God, these verses are really bad news. If you’re trusting the Lord, these words are very good news. He sees us. He knows us.
And isn’t that amazing? How many things can you keep track of at once? Those of you who worked at camp this summer—how many campers could you keep track of at once before your brain started to melt out your ears? If you even had the ability to see the entire human race at once, and what they were all doing and thinking and feeling, could you handle it for more than a millisecond?
But “he who fashions the hearts of them all… observes all their deeds” (v. 15), and it doesn’t overwhelm him one bit.
So, God is to be worshipped because He made of all things, He’s the king of history, and He knows and sees everything.
As we keep moving through these reasons for worship, we notice that in verse 16, the Psalm begins to come to a point. These next verses remind Israel that, because God is all-powerful and all-knowing, Israel doesn’t have to feel insecure compared to all of those other nations with their big armies and horses.
“The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue” (Psalm 33:16–17).
Instead, salvation comes from the Lord who keeps His covenant promises to His people, as verses 18 and 19 spell out: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine” (Psalm 33:18–19).
One of the blessings given to Israel in the Old Covenant was protection—from their enemies, from early death, and from famine. And this Psalm reminds Israel that could could keep His promises because of His great power. His sovereignty was directed for the good of His covenant people.
It’s interesting that in the last 20 years or so, some Christians have seemed to get bored with this idea, and have popularized this idea that God takes “risks.” It’s a romantic idea we maybe got from Hollywood, where the hero throws caution to the wind and recklessly risks everything to save his beloved.
That’s great when people do that. But God doesn’t do that because God can’t do that. If God frustrates the plans of the people, and if the plans of His heart endure to all generations, if He sees everything, knows everything, has power over everything, and rules over everything for the good of His people, then it’s impossible for Him to ever take a risk.
And that's why Psalm 33, and the rest of the Bible, celebrates God's steadfast love, not His "reckless" love.
Singing about God’s “reckless love” is kind of like me singing about my wife’s red hair. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just not true of that person. And I doubt Aimee would be honoured by a song that reflected such poor attention to who she actually was.
But if we take our cues from the Bible, we’ll see in verse 20 and following how God’s people take comfort in His sovereign, steadfast love: “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (Psalm 33:20–22).
4. How Should We Worship?
So, even though I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface, we’ve just seen lots of reasons to worship and many answers to the question, “Why should we worship?”
And now we’re in a space to ask a final question: how should we worship? In what manner should we worship this God?
And the simple answer, from Psalm 33, is “joyfully.” God is honoured as His people “shout for joy in the Lord” (v. 1). It’s not just loud shouts, but joyful shouts. He wants us to give Him joyful worship.
And verse 21, at the end of the Psalm, repeats this theme of joy: “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.” True worship is glad worship.
I hope it’s obvious to us why joy and gladness are such an essential part of real worship. Can you imagine real worship that isn’t joyful? Imagine if you just did something great, and someone came up to you with an expression-less face, and said in a monotone voice, “well, I guess I’m supposed to say something, so, uh, great job. That was wonderful.”
You would not be honoured by that. You would not be honoured by someone who praises you, without joy, just because they’re supposed to.
The worship that honours God is joyful worship, which is why the Psalms point us in this direction again and again. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness!… break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 100:1–2a, 98:4).
But here’s what Psalm 33 has shown us: this joy—the joy that honours the Lord—is not something we cook up on our own, and then somehow dump into our worship of God. Instead, the joy that honours God is a joy in God.
It’s the joy we feel when we look up at the Milky Way and think, “I know the person who made that.” It’s the stirring in our heart when we look out at the ocean and think, “This is just a bottle on God’s shelf.” It’s the tremble in our souls when we think about the way God directs history, and knows each of the eight billion people on this plant, and who does not break a sweat He rules over every galaxy and every government and every germ.
The joy that honours God is a joy in God. It’s a joy that comes from meditating on the truth about God.
And that’s why real worship is a matter of both our heads and our hearts. It’s why the Psalms, like Psalm 33, are so full of theology. Because the truth of God is the fuel for our joy in God.
I’ll never forget one of the first times I really remember having my heart stirred in corporate worship. It was at that church where I did overheads, which was the kind of church where we’d tend to repeat each chorus of every song like ten times, and then repeat the bridge another fifteen times, with the goal of whipping people into a frenzy of emotion—and honestly, it felt exhausting most of the time.
But one Sunday we were singing a hymn, which I think was fairly unusual. And on the third verse of that hymn I sang the words “My sin—o the bliss of this glorious thought—my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.” And as I sang those words I saw the beauty of Christ crucified for me, and I believed it, and the truth prompted a response of joy, and I meant what I said when I sang “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Oh My Soul.”
God is honoured by the joyful response to the truth about who He is and what He’s done. This is the worship that He seeks.
Conclusion: The Worship God Seeks
Now there’s a lot more we can say here. Like I said, we’re going to talk about music next week. The week after, we’ll talk about the role of lament in worship, and what to do when our souls feel no joy. But for now, we can say, based on Psalm 33, that the worship God seeks is the joyful response of a believing and obedient heart to he the truth about who He is and what He’s done.
So what does this mean for us? What does this mean for our corporate worship together here on Sunday mornings?
First of all, we should know that, just like for Israel, corporate worship is an important activity for the New Covenant people of God. Ephesians 5:19 tells us to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19).
The Psalms, and much of their teaching on worship, are for us. God is seeking from us the joyful response of a believing and obedient heart to the truth about who He is and what He’s done.
And so what are some particular lessons for us at EBC from these words this morning? Here’s some suggestions.
Let’s start here: I wonder if some of us need to be more comfortable being more expressive and enthusiastic in our corporate worship of God.
Some of you have been in settings where people are so expressive in their worship of God that they end up attracting too much attention to themselves. Nobody’s really thinking about God because they’re just trying to dodge the guy next to them.
But let’s be honest. That’s not really our problem here at EBC. Do you think that, in light of Psalm 33, God might be pleased by some more volume, some more expression, in our worship? Do you think that sometimes, we might worry a bit too much about looking weird that we end up thinking more about ourselves than God and we don’t fully offer Him the response of joy that He deserves?
We don’t want to be the kind of church where everybody feels like the have to raise their hands or else they’ll stand out. But we also don’t want to be the kind of church where nobody feels like they can raise their hands or else they’ll stand out. We don’t want to put on a show either way. And Psalm 33 this morning calls us to not be afraid of giving God the joyful, loud, enthusiastic worship He deserves.
But here’s the thing: the way we get there, the way we do that, is actually not by thinking about ourselves and our own worship so much. According to Psalm 33, the source of our joy is God. The fuel for our enthusiastic worship is the truth about God and who He is and what He’s done.
This is why I really struggle with many modern songs which, instead of actually worshipping God, just talk about the fact that we’re worshipping God. So many songs talk about what we’re doing with our hands and how we’re feeling and what’s going on in the room. And I wonder how much we end up worshipping the experience of worship instead of actually worshipping God.
So I want to encourage you, as a way to stir up joyful worship in God, to think carefully about the words to the songs we sing.
We choose songs carefully, songs that are full of truth about God. Truth that, as we think about it with our minds, should fuel joyful worship with our hearts.
So I encourage you to think deeply about the words that we sing together. Not just on Sunday. Throughout the week, as you read God’s word or spend time thinking about Him, maybe reading a good Christian book, give thoughtful attention to who He is and what He’s done. Worship God with a life of faith and obedience. And let that then overflow in joyful, enthusiastic worship as we gather together to sing each week.