Did you know that the biggest book in the Bible is a song book? That’s right; Psalms was the song book of the Jews. The word ‘Psalms’ comes from the Greek word ‘Psalmoi’ which literally means ‘Twangings,’ the sound made by stringed instruments like harps, lutes and lyres as in seen the Egyptian image above. By word association then the Psalms are ‘Songs sung to harps.’ So how do you like that, the biggest book in the Bible is a musical book. That will excite you if you’re a musician, but it will excite you even more if you are a worshiper and love to express your heart to God through songs. This post highlights the importance of musical worship in the Psalms and the New Testament.
The Psalms started with David, he wrote 73 of the 150 songs found there. David’s worship leader, a man called Asaph, wrote 11, and most of the others were written by various Levites that ministered at the Jewish temple.
Great, so we have an inspired song book. But there is problem. We don’t know the tunes! Yes, despite David’s enthusiasm he never bothered to leave a CD. So we’re stuck with the words and can’t sing!
What is interesting though, is that David and his companions did leave some side notes so contemporary musicians would know what tunes they were using. Here is an example:
For the director of music. To the tune of
“A Dove on Distant Oaks.” Of David.
A miktam. When the Philistines had seized
him in Gath.
1 Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
2 My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me … So we see that this Psalm was sung to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks.’ Do you know it? I doubt it, but I know it was a popular tune in David’s day because it was used for more than one of his Psalms.
Okay so we still don’t know the tune. But there is something for us to glean from this bit of information. Did you ever wonder if it was okay to put Christian lyrics to an existing tune? Yeah, it seems it was common practice in those days. So hey, we don’t know ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks,’ but we do know ‘Blurred Lines,’ and it has a nice rhythm, so why not?
Now, did you notice that this song is a ‘miktam!’ Wow, what’s a miktam? It’s Hebrew for an atoning song. Quite a number of Psalms have a musical label like Miktam (Atoning), Shiggaion (Dirge), Lehazkir (For Being Remembered), Letodah (For Praising & Thanking), or Shir Yedidot (Songs of Love). I guess the Hebrew musicians sorted their songs for different occasions. So a song of atonement would have been good for the Day of Atonement, just as a nativity song is now good for Christmas and a resurrection song is good for Easter.
But you know what I like about David? He doesn’t just acknowledge God at festival times, he acknowledges God in every situation. Yes, in victory, in defeat, on the throne, in prison, in repentance (he did that thing with Bathsheba), and in rejoicing. And you know what, God liked it. No, not the Bathsheba thing, but the fact that he worshiped in every situation. Yes, initially God saw this shepherd worshiper tending sheep in the middle of nowhere and saw that he was a worshiper – a man with a heart for Him – and he decided that such a person should be king. Now that’s a big lesson! If you want to go places with God, be a worshipper!
Okay and the New Testament? Where are the New Testament songs? Well we don’t have them written down anywhere, but we do know that the first Christians often used the Old Testament Psalms alongside newer songs that they had composed. Colossians 3:16 gives us some insight into this. Paul says ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.’ So we see three types of song being used in the New Testament churches: Psalms of the Old Testament, Hymns, and songs from the Spirit. A ‘Hymn’ may have been a song that wasn’t a Psalm but was established among the churches. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:26 ‘When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ It seems the Corinthian believers were accustomed to starting a known song in the congregation whenever inspired to do so. ‘Songs of the Spirit’ may have been something even more spontaneous. Perhaps they were songs composed on the spot under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I’m guessing of course, but I think we can at least be confident in our claim that the early church used Old Testament songs as well new ones.
Did Jesus sing? Absolutely! In Matthew 26:30 we see that he and his disciples sang a hymn at the end of their Passover meal and then they took a moonlit walk up the Mount of Olives.
And Paul, did he sing? Oh boy, did Paul sing! In fact it was hard to stop him. Acts 16:25 tells us how he and Silas sang in prison while all the other prisoners were listening! This is not singing to your conditioned congregation, it’s singing in the ears of hardened sinners. You might want to try that. I know some who have! Did you know that ‘God of this City’ was composed spontaneously and prophetically by a band called Bluetree in the bar of a Thailand brothel? That’s right. A Christian band sang in a brothel! I guess light shines best in dark places!
Let’s finish by saying something about the original Psalmist’s heart. In Psalm 27:4 David says ‘One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.’
What motivated David to want to dwell in the house of the Lord? Was it the gold? The temple had a lot of it. Or was it the theological symbols? The curtains and walls were covered with symbols. No, David said he wanted to be in God’s house to gaze on His beauty. What?! How do you gaze on the beauty of an invisible God? There is only one way, and it’s been understood by worshipers for centuries. The presence of God gives us spiritual sight. Our spiritual eyes see when God’s presence is thick. We sometimes call it ‘revelation.’ David experienced God’s presence and revelation at the tabernacle. His comment about gazing on the Lord and the fact that in his time the Levites ministered ‘before the ark of the Lord’ (1 Chronicles 16:1-6) has resulted in theologians wondering if his tabernacle had no curtain separating the Most Holy Place where God’s presence dwelt. It is a possibility. But whether this is true or not does not change the fact that David enjoyed gazing upon the beauty of the Lord. And those who have experienced the touch of God would say the same thing.
But David’s hunger for God did not start at the tabernacle. It started in the fields when he was a shepherd. There he developed a heart for God as he sang simple songs on his harp. There he learnt to sing to an audience of One – God, and God alone! This was the man God exalted to the place of king.
I would like to encourage you to be like David. Take your church songs home with you, close the door of your bedroom and worship him with all you have. This is where the biggest book in the Bible got its inspiration, in the heart of a shepherd worshiper. If you develop a worshiper’s heart in God’s presence you may just be surprised how he begins to use you. Today is the day, give it a go.