One of the most interesting activities that humanity participates in across the globe is making music. While every culture uses unique instruments, styles, and methods to make music, it has remained one of the most common expressions since the beginning of time (or at least pretty close to the beginning), as if it is part of our human nature.
I have never seen it on any scientists’ list of human needs (like food, shelter, etc.), but I can certainly see where it might fit between Maslow’s “love” and “esteem” needs).
What Is the Significance of the Psalms?
The Bible talks a lot about music as well. According to Blue Letter Bible, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew verb “šîr” (pronounced “sheer”) appears 87 times and is translated into English as sing, singer, singing men, or women. The same word used as a noun appears 90 times and is translated as song, music, singing, musical, and singers.
In some of these instances, David and others played a variety of stringed instruments, horns, and percussion instruments — often loudly and “with all their might” (1 Chronicles 13:8). Whole families and even tribes of people were tasked with playing instruments and leading God’s people in worship.
In the New Testament, the Greek verb adō (pronounced “ad-o”) appears five times and is translated as “sing.” The Greek noun ōdē (pronounced o-day') is appears seven times as the word “song.” The verb “psallō” (pronounced “psal'-lo” is used five times and is translated “sing” or “make melody” (by playing an instrument).
One instance of this is when Paul says to not only sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs but also “make melody” (as you would on an instrument) in Ephesians 5:19. The noun symphōnia (pronounced “soom-fo-nee'-ah“) is used once as “music” meaning a “concert of instruments,” such as when the father of the prodigal held a party for the return of his son in Luke 15:25.
You can also see many singers, artists, and worship leaders throughout Scripture. Moses broke out in song after crossing the red sea, the Levites were employed to be worship leaders in the tabernacle and temple, Paul sang “with the Spirit and with understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
The writer of Hebrews sang praises to God in the midst of the church (Hebrews 2:12), and John tells us that in the future, God’s people will sing the “song of Moses” and the “song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15).
But nowhere in Scripture can you see music, singing, and musical or worship leadership more clearly than the Book of Psalms.
The well-known author and pastor, Chuck Swindoll, described the Book of Psalms as a collection of “lyrical poems” organized into five books arranged and added to over the course of many years.
Our English title of “Psalms” actually came from the Greek “psalmos,” which was translated from the Hebrew title, “Tehililm,” which means simply “praise songs.” Another author wrote that the Psalms (at least many of them) is “a collection of poems that were originally set to music and sung in worship to God.”
Not all psalms are the same, though. For example, some focused on praise to God, some expressed sadness or “lament” over life’s difficulties, some were used specifically by people on pilgrimages to Jerusalem (songs of ascent), and others were full of wise sayings (like Proverbs) and even prophecies.
While one might consider the Book of Psalms an “ancient hymnal” (Swindoll), some of the songs would be a little uncomfortable to sing in a church service today, (like the ones praying judgment on people). But as one writer explained, these different types of psalms show us how we can worship God and relate to him through the many different moods and emotions of our real, daily life.
Of the 150 Psalms, 100 of them provide an identified author, which David listed at the top of 73 of them. However, the other 50 Psalms do not have an author above them, leaving us to speculate about who wrote them (although David would be the most likely candidate).
The rest of the psalms were written by at least six other men over the course of many years: Solomon, Heman, Ethan, Asaph, the Sons of Korah, and Moses.
The Book of Psalms is a collection of poems, prayers, and heartfelt expressions of people crying out to God in their joy and sadness, fear and trust, and love and anger. They are making intercession while also giving praise, complaining about their burdens while also giving thanks for their blessings, describing the bleakness of their situations while also hopefully clinging to their futures.
One author described the Psalms as “full of honest expressions of what it means to relate to God. They describe faith in action while dealing with the tension between this fallen world’s realities and the hope God offers you.”
Who Were the Psalmists?
Even though the psalmists held important roles among God’s people (such as kings and worship leaders), they were relatable people because of the absolutely normal and mundane issues they dealt with in their personal lives and families.
As the modern songwriter Matthew West points out, the Psalms show us how our emotions fit into our relationship with God. Sometimes, when we do not have the words to say or pray, we can use the psalms and allow them to give us the words to use.
1. David was the most well-known and well-loved king of Israel, but his life and leadership over God’s people were far from perfect or easy.
His experiences as a shepherd, king, enemy of Saul, warrior, musician, husband, father, a worshiper of God, and “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) serve as the backdrop to his expressive, poetic writings that go from celebration to mourning and praise to lament.
2. Solomon, who wrote Psalm 72 and 127, was one of David’s sons, a king of Israel after David, and known for his vast wisdom given by God (we see that wisdom in his other writings: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon).
4. Asaph wrote at least 12 psalms, such as 73 and 77, often around the theme of God’s justice. He was one of King David’s chief musicians (or what we would call today “worship leader”) both in the tabernacle (1 Chronicles 16:4-6) and the first temple built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 5:7-14).
5. The Sons (or descendants) of Korah were Levites that chose a much different (and God-honoring) path than their father (you can read about that in Numbers 16). Their 11 psalms have a spiritual intimacy to them that comes from their service and devotion in the House of the Lord.
6. A song or prayer of Moses is included in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 90). Moses was a famous historical prophet and leader of the Israelites long before David, Solomon, and the rest, but was still included as a psalm to be sung by God’s people for many generations.
What Does This Mean?
We do not know everything about the Book of Psalms, such as the meaning of some of the musical notations (like “selah” and “maskil”), the stories behind some of the psalms, what some of the instructions mean before the psalms, and (as we said earlier) who some of the authors are.
But what we do know, is that the Book of Psalms expresses worship. As Swindoll wrote (among many other helpful things), “Throughout its many pages, Psalms encourages its readers to praise God for who He is and what He has done. The Psalms illuminate the greatness of our God, affirm His faithfulness to us in times of trouble, and remind us of the absolute centrality of His Word.”
The ESV Study Bible notes that reading through Psalms forces Christians today to “use their minds as well as their hearts and voices.”
And we have the psalmists to thank for their obedience to the Holy Spirit when they bore their souls and wrote their thoughts down for us today in the Book of Psalms — the songs of praise.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Aaron Burden
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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