Right in the center of the Bible is a hymnal. The book of Psalms was the worship music of both the Old and New Testament, and it continues to be a powerful inspiration for our worship of God. The Psalms are 150 individually composed songs written by dozens of artists over centuries. David is one of the most prolific songwriters of the psalms, but there are other songwriters in the Psalms and there are other songs in the Bible not found in the Psalms (The song of Miriam, song of Hannah, a song of Mary, song of Zechariah, etc.)
There are different types of songs written in the book of Psalms. The three most common types of songs are hymns, laments, and thanksgiving.
The hymn… is a song of pure praise. A hymn is a psalm we sing when our relationship with God is untroubled, when we are “pointed” toward God. (e.g., Psalm 29, 47, 96, 98, 146-150).
On the other hand, a lament is a prayer we offer to God when we are hurting. We feel upset with ourselves, betrayed by others, or even abandoned by God; in a word, we are disoriented in our relationship with Him (e.g., Psalm 3, 13, 22, 77). Interestingly, these psalms always turn to God with praise or trust at the end (with the exception of Psalm 88). In this way, the lament begins with our negative state of mind and directs it toward its only hope. These psalms we will label songs of disorientation.
The thanksgiving is the third major category of prayer in the book. It is a song of reorientation. It is similar to the hymn in celebrating God, but a thanksgiving celebrates God for hearing an earlier lament and answering the prayer (e.g.,Psalm 18 and 30).
Some people identify other categories of songs/psalms including psalms of confession, “Royal” psalms about the king, psalms of ascent (sung specifically for marching into the temple), petition psalms (asking God for help), and wisdom psalms. What is essential to know about the psalms is that they are the words we need when the heart must speak to God. Music can sometimes express deep feelings that words alone cannot. Saint Augustine once said about psalms and hymns, “The one who sings, prays twice.”
When you read different psalms, you will hear all kinds of different emotions and experiences. In hymns and thanksgiving songs you’ll hear joy, happiness, resolutions, gratitude. In psalms of lament you’ll hear sadness, anger, frustration, and outrage. John Calvin called the book of psalms, “a gymnasium for the soul.” That is, when you read and sing the psalms, you give your soul a workout of experiences.
Perhaps the best way to understand the psalms isn’t to hear me talk about them or read them, but to listen to them and sing them.
Here are a few songs with lyrics taken straight from the book of Psalms
Some songs borrow lines or themes from the psalms in addition to their own lyrics.
Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons borrows its chorus from Psalm 103
A song like Your Love Never Fails uses some of the same repetitions as Psalm 136 (“His Love Endures Forever)
One modern songwriter has called the Psalms, “the first blues songs”. Blues music was a kind of lament: things aren’t good and I need to say something about it. Lecrae and many other hip-hop artists often capture the psalms of lament, wisdom, and anger.
Matisyahu is a Jewish hip-hop/reggae artist whose song “One Day” resembles the psalms of petition and lament.
The book of psalms was the hymnbook Jesus sang. The prophets, apostles, and all the earliest followers of Christ learned to worship God through the psalms. It was the gymnasium for their souls. The psalms can give us the words we don’t have when we don’t know what to pray, and they will continue to give the church its language of worship.
Journaling Questions this Week:
This week’s journaling activity is a five day challenge. Read one Psalm a day for the next five days: Psalm 23, Psalm 40, Psalm 77, Psalm 88, and Psalm 139 and write a brief reflection for each.
Alternative activity: Listen to a different song on the youtube “Confirmation Psalms Playlist” every day for five days and answer the same questions.
- Write a phrase from each Psalm or song that “catches your ear”.
- What feelings and emotions do you hear in the Psalmist’s voice?
- How do you feel about God today?