Theme Party for July 23 (’14)
If you know anything at all about the book of Judges, you know that it chronicles the time when there was “no king in Israel, and everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes,” which was usually pretty awful stuff. The narrator of Judges tells us this four times in the space of five chapters (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). These closing chapters are an epilogue, and at this point in the story the attentive reader wonders what the priests and Levites are up to since they haven’t been mentioned yet. Those priests and Levites who are supposed to be teaching the Law to the people and administering the worship of God—where are they? Why have the Twelve Tribes been embracing idolatry so eagerly and repeatedly? Our wonderment is answered in chapters 17-21, where we have two stories about two Levites. In the first of these (17-18), we meet a Levite who has put his levitical status up for sale to any dingbat with a household shrine. The particular dingbat who becomes his employer is Micah, from the highlands of Ephraim (17:1ff). In the second story (19-21), which recounts the most disturbing domestic incident in all the Bible, we meet a Levite who gives his concubine up to death by gang-rape. His piety could apparently fit in a thimble and leave most of the thimble still empty.
Since the reigning sin of Israel in Judges is idolatry, and since the two-part epilogue gives us tales of Levites with all the virtue of hyenas, I suspect that everyone doing what was “right in their own eyes because there was no king” is not a just statement about general wickedness, but primarily a statement about corrupt worship. In fact, in Deuteronomy 12:8 the phrase “doing what is right in your own eyes” specifically describes anarchy in worship. The narrator of Judges is implying that the worship was in shambles because there was no good king to enforce proper worship. This, then, implies that one of the primary duties for the king of Israel is to ensure that the worship is done properly. This is exactly what we find to be the assumption as the Old Testament progresses. David, the founder of Israel’s monarchy, was the “Psalmist of Israel” and the one who organized what would become temple worship (I Chronicles 22-29) before Solomon built and dedicated the temple. Subsequently, the kings of Israel and Judah regularly have their careers judged with reference to idolatry or whether or not they tore down the high places (I Kings 16:13, 26; II Kings 12:3; 15:35; etc). The reforms put in place by the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah were very much reforms in the area of worship (II Chronicles 29:20ff; II Chronicles 35:1-19).
It seems to have been an expectation, at least among the Samaritans, that the messianic king would be a new David in this regard also: he would teach about worship. When the Samaritan woman spoke to Jesus about worship, she said, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). This is in response to Jesus’ famous statement that the hour was now here when true worshipers would worship in Spirit and Truth. Jesus is not saying (as it is often popularly expounded even in Reformed commentaries) that true worshipers would worship with genuine emotion and with a true apprehension of who God is. Of course true worshipers must do those things, but when was that ever not the case? “Spirit” and “Truth” here are not subjective terms. Jesus is speaking of a new hour—of a change in circumstances—when the worship of God would not be carried out in a system of types and shadows as under the Old Covenant, but would be engaged in directly through union with Christ (in “Truth”) by the Holy Spirit (in “Spirit”). Worship involves coming into the presence of God, and with the coming of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, worship can now be done in Spirit and Truth instead of by the mediation of an animal sacrifice and a priest in Jerusalem. We can enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the way that he opened for us (Hebrews 10:19-22). Jesus is the true worshiper, the High Priest who enters into the presence of God, and we enter with and in him. That’s what worshiping in Spirit and Truth refers to. In line with this, Hebrews 2:12 quotes from Psalm 22:22 making Jesus the first-person speaker of the psalm, and he speaks there as leading the corporate praise of God’s people: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation [ekklesia, or ἐκκλησίᾳ, i.e., church] I will sing your praise.”
So what I’ve been getting at is that the king is (among other things) one whose duty it is to institute and protect true worship, and that King Jesus fulfills this role by instituting the worship of the New Covenant, which is worship in Spirit and Truth, by uniting us with himself through the Spirit and bringing us with him into the presence of the Father. The New Testament also recognizes that Christ himself sings God’s praise in the midst of the church. He is the worship leader.
So what is the substance of the praise that he sings? Well, perhaps it’s more, but it’s certainly nothing less, than the Psalms. Clearly he is the singer of Psalm 22, and it isn’t only Psalm 22 of which the New Testament makes Jesus the first-person speaker (cf. Acts 2:25-28; Romans 15:3, etc). During his earthly life he would have joined with his fellow Israelites in the synagogue in singing all of them, and singing all of them more truly than anyone else. Most recognize that the “hymn” he sang with the Twelve after the Last Supper (Mark 14:26) was the Hallel, the Passover hymn of Psalm 113-118. The Psalmists were moved to write what they wrote by the Spirit of Christ in them (1 Peter 1:11); their words are his words.
One of the best expressions of this reality in the church is for the church to sing the Psalms in its corporate worship. Historically, this is what churches everywhere did until relatively recently. Psalms got shoved aside for (many good) hymns, and then hymns got shoved aside for (many good) contemporary praise songs. The church’s ability to engage and confront the culture and speak prophetically to the world has suffered as a result. It only makes sense that in union with the King who structures the worship of his people and leads them in praise to the Father, the substance of our praise would be the King’s own words of worship.
If none of the above moves you or is convincing at all, then hopefully these simple commands will be enough:
“…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” – (Ephesians 5:18-19)
“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.” – (Colossians 3:16)
Let the “word of Christ dwell in (or “among” – the “you” is plural) you richly“? What richer way for the words of Christ to dwell in his people than for them to sing his own words every week? It wouldn’t be long before we’d have many of them memorized, so that like the psalmist also said, “I have stored your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
Resources for this are available. There are different Psalters that have been in use for hundreds of years. A great newer one is here, and there are bands like the Sons of Korah producing good stuff, and here and here are some that a friend of mine helped make. Psalm-singing is a practice that the Protestant Church in America badly needs to recover, especially as we will find ourselves in the increasing minority in the coming years.