On Nov. 24 we organized our song service around Psalms that I used as examples of four types of what Dr. Bellinger classifies as hymns. We opened with two “entrance liturgy” psalms. Following our open conversation time we sang two “Zion psalms.” We closed our service with a “hymn with a prophetic warning” followed by a “hymn on trust.”
Only Psalms 15 and 24 are identified as “entrance liturgy” psalms. They would originally have been sung as the congregation entered the Temple or Tabernacle grounds. Both psalms have a section that offers qualifications for people to enter the Lord’s holy place. This is a reminder that their God is a holy God who will not put up with evil.
Psalm 15 is entirely about who qualifies to stand before God. Verse 1 asks the Lord who may abide in His tent. God answers throughout the rest of the Psalm. Only the blameless, those who do right, those who speak only the truth are qualified to stand before God. Each example that follows comes straight from the Covenant that Israel agreed to at the point of entry into the Promised Land.
It turns out that the fear of the Lord works itself out in how they honour God and how they treat their neighbor. The Lord’s people don’t do evil to other people either by word or deed. They keep their promises, even when it hurts. And they especially don’t do anything to oppress or hurt the poor or helpless.
Psalm 24 begins (v. 1-2) by pointing out that everything on earth belongs to Him because He made it all. Verses 3-6 are echo Psalm 15 by describing those who may stand before God in His holy place. It differs by not being a question addressed to God, but rather to the congregation. It is easy to imagine the worship leader asking the question and the congregation answering in song. In this version it is the one with clean hands and a pure heart who can stand before God. In response God offers blessing and vindication.
In addition to settling the people of Israel in the Promised Land, God also promised to dwell among them in a specific place that He would call His own. When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he asked God to make that place His permanent home in Israel. When God responded to Solomon in a dream, He affirmed His choice of Jerusalem as His permanent abode in Israel as long as the covenant held.
Psalms with Zion (Jerusalem) as their subject form a special subset of Psalms. They are Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122. They offer praise to God for the awe and wonder of His presence in Jerusalem. We sang two songs from this set, based on Psalms 46 and 48. A theme they share in common is that of God’s love for and protection of the city. Because He has placed His name there, He jealously protects it.
Psalm 46 has three sections. The first section begins by describing God as Israel’s refuge and strength. Because of His great power and love the inhabitants will not fear no matter what disaster appears to be approaching. Approaching enemy armies are likened to earthquakes and tsunamis in their destructive power.
By contrast, the second section describes God as a river that brings joy to the city. He brings peace like that in the Garden of Eden (which was watered by a river). In terms of warfare, a city that has its own source of water can outlast almost any siege. Because God is in the city, it will remain at peace no matter how much the surrounding nations fume and threaten. No matter how powerful the enemy, God has only to speak and they will scatter.
The third section calls on the people to remember how great and powerful God has already shown Himself to be. The exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan should be ample proof of both His ability and His will in their favour. He both brings war and ends war because He is God and He will is exalted over the whole earth.
Like the first verse, the last verse calls God their refuge. This is an inclusio that indicates that the main subject of the Psalm is that God is Zion’s refuge and protector.
Psalm 48 is written in four sections. The first section praises God for bringing beauty and joy to the city. It is the city of the Great King. God Himself is its citadel or fortress.
The second section meditates on previous attempts to take the city. Nothing even came close to conquering the city. In poetic terms, it is as if they took one look at the city, got frightened at its defenses and ran away in a panic. This may be a reference to the siege of Sennacherib in Hezekiah’s day or to the attack by Edom, Moab and Ammon in the days of Jehoshaphat, which was routed when the priestly choir, which was sent out ahead of the army began to sing praises to God. The three armies inexplicably turned on each other and not one drop of Israelite blood was spilled.
The third sections meditates on God’s unchanging love on behalf of Jerusalem and on His worldwide fame because of His defense of the city and the nation. The invitation to “the towns of Judah” to rejoice gives us a clue that the psalm was written at a time after the breakup of Israel into two kingdoms.
The fourth section invites the hearer to visit all the fortifications of the city and examine their strength and integrity. In a turn of phrase that probably makes more sense to a Hebrew speaker than an English one, the writer metaphorically calls God the fortress of Jerusalem. “See this fortress? This is God!”
Hymns with Prophetic Warnings
The last set of songs we sang that day began with a psalm of prophetic warning. Psalms 50, 81 and 82 make up the list of prophetic warning psalms. We sang a song based on Psalm 81, written by Asaph, who is identified as a prophet in 1 Chronicles 25:2.
The first section of Psalm 81 is a call to worship that is based on instructions for annual festivals. He reminds the hearer that these instructions go way back to the Exodus from Egypt. The implication is that they are still in a covenant with the God who led them out.
In the second section Asaph announces that he has heard a voice, and he repeats what the “voice” told him. The voice claims to be the one who freed them by leading them out of Egypt. He is the One who answers when they call in their distress. He is now speaking to admonish Israel. They had agreed not to have other gods, but they have not listened.
In the third section God judges the people by declaring that they did not listen. He then goes on to tell them what they are missing by not following Him. They will miss help against their enemies and prosperity in their harvests. The recurring refrain is one that has been frequently spoken by parents: “If only they had listened!”
Hymns on Trust
Our final song selection was from the section the Dr. Bellinger calls “Hymns on trust.” It comprises Psalms 23, 91, 121, 125 and 131. Since Psalm 23 is one of the world’s most beloved and sung psalms, we elected instead to sing a song based on Psalm 121, which is a “Song of Ascents.”
Songs of ascents were traditionally sung on the way to Jerusalem and to the Tabernacle or Temple during festival pilgrimages. The majority of psalms about trust are also songs of ascents.
Psalm 121 begins with the voice of somebody in trouble who lifts his eyes to the hills in search of help. This makes sense if we understand that God’s “house” is set on a hill in Jerusalem. The singer expresses confidence in receiving help from the God who made heaven and earth.
“He will not let your foot be moved” probably refers to safety on the journey. The God who never sleeps is a God who is on guard duty all through the night.
Verses 5 and 6 seem to be an echo of the pillar of fire and cloud that protected Israel day and night as they were leaving Egypt.
Verses 7 and 8 promise protection on the journey to and from worshipping the Lord, and perhaps more generally in life as a whole. A Christian reading this might also apply it to protection from spiritual death and the evil one.
The Psalms As Faith Memory
Songs and poetry can have a profound effect on a generation’s mood and action. I grew up in a generation that was exposed to songs that asked profound questions about the morality of our mass-produced society. They raised the social consciousness of an entire generation and motivated many to abandon the majority way of thinking.
The songs and poetry of ancient Israel as recorded in the book of Psalms is a tremendous heritage of faith for Christians. Their honest dialogue with God can help us to feel the struggles and triumphs of living in relationship with God in a way not often encouraged in a modern society.
An understanding of how the imagery would have generated memories of the founding stories of Israel can help us reconnect with the Bible as we sing and study the Psalms. The founding stories of Israel are also the founding stories of our faith in Jesus Christ, who came to fulfil the promises God has made to Adam, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Much of the imagery in the Psalms has also found its ways into the writings of the Prophets of Israel as well as the Apostles of Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation contains perhaps the greatest concentration of that imagery in the New Testament. You can also see it in the many other New Testament quotes of the Psalms if you have a chain reference Bible.
Appreciating the poetic artistry and logic of the Psalms can help us better appreciate the depth of faith of those who have gone before us. It will, I hope, also help us to see that doubt in God is a normal part of faith that can be and has been worked through by those who have preceded us. Reading and worshipping with the Psalms is a great way to deepen and express our faith.
And who knows, maybe worship in the poetic language of the psalms might trigger a prophetic utterance in our hearts, too.