There’s something about singing that is profound and powerful. Social scientists tell us that music does something to human beings physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We are creatures that need to and love to be around music and participate in it at some level.
Music has a powerful effect on the human soul. In I Samuel 16:23 (NET), we read that “whenever the spirit from God would come upon Saul, David would take his lyre and play it. This would bring relief to Saul and make him feel better.” And I think I’m safe in saying that we have all experienced the same thing. Music has a way of soothing our souls, of making us feel better.
Music is a language of emotion that works its way right into the very center of our being. Both the lyrics and the style of music combine to express all different kinds of emotion — happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love, hate.
And when we look at music in the scriptures, we find the same thing. As we’re going to see in the psalms, we find songs filled with all different kinds of emotions. There are songs of lament as well as joy; songs of hope as well as despair.
But music also has a way of teaching us. Paul said in Colossians 3:16, “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.”
We usually think of teaching and admonishing as being something that comes from the preacher who delivers a message to a group of people who listen. But there is such great power in the songs that we sing in worship. Not only are they able to teach us, but they have the ability both to cause us to feel emotion, and to express our emotions and feelings to God.
In fact, I believe that songs are sometimes more important than the sermon in our worship. Someone has put it this way, “People are more likely to leave church singing the songs than reciting the sermon.” And I’m sure you’ve all been at more than one worship service where you wished the preacher would just sit down early so you could sing a few more songs.
If music is such a powerful force, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find that there is an entire book in the Bible – in fact, it is the longest book in the Bible – that contains a collection of songs. This morning, in our study through the Old Testament, we want to take a look at the book of Psalms.
Let’s begin with a video from The Bible Project that will give us an overview of the Psalms, along with some of its key themes, and then I’ll be back to share some thoughts with you.
This morning, I want to do things just a little bit different. As the video pointed out, there are two key things that are expressed in the psalms. Some of the psalms are songs of lament, and some of the psalms are songs of praise. I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about the psalms of lament, and then we’ll sing a song of lament together. And then I’ll talk about the psalms of praise and we’ll sing a song of praise together.
Some of you were a part of our study of lament on Wednesday nights before we had to begin meeting online. And one of the things that we pointed out in that study is that we are not very good at lamenting in the church. If I were to ask you to name five songs of praise that we sing on a regular basis, I think you could come up with that list fairly quickly. But if I were to ask you to list five songs of lament that we sing in the church on a regular basis, I think you’d be hard-pressed to come up with that list.
We like singing songs of praise because they make us feel good. But songs of lament are just as important because that’s how we bring our sorrow and pain to God.
I want to look at several psalms this morning to show you the four different elements of a lament psalm. For those of you who were a part of our Wednesday night class, these should sound very familiar to you, and this will be a bit of review for you. For the rest of you, I think you’ll find this especially helpful.
When you’re hurting, first of all….
1. Turn to God
“I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord.” (Psalm 77:1)
The psalmist is in pain here, but he’s not keeping quiet. But he’s also not just grumbling and complaining about how bad things are; he’s crying out to God in prayer. He’s reaching out to God in the midst of his pain. And he’s calling on God to tell God how he’s feeling because he truly believes that God will hear him and that God cares about him.
To pray when we are in pain, even with all the tough questions that we bring to God, is an act of faith. Prayerful lament is much better than silence. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who are afraid to lament. They find it too honest. “I don’t want God to know that I’m upset”, as if God didn’t already know.
But there’s something far worse than lamenting to God, and that’s living in silent despair. Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying; they give up.
So, when you’re hurting, turn to God; take your pain to him. Let him know how you feel.
2. Complain to God
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
This is a very difficult thing for us to do, because complaining isn’t a very positive word. We don’t like complainers. And it just seems like the wrong response to situations where we should be content or thankful. But complaint isn’t always wrong. In the psalms of lament, you find a lot of complaining. You’ll find expressions of sorrow, fear, frustration and even confusion. And apparently, there’s nothing wrong with it because these psalms were set to music and entire congregations sang their frustration.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not giving you permission to lash out at God when life doesn’t turn out the way you think it ought to. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you have a right to be angry with God. But there is a kind of complaining that is biblical. Through godly complaint, we express our disappointment. We complain on the basis of who God is and what we know he has the ability to do.
Mark Vroegop has written, “Lament is the language of a people who believe in God’s sovereignty but live in a world of tragedy.” In other words, we know that God is in control, but we also live in a messed-up world. And so, there are things going on in our lives and all around us that don’t seem to make sense, and that bothers us.
The psalms of lament tend to bring their complaints to God in the form of two questions – “why” and “how long”. As the psalmist said in Psalm 10:1, ““Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” “God, it just seems like you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around me.” When’s the last time you felt like this? A time when you not only felt the pain of suffering, but you also felt that God wasn’t anywhere nearby.
Life is filled with a variety of suffering. Pain comes in many forms. It can be unfulfilled dreams, loneliness, an aching body, or an unfair boss at work. It can be financial struggles, a failed adoption, cancer or conflict in a marriage. The longer we live, the more pain we see. And we know that God could intervene and fix it all with the snap of a finger, but there are times – many times – when he chooses not to. Which leads us to ask the question, “Why?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
“Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24)
The other question the Psalmists ask is, “How long?”
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2)
God, how long before you do something about this? How long do I have to suffer in pain? How long do I have to go on being treated unfairly? How long are those who are evil going to keep getting away with it?
And so, we complain to God — Why? and How long?
3. Ask God
Once lament calls on God and expresses a complaint, the next step is to ask God to do something about it.
“Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help… But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion!” (Psalm 22:11,19-21)
Lament says to God, “I don’t understand why things are the way that they are, and I want you to do something about it. Help me. Fix this problem.”
4. Trust God
The psalms of lament aren’t just about complaining to God. They always end with an expression of faith. Listen to Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Notice how the psalmist calls upon God, and he brings a complaint – “How long are you going to allow my enemy to have the upper hand?” Then there is the request, “Do something about it. Help me gain the victory over my enemy before he kills me.” Then, finally, there is that expression of trust, “I have trusted in your steadfast love.”
Notice that nothing has changed. God hasn’t done anything yet. But the psalmist knows that God hears his cry, that God will be there for him in the future as he always has been in the past.
What would it look like if we could just be honest enough with God that we could take all our hurt and our pain and bring it to God, saying, “I’m hurting and it just doesn’t feel that you’re with me right now. I don’t understand why these things are happening, and I just want to know how long this is going to go on. And while I may never get an answer to those questions, I want you to know that I trust you, because I know that you are a God who hears me and cares about me.”
As I said, we don’t have a lot of lament songs in our songbook. But I found one song that I want us to sing together. It’s a new song, one that I’ve never heard before and you’ve probably never heard it before either. So, just listen and let the words sink into your heart and join in when you’re able.
The song is entitled, “How Long Till the Morning”
So, we’ve looked at the psalms of lament. The other type of psalm is the psalm of praise. Many of the psalms were written for the specific purpose of bringing praise and thanksgiving to God.
For example, Psalm 100:4 says: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!”
Another example of a psalm of praise would be Psalm 150, which contains the word “praise” 13 times within its six verses.
“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Some of the psalms praise God for his creation. Others praise God for his character, or what God has done for them in the past. What I found especially interesting, though, are the different Hebrew words that are used for praise. There are actually seven different Hebrew words for praise, but let me share with you this morning just a few of them.
This is the word that was mentioned in the video, and it’s the one that we are most familiar with. Halalu means, “let us praise”, and it’s usually paired with the shortened form of Yahweh – Yah. Hallel-yah, “Let us praise God!”
It’s the word used in Psalm 113:
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, you his servants; praise the name of the Lord. Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” (Psalm 113:1-3)
But what I find especially interesting is that the word “halal” means to boastfully worship the Lord in a way that can make you look foolish.
You may say, “How do you praise in a way that makes you look foolish?” It’s easy. You see it all the time, and, in fact, some of you may actually do it. Just go to a football game and look around. You will see people dressed up in ridiculous outfits. You will see people screaming at the top of their lungs, looking like fools. But do they care? No, all they care about is praising their team.
You actually see something similar in the Bible when David is praising God in the streets in 2 Samuel 6, and his wife Michal gets upset because she’s embarrassed by how he’s acting. To praise God with Halal doesn’t care what people think. It’s going to let it out. Praise God!
A second Hebrew word for praise is…
While halal is a boisterous shouting of praise, shavach is a more dignified way of expressing praise, as if honoring royalty. This is the kind of praise that comes before a king bowing or kneeling.
It’s the word used in Psalm 117
“Praise the Lord, all you nations. Praise him, all you people of the earth. For his unfailing love for us is powerful; the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever.” (Psalm 117:1-2)
A third Hebrew word for praise is…
Yadah means to publicly worship with the extending of hands in giving praise or adoration. It can carry the idea of a child reaching for their parents in full need and surrender.
This is the word used in Psalm 138
“I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart; I will sing your praises before the gods.” (Psalm 138:1)
A fourth Hebrew word for praise is…
The Hebrew word “barak” means to bow down or kneel before the Lord in quiet worship and adoration. It carries the sense that the physical posturing of the body in humble kneeling reflects the posture of the heart that God alone is king and that we yield to him.
We see this word used in Psalm 103
“Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things.”(Psalm 103:1-5)
There are several other Hebrew words for praise but these are enough to show you that praise of God can take several different forms. Sometimes praising God is loud and almost obnoxious. Sometimes it is quiet and respectful. Sometimes it raises hands. Sometimes it sits with head bowed. But all of them express praise to God.
And I think it’s important for us to be reminded of this when we see other people praising God in a way different than we praise God. We may see someone loud and joyful, raising hands and clapping and think, “That seems disrespectful.” Or perhaps you see someone praising God quietly with head bowed and you think, “They don’t really feel their praise.”
There are different ways to express our praise to God. The important thing is that we do express it. Psalm 34:1, “I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises.”
The song that I’ve chosen to finish out this study is one that you should all be familiar with. It’s a song that’s actually based on Psalm 148.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let’s sing together, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah!”