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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (15): The Jewish Hymnal

At least as far back as Exodus 15, we know singing was important to God’s people. Mirriam led the women of Israel in songs of rejoicing and praise when Pharaoh’s army perished in the Red Sea.

David was not only a prophet and a mighty king. He was also “the sweet singer of Israel.” The first task he had for the nation was in service to King Saul as a musician, playing his harp to quiet the king’s spirit. He composed many songs, some of which we have preserved in the book of Psalms.

The 150 Psalms are songs the Jews sang. They cover a range of topics, all of which praise God in one way or another. We sing many of these today as well. The Psalms provide words of comfort and encouragement to us as they offer praise to God.

You might expect all of the Psalms to be encouraging and uplifting. Not so.

Some are cries of despair as the singer wrestles with deep problems – and cries out in complaint to God.

Some are what is called “imprecatory Psalms,” or Psalms that pray to God for the destruction or punishment of enemies.

Some recount the wonders God has provided in the past as He cared for His people – and some of these end with a complaint that God is not acting as He had in the past.

Some Psalms express the singers’ wonder and awe at the power and wisdom of God.

Some express deep gratitude to God for the way He watches over His people and cares for them as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

Several extol the wisdom of listening to the Words of God and walking in His way.

At least one is a love song, written for the wedding of the king.

Others are battle hymns that rejoice in victory or lament a defeat.

Some are prayers of grief and contrition by sinners convicted of their deeds and mourning the loss of their fellowship with God.

In short, there are Psalms to express virtually every human emotion and that are appropriate for all circumstances of life.

Isaac Watts, born July 17, 1674 & died 1748, is called “the father of English hymnody.”

As a boy young Isaac displayed literary genius, writing verses at a very early age. It is said that he had an annoying habit of rhyming even everyday conversation, and that one day when he was scolded by his irritated father for this practice, he cried out, “Oh, Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”

One of Watts early concerns [as a teen-ager – JS] was the low ebb of music in the churches. The singing consisted of ponderous hymn-psalms only. His father one day challenged him to write something better for the congregation, a challenge which he accepted. For the next two years he wrote a new hymn every Sunday. Because of his bold departure from the traditional Psalms as well as the use of his new “hymns of human composure,” Watts was generally considered to be a radical churchman in his day. [Kenneth W. Osbeck. 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, © 1982. p. 184.]

Today, there is a turn back to the singing of the Psalms in worship, a practice that was never abandoned completely.

I have found it inspirational when reading the Psalms to sing them to chants made up as I read (alone – I rarely, if ever do this when others are around). They are written to be sung, more than to be read, and singing them gives them an emotional impact that merely reading them does not have.

The Psalms were a part of the songs of the early church. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 both speak of singing “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

To learn to pray and to praise God, spend much time in the Psalms. True, some of the songs are peculiar to Israel’s conditions and history. Yet, even those “historic Psalms” give us insight to how we, too, can sing in praise to God. Song writers who write from depth of understanding of the Psalms produce songs of greater power and theological depth than those who take for their model pop music or the (now ‘ancient’) music of Stamps-Baxter.

New Testament authors frequently cite the Psalms as well. Here is a wealth of preaching material that would enrich any minister’s material, not only with a fine turn of phrase, but also with theological insights. It is hard to know God truly without knowing the Psalms. I think it is safe to say that nothing reveals God to us more than do the Psalms – except the person, character, life, and death of Jesus, the Messiah.

Many of the Psalms are prophetic of the work of Jesus. When we read these with the hindsight of the gospels, we see clearly what their authors saw but dimly, and that by the power of the Spirit of God that inspired them.

When I was preaching full-time, I tried to make it a point to preach at least once each month from what Charles Spurgeon called The Treasury of David, the title of his extensive commentary and sermons on the Psalms.

This series of books (I have it in a 7 volume set as well) is available free of charge as one of several commentaries you can download as part of the E-sword Bible software. This program, which I’ve used for years, is available at www.e-sword.net. The program comes with the King James Version with more than a dozen other translations you can download free, plus several that you must pay a copyright fee to download. There are also some of the classic commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and encyclopedias. Strong’s concordance is keyed to some of the translations, so you can get a Strong’s definition of a word simply by placing your cursor on the word. There is also a good note system, so you can write your own commentary, and quite a few “Christian Classics” – such as the Anti-Nicene Fathers, Calvin’s Institutes, Josephus, Eddersheim’s Jesus, the Messiah, and much more – available without charge.

NEXT (16): The Wisdom Literature of Solomon

PREVIOUS (14): Patient Endurance – Job

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