Music may well be one of the most powerful mediums for conveying the thoughts and feelings of the heart ever to exist. The French author Victor Hugo once mused, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” while the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Even philosophers have considered the power of music as Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Often our musical education begins as a child. I can remember staring at the bottom tow shelves of the four feet wide by eight feet high bookcases my father built that housed his record collection. If I had to guess, I would say there were no less than three hundred albums in his collection, supplemented by weekly trips to Turtle’s Records and Tapes in Austell or Oz Records in Marietta. Pick a musical style and an artist and my father had something similar at the very least.
Much of my childhood was spent with a book in hand, listening to albums and singles in the living room of our home. My mother would play records or mix tapes during the day when she cleaned and on weekends it was pretty common to listen to music between sporting events on television. If we had just been to one of the record stores, we had an impromptu listening party with whatever we had bought, everyone sitting around and reviewing the arrangements and lyrics, picking out favorites for the inevitable mix tapes.
In the car going to visit relatives or on vacation, everything from Motown to country music to album rock found its way out of the speakers of the various station wagons we owned through the years. I can remember the dry Georgia heat blowing over our heads, lying back in my seat and listening to the Big Chill soundtrack, Bob Seger live at Cobo Hall in Michigan, and Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes, the music so etched in my mind that I can recall the lyrics with just the first few bars of music.
All these memories, however, go back to one very simple song that I remember first before anything else on my nostalgic playlist. It is a simple chorus that my grandmother, Nana, used to sing to me:
Amen, amen. Amen, amen, amen. (Sing it over) Amen, amen. Amen, amen, amen.
This simple little chorus is etched in my memory as the first thing I remember learning to sing and still brings back memories of my grandmother. This simple, traditional folk-gospel song, made popular in the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field, has its origins further back than just its life in America as a spiritual sung out of the pain and hope of an enslaved people. It is a modern representation of a musical form called a Psalm, the subject of our sermon series that we start today.
What is a Psalm?
James May writes, “The psalms…comprehend the complexity of human life, the variety in the Bible, the elements of the doctrine of salvation, and the two dimensions of the divine-human communication.” (Mays, Psalms 1994, 1) The short answer to that question is that Psalms are quite simply, the songs that Israel sang in their worship of God. Each psalm or song is a part of the corporate stories and worship of the Jewish people, their experiences written in the form of poetry and set to music. Think of it as a Columbia House catalog that everyone got a free subscription to or for those of you who are younger than forty, an Amazon Unlimited subscription gives you access to all the streaming music on Amazon. You can pick your life circumstances, your place in the journey at the moment and find a Psalm that fits the bill.
Psalms were an important way to express the ideas of the people who followed the God they called Adonai as they journeyed from being a handful of people following the head of their family, Abraham, to the slavery of Egypt, to the promised land of Canaan, to the great monarchies of David and Solomon, back into captivity in Babylon, and finally to the diaspora and the synagogue. All of these stories, the mythos of the people who became known as Israelites, are contained in numerous ways in these one hundred fifty pieces of poetry set to music. They also became, along with Isaiah, part of the backbone of the New Testament. These two texts are quoted more often than any others in the New Testament collection and they provided the gospels with much of their connection to the Jewish people and Jewish worship such as Jesus words on the cross from Psalm 22.
From then until now, the psalms have been a part of corporate worship. Many of the songs we sing, whether we sing from hymnals, psalters, or chord charts, have reference to if not outright quotations from Psalms. Hymnal favorites like He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought and Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and more contemporary tunes like Blessed Be Your Name and You Are Good.
Psalms also act in ways that express the social histories and ethics that have been passed down through the generations, a sort of spiritual disciplines guidebook if you will. They are a means of defining godly character and how that character should find voice and action in the life of a child of God. They are sources of prayers and meditations that lead us into ways of being and living, nurturing the soul of the individual and the community. Walter Bruggemann writes,
“When the community praises, it submits and reorders life. It is not only a moment of worship but also an embrace of a doxological life which is organized differently. So the summons is a summons to reorient life.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65)
It is our way of learning to live a life that is, as the writer Paul says, “living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.”
The Old Hundred
As we come this morning to our first psalm, we find words that are familiar in many ways. One theologian writes,
“It breathes a faith of simple trust, glad surrender, and faithful responsiveness. It is not sung by newcomers who are only now embracing the faith but by those who are seasoned and at home in this faith and piety. Nor is it sung by the alienated who have any cause either against God or neighbor.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65)
And another says,
“This psalm sings that we walk daily through a creation that God loves and that God loves us (“we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”). The psalm sings that God’s character is different than those other gods — money, success, youth, etc. — who would seek to rule us. The Lord is a God whose character is marked by “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” (Jacobson 2017)
With those comments in mind let’s look deeper into the words themselves. The psalm introduces itself as a psalm of thanks. So often in the life of Israel, they came to places where they saw God performing great deed on their behalf and their response was to sing or declare their praise for the work of God, often seeing it as the literal salvation or physical saving of the people. Whether this was the case or not, we don’t know but human nature being what it is, I would guess that the psalm was written after God had once again delivered either the people as a whole or the individual who wrote the psalm from something difficult.
The Psalm itself is broken up into two sections: the first four verses which are a call to praise and worship and the final verse which offers the reason for praise. In that call to worship, there are several imperative statements to this introductory Psalm. All of these imperatives are intended to lead the individual into the presence of God which is “the first and fundamental human act that constitutes worship” (Mays, Psalms 1994, 317). We are called to shout, serve, come, know, enter, thank, and bless with a conclusion in the final verse to explain why we should do these things.
The first imperative in verse one is shout, an imperative that calls the worshiper to an attitude and mindset of praise. “The characteristic first part of a hymn of praise is a summons to praise…To praise is to reject alternative loyalties and false definitions of reality.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65) In calling the earth and its people to “Shout triumphantly to the Lord”, the psalmist is calling them to direct their worship to the God of Israel and no other. The next is the call to serve God but not just with the drudgery of some worker drone. We work to celebrate, our efforts brought about by the joy we feel from being in the presence of God. In order to do this, we have to come before the Lord and continue the shouting we mentioned first. As we begin this worship with the first three things, we know or make an acknowledgment that God is the Lord, the only god to be worshiped in a land surrounded by polytheistic nations and cultures. Finally, we enter through the gates of the temple and offer thanks and praise as we come into the courtyard of presence.
We see this in a spiritual sense in our day but in the day the psalmist wrote this it was quite literal. Israel was a land of two houses, two kings. The call of the psalmist is one made by the King of Heaven, whose house, the temple, sat next to the Davidic King of Israel. In the same way that one might come into the presence of an earthly king with humility and praise, one was to come with greater humility and praise before the Lord of Heaven and all Creation. Service was an expectation of any servant and the offering of praise and thanks was the expected behavior of servants before their master or king. There is a confessional mode of being that is implicit in this humility and praise. The people who come before the Lord are confessing by knowing/acknowledging that Adonai is the Lord. This confessional is central to the reason for worship in verse five: The Lord is good, his love last forever, and his faithfulness lasts through generations.
These imperatives and this confession become as we said before a spiritual practice in imitation of forefathers, a continuation of the worship offered in the temple in days past. It becomes a worship of remembrance brought into the present and practiced in the moment. One writer draws on this theme saying, “Doxology as remembering puts life in perspective, affirms it is a gift and not achievement, offers pasts out of which to assess presents and evoke alternative futures.” (Brueggemann 1985, 68) We continue in this heritage of doxology, of literally ‘studying and practicing praise’ as followers of Jesus.
Brueggemann, Walter. “Psalm 100.” Interpretation 39, no. 1 (Jan 1985): 65-69.
Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Mays, James Luther. “Worship, world, and power: an interpretation of Psalm 100.” Interpretation 23, no. 3 (Jul 1969): 315-330.