Category Archives: Psalm

Teach Me O Lord Thy Way of Truth

Open God's Word

If we are to know truth, we must abide in God’s Word. If we are to follow Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), we must know and obey God’s Word. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32).

But truth is not something we can comprehend on our own. One thing we must always do when we open God’s Word, is pray that His Spirit would illumine our understanding and help us rightly apply truth. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that without the Spirit, we cannot understand the Word. To those who are dead in sin and have no spiritual life, the truth of God’s Word, in fact, appears to be foolishness. Any time we read the Bible, or hear it taught and preached, we should pray that God would teach us, give us understanding, and help us walk in truth.

This is how God instructs us to pray in His Word. The book of Psalms serves as the Bible’s inspired songbook, providing us divinely prescribed instruction on how we must sing and pray and worship the Lord. In Psalm 119:33–40 the psalmist prays:

Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law;
Indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.
Make me walk in the path of Your commandments,
For I delight in it.
Incline my heart to Your testimonies,
And not to covetousness.
Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things,
And revive me in Your way.
Establish Your word to Your servant,
Who is devoted to fearing You.
Turn away my reproach which I dread,
For Your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for Your precepts;
Revive me in Your righteousness.
(Psalm 119:33–40, NKJV)

The following setting of this portion of Psalm 119 is from The Psalter, 1912. Take time to read (and sing) the words. And make this your prayer as you look to God’s Word and seek to walk in its light.

Teach Me O Lord Thy Way of Truth

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall keep it to the end” (Psalm 119:33).

  1. Teach me O Lord Thy way of truth,
    And from it I will not depart;
    That I may steadfastly obey,
    Give me an understanding heart.
  2. In Thy commandments make me walk,
    For in Thy law my joy shall be;
    Give me a heart that loves Thy will,
    From discontent and envy free.
  3. Turn Thou mine eyes from vanity,
    And cause me in Thy ways to tread;
    O let Thy servant prove Thy Word,
    And thus to godly fear be led.
  4. Turn Thou away reproach and fear;
    Thy righteous judgments I confess;
    To know Thy precepts I desire;
    Revive me in Thy righteousness.

“Teach Me O Lord Thy Way of Truth”
Words from Psalm 119:33–40, The Psalter, 1912
Tune: CROSLAND (L.M.)
Music by Tom Wells, 2001
Words ©Public Domain
Music ©2001 Tom Wells (Used by Permission)

Tom Wells (Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas) composed an excellent tune for this setting of Psalm 119:33–40. Download free sheet music (PDF), including a guitar chord chart, an arrangement of the hymn tune CROSLAND for classical guitar.

More Hymns from History

More hymns arranged for Classical Guitar

 

Magnify the Lord with Me!

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
(Psalm 34:1–3)

Magnify the Lord

The first three verses of Psalm 34 are an invitation—a call to worship. In verse one David expresses his own commitment to praise God.

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
(Psalms 34:1)

God is worthy of all praise—worthy of unending praise. David desires that God’s praise be continually on his lips—at all times, whether it be in enemy territory or in the courts of God’s temple with His people.

In verse two David calls upon the humble to hear him and rejoice with him as he lifts his praise.

My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
(Psalm 34:2)

His words are good news to the humble. For those whom God has brought low, for those who see themselves in peril and needy of a way of escape, David knows where to point them for hope and strength.

In verse three he invites those who hear him to join his praise, that God would be magnified.

Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
(Psalm 34:3)

This psalm, like many in the book of Psalms, begins as personal praise and then spreads as it is shared and joined by others. What was individual devotion is now sung by many as corporate worship. David is not content to praise God by himself for his deliverance—he wants the people of God to join him. He wants the Lord to be magnified.

As we help and encourage others to look to God and acknowledge God and praise Him; as we share what God has done for us to encourage the hearts of others to look to Him and trust in Him, He is magnified—not in the sense that we add to God or make Him appear large or great (as a microscope would take a small thing and make it look large), but rather we take who God is and what He has done and bring it close to others, so they can see it and know it and rejoice in it (as a telescope would take a large and magnificent object and bring it into focus so all can enjoy and marvel in viewing it up close).

David wants to take the deliverance he has experienced by the grace and mercy of God, and bring it close to the people of God so that they can see it and rejoice with him in an overflow of praise and thanksgiving.

Read more from this sermon on Psalm 34 entitled “Taste and See!”

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Out of Zion

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.
(Psalms 14:7)

Church and town at Sunrise

Verse 7 of Psalm 14 represents a crucial turning point. The psalm began as a meditation, that quickly turned to a lament, but now is a petition, looking forward to a time of praise and rejoicing.

David considers the hopeless of man left to himself. He mediates on the depravity and corruption of man, and realizes that if anyone can be saved, it must be through God’s grace and life-giving power.
But notice from where God’s salvation is to come: out of Zion!

What is Zion?

David could have prayed that salvation would come from hand of God. He could have said that salvation would come from the promised Messiah. And this would be true. But he expands his statement at the end of the psalm, praying that salvation will come out of Zion.

This is more than a reference to the physical city of Jerusalem, where Christ would be crucified and accomplish in time and space the salvation of God’s people. Zion is also used in Scripture as reference to the people of God.

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion.
(Psalms 65:1)

God’s purpose in salvation includes its being fulfilled and accomplished by Christ-but also its application and proclamation in us! God is the One who saves. Notice—

Verse 7 continues: “When the LORD restores…”

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.
(Psalms 14:7)

It is the Lord who restores! But God uses means to accomplish His salvation. As God saves, we respond with joy and gladness-joy and gladness that compel us to share the good news of salvation with others. It is our joy and responsibility to spread the Gospel—out of Zion, knowing with confidence that God will work-His Word will go out and will not return void.

He has established us here as a church in this community for a purpose. I encourage you to think from this mindset—out of Zion. God has put us here to make Him known. Every friend, every acquaintance, every relationship is in your life for you to magnify Jesus Christ.

Read more from this sermon on Psalm 14 entitled “Out of Zion”

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Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So!

Autumn Trees

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so…
(Psalm 107: 1–2)

Psalm 107 teaches us that we are to give thanks to the Lord. And we are to do so in the hearing of others: Let the redeemed of the Lord say so! In each stanza we see people in various afflictions and trials. And each time the Lord brings deliverance, each time we see His hand at work, we see an exhortation to give thanks.

In light of God’s glory manifest in His work in us, we are to speak and sing and pray His praise. We are to encourage one another by giving thanks for what God has done and what He has promised to do. God intends that our words and our prayers strengthen those who are weak and feeble among us, that they might hear and have faith and persevere in prayer and hope.

The word that is translated “thanks” here in Psalm 107 is the Hebrew word yadah. Literally it means “to publically confess or acknowledge.” Thanksgiving in the Hebrew understanding of the term was not a private affair. It was always public—making known what God has done. The verb yadah simply means to declare or recognize a fact, whether that fact is good or bad. When it is used in the context of sinful human beings, the verb denotes the acknowledgment of a person’s character, most often in the context of confessing or acknowledging sin. When it is focused upon the glory and splendor of God however, it denotes the giving of thanks—a grateful acknowledgement and public confession of the greatness of God.

Having an attitude of thankfulness was not just for the Old Testament or worship in the temple. We see it in the New Testament as well, especially in the ministry of Paul.

Listen to what he writes to the churches:

To the church at Corinth:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:4).

To the church at Ephesus:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers (Ephesians 1:15–16).

To the church at Colossae:

giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Colossians 1:12).

To the church at Thessalonica

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers (1 Thessalonians 1:2).

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (2 Thessalonians 1:3).

And remember, these were churches that were experiencing many problems and troubles. Paul writes long letters explaining how they are to live and serve together as sinners saved by grace. And yet when Paul thinks of them, he give thanks. He recognizes that each assembly is a miracle of the power of the gospel, a display of God’s glory in changed lives. Here were people who had been in darkness, worshipping idols and false gods, and now they are serving Christ and giving glory to God. The transformation of their lives is amazing!

We need to keep this in mind as well—as we live and serve here at Grace—as we remember and think of one another. We are a testimony to the saving power of the gospel and we have every reason to give thanks.

Paul instructs the churches—including us:

[give] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20).

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Let me encourage you to take time to give thanks. Think about God’s work in your life and in the lives of brothers and sisters here in the church. Where you see evidence of God’s grace and mercy—Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.

[This excerpt is from a Sermon on Psalm 107 entitled “Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So.” You can read the full Sermon  here.]

See more Sermons and Articles by Ken Puls

A Song Book That Begins With Words of Wisdom

The Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms is an important collection of songs in Scripture for the worship of God. These songs are commanded to be sung by God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments.

In the Old Testament they comprise the songbook of the Temple. God appointed the Levites to sing and teach the people to sing psalms to God in worship. As the people gathered in Jerusalem and brought their sacrifices, these were the songs being sung and heard in the congregation.

In the New Testament Paul sets the psalms at the forefront of church music, exhorting us in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The psalms speak of Christ, point us to Christ, and find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ (Luke 24:44).

When you think of the book of Psalms, and remember the purpose and use of the psalms, its beginning may at first surprise you. It might not be what you would expect.

The psalms are about our communion with God in worship.

How then would you expect such a collection of songs to begin?

What opening words do you envision?

  • A lofty song of praise?
  • A hymn exalting the attributes of God?
  • A call to God’s people to come to the Temple and enter into His presence?
  • A call to God, asking Him to hear His people as they lift their voices?

All of these are songs you will find in abundance in the Psalter, but not at the beginning.

Let’s go to the Word of God and read how the Psalms begin:

Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so,
But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
(Psalm 1:1–6)

God opens His hymnal with a psalm of wisdom—a psalm for teaching that portrays a striking contrast between two groups of people: the ungodly and the righteous—those who are committed to walking according to the ways of God, and those who have forsaken that way.

For the righteous, the psalm offers a promise;
For the ungodly it declares a warning.

Continue reading this sermon from  Psalm 1 entitled “Two Paths and Two Ends.”

See more Sermons and Articles by Ken Puls

Above Image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

Theater for God’s Glory

Theater of God's Glory

Calvin rightly called the world a “theater for the glory of God” [Institutes 1.5.8 and 1.14.20]. We are a part of this display. Our lives are to be a display and an offering for His glory. In all things we live to His praise. And that includes all things—what we do, what we say, and what we think. David prayed in Psalm 19:12-14 that he would be kept from sinning. He prayed that the words he spoke would be honoring to God. He prayed that the thoughts resounding in his heart would be pleasing to God. And not just his thoughts when he was in gathered worship with the people of God, or his words when he was singing praise, or his steps when he felt near to God, but all his thoughts and words and steps through life as he walked in the world.

We must learn to see the world this way, and live in the world this way. Our world is fallen and broken.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Our world is at enmity against God. But God does not intend that we hide away or abandon the world. He intends for us to be salt and light. He intends for us to live as Christians—a humble and grateful people who have been rescued from sin and death. And He intends for us to live out in the world as trophies of His grace for His glory.

Sometimes we can get messed up in our thinking—if we start thinking of church as where we meet with God and serve God, and the rest of life as out in world—our jobs, our recreation, our families. We can mistakenly assume that God is only glorified when we do sacred things—things like coming to church, praying, reading our Bible, or witnessing. And God is pushed aside or drowned out when we do secular things—things like our jobs, chores around the house, school, and sports. He is pleased and draws close when we are endeavoring to do sacred things, but less pleased and distant when we turn to what is secular.

The word “secular” comes from a Latin word meaning “world.” It refers to the here and now in which we live—our immediate concerns as we live day to day.

But we must not separate the here and now from God. All of life is sacred. It all belongs to God. We cannot take a breath unless God gives it to us. He is there, with us in every situation, in every activity, in every circumstance. By His design “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

There is no separate place for God and another for the world. It’s all His—the world is His and we are His. He is at work—in every trial, in every triumph—in every joy, in every sorrow—shaping us and fashioning us for His glory. Our lives are on display. He has made the world for Himself. And He has placed us on the stage of the world to be a vessel of His grace and mercy, to be a testimony to His presence and power.

We need to see our world this way—in the spheres in which God has placed us—in our vocations, responsibilities and roles. These are but platforms on which to magnify Him—arenas in which we are called to display His glory and make Him known.

[This excerpt is from a Bible Study of Psalm 19 entitled “Theater for God’s Glory.” You can read the full Bible Study here.]

See more Sermons and Articles by Ken Puls

A Crescendo of Praise

Crescendo Wave

The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
(Psalm 97:1)

True worship is centered on God. We see this in Psalm 97 from the very first verse. We are to be glad and rejoice. Our God reigns! Our Lord is Sovereign over all. This knowledge should season every thought and flavor every prayer!

Notice that Psalm 97 begins with praise. The psalmist lifts his voice with confidence and joy starting with the very first verse. Not all the psalms begin this way. Many open with cries of distress or sorrow. The psalmist is afflicted, persecuted, facing suffering or weighed down by trials. In these circumstances, as the psalmist pours out his heart before God, you will find petitions, prayers and laments. But as you read the psalms, you will also discover that the focus doesn’t remain on the problems and difficulties and trials. Over and over throughout the psalms, the concern of the psalmist turns from his petitions and laments to God’s glory and praise.

Look, for example at Psalm 13. David begins the psalm in desperation:

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.
(Psalms 13:1-4)

But then David turns his thoughts to God’s love and there is a noticeable shift:

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.
(Psalms 13:5-6)

Do you see the change in David’s focus as the psalm begins compared to how the psalm ends? As he meditates and remembers the God to whom he is praying, his heart is turned from sorrow to praise!

In fact, if you read through the entire book of Psalms, you will see a noticeable shift in its content. Early in the Psalter you find many petitions and laments, but as you grow closer to the end of the book, the petitions and laments grow fewer and fewer until from Psalm 145 to the end there is pure praise. The Psalms culminate in a crescendo of praise that builds to the last verse (Psalm 150:6) and resounds in the final command: “let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

The Book of Psalms begins with a blessing. Psalm 1 tells us that we are blessed when we turn away from sin and evil, and we delight in the Law of God and meditate upon His Word day and night. Those who know God—know His name, His character, His promises, His salvation—those who delight in Him will be:

… like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
(Psalms 1:3)

The remainder of the Book of Psalms is a glorious testimony that this promise is true. In every distress and storm where the psalmist feared that he would wither or fall, when the psalmist looked to God and trusted in God and clung to God’s revelation of His character and promises and will, when he was confident that God would accomplish His purposes, then his focus turned from petition and lament to praise and rejoicing.

This is why Psalms is called in Hebrew a Book of Praises (Sepher Tehillium).

This has great implications for our worship today. If our desire is to have worship that honors God and enriches, encourages, and nourishes our souls, our greatest need to stop focusing on ourselves and remember God.

Think of this when we gather together for worship on the Lord’s Day. Think of this when we come together for prayer on Wednesday nights. As you voice your concerns and share your heart, honestly confess your difficulties and struggles, tell God your sorrows and troubles, but don’t stay there! Look to God! Our God reigns! Let your words dwell upon Him!

[This excerpt is from a sermon on Psalm 97 entitled “The God We Worship.” You can read the full sermon text here.]

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What to Say in the Last Lines of a Worship Song

The Last Measure

What’s the best way to end a worship song? What should we say or sing in those last lines? We know endings are important. That final statement that punctuates our prayer or praise in singing should be thoughtful and purposeful. So what is the expected end—joy, glory, heaven, hope?

And what about sad and solemn songs? How should they end? As Christians we can certainly sing in a minor key. We live in a fallen word. Our songs not only express the joy and delight of knowing Christ, they also sound the more somber tones of sin and suffering. We sing in minor, but we don’t like to end in minor. We like our songs to end on high notes with positive lyrics and major chords. You can even find in music history a technique used by songwriters to strengthen the harmonic resolution of the final chord and create a happier ending. The Picardy Third is the use or substitution of a major chord, especially at the end of a piece of music, where a minor chord would be expected.

On the one hand it make sense to end with the brighter sounds of major. As followers of Christ, we see past the crumbling and broken promises of this fallen world to the sure and certain promises of God in His Word. We look beyond the strife and struggles of this life and rest in the joy and hope of knowing Christ. We have been rescued from sin and despair. Because we have a Savior we are bound for glory and destined for praise.

Many of the psalms highlight this upward trajectory. They orient us to look away from our own distress and sorrows and up to the glory and joys of belonging to God. Though they begin with pleading and lamentation, they end with hope and praise. For example, David opens Psalm 16 with a prayer: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” But he ends rejoicing in verse 11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The book of Psalms as a whole crescendos and culminates in praise. We reach the pinnacle with the command in the final verse of the Psalms:

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 150:6)

Yet not all of the psalms follow this anticipated climb. Some make unpredicted turns and go down unforeseen paths. When you survey the 150 psalms, though blessing and praise predominate, you find a variety of endings:

  • 43 psalms end with praise and thanksgiving to God
  • 31 psalms end with God’s blessings for His people (salvation, peace, unity, goodness, mercy, joy…)
  • 11 psalms end by telling or declaring who God is
  • 9 psalms end with an exhortation (be strong, wait for the Lord, hope in the Lord) or a commitment (to seek the good of God’s people)
  • 24 psalms end with prayer or pleading (for justice, deliverance, salvation, strength, peace, blessing…)
  • 12 psalms end with words of warning about judgment on the wicked
  • 9 psalms end by contrasting judgment on the wicked with blessings for the righteous
  • 7 psalms end with triumph over evil and enemies
  • 4 psalms end with lament or complaint

Songwriters can learn much from a study of the psalms. The psalms are Scripture’s songbook for worship. They instruct us how to pray and praise God through music. They teach us how to craft and use lyrics in creative and intentional ways to communicate truth.

Sometimes the psalmist may take a surprising turn in order to make a profound point. A good example of this is Psalm 12. David begins with a prayer: “Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man” (Psalms 12:1). He cries out in the midst of crisis for the Lord to save. In verse 5 the Lord answers saying, “I will now arise” and “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” In verses 6–7 we see that place of safety:

The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
You will guard us from this generation forever.
(Psalm 12:6–7)

The place of safety is the Word of God. David can rest in knowing that all God has promised is certain and true. Though the day seems dark, God will fulfill His Word.

The psalm then ends in 12:8 with a final verse. So how would you expect this psalm to end? What would you sing in those last lines? You might choose words that exhort God’s people to believe and trust in God’s Word. Or perhaps you would conclude with praise and thanksgiving to God for His Word or for salvation. These types of endings are certainly found in the psalms. But David does something different, something not expected. He ends the psalm with sober, even distressing words:

On every side the wicked prowl,
as vileness is exalted among the children of men.
(Psalm 12:8)

C. H. Spurgeon refers to this verse as a “return to the fount of bitterness, which first made the Psalmist run to the wells of salvation.” The ending is unexpected, but David crafts his words intentionally to underscore an important truth. The overwhelming circumstances that grieved him at the beginning of the psalm have not changed. The trouble still exists. But what has changed is David’s outlook. He has been brought back to the Word of God. God does not always deliver us from our suffering. Our circumstances may not change. Troubles may still arise and threaten us. Yet God Word always remains true. It is our place of safety.

Read a full exposition here of Psalm 12: A Place of Safety

So what is the best way for a worship song to end? The psalms demonstrate that we need not always end with upbeat praise and soaring sounds. There are many possibilities and there are times when the unexpected ending may be the better choice. So learn from the psalms. Aim for praise; it is after all the ultimate finale of our songs and our lives. But give thought to your options. Don’t forget final words of pleading, warning and rebuke. Don’t neglect last lines that express godly fear, repentance and awe. And don’t avoid the inevitable cadences of lament and grief. For our music to ring true to God’s Word and to our experience as we walk in the light of His Word, we need the joys and the sorrows. We are pressing on to glory and praise, but there are most certainly times along the way when it is fitting to sing and even end with somber tones and sober thoughts.

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: What Can We Learn?

Psalm Inscriptions

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions
In Leading God’s People in Prayer and Praise

Conclusion: What Can We Learn?

The psalm inscriptions offer a unique perspective on music and worship for the church musician. In this series we have examined the inscriptions under five categories:

I. DESIGNATION: Those titles using the Hebrew preposition לֹ lamed.  They can denote the author(s) of the psalm, the recipient(s) of the psalm, to whom the psalm is dedicated, or possibly whom the psalm is about.

II. DESCRIPTION: Titles that state the type of poetic genre or musical composition. [psalm, maschil, song, praise, prayer, testimony, michtam]

III. EXPLANATION: Titles that provide a historical connection for the psalm. They relate the circumstances surrounding the composition of the psalm.

IV. APPLICATION: Titles that indicate the liturgical, devotional or didactic use of the psalm. [For the Sabbath Day, To Bring Remembrance, Of the Ascents]

V. INTERPRETATION: Titles that explain how the psalm should be musically interpreted or performed. [On Flutes, With Stringed Instruments]

[Download a PDF list of Psalm Inscriptions highlighted by category]

The psalms set a precedent and paradigm for church music through the ages. Although a measure of uncertainty still surrounds the meanings of some of psalm inscriptions, they are a part of God’s revelation in Scripture and have relevance for the present day. God has given us enough light to reveal some of their purposes within the Psalter. Those who serve God with the gift of music can especially benefit from a knowledge of these headings.

So what can we learn from the Psalm inscriptions? How can they be useful and encouraging to us as we magnify God through music in the present day? Here, in summary, are ten lessons we have gleaned over the course of the study:

1. The psalm inscriptions reveal a wide range of poetic and musical forms found in the psalms. These include psalms, songs, prayers, praises, testimonies, michtams, maschils, and shiggaions. This diversity in the Psalter sets a precedent for the vast tapestry of poetic and musical forms used in worship throughout church history.

2. The psalm inscriptions display a wide range of usefulness for music in worship. The psalms shape and accompany much of the content of Old Testament worship. They not only function as musical compositions, but also as prayers, wisdom literature and liturgical texts. According to the inscriptions, the poetic and musical forms in the Psalter provide helpful structure for singing, playing music, celebrating (at a wedding), petitioning God (in time of need), praising God, giving thanks to God, grappling with injustice, repenting of sin and declaring faith in God as He is at work in the lives of His people.

3. The inscriptions and especially the psalm texts themselves show the wide range of emotional expression possible and appropriate for worship. From the deepest valleys of anguish and despair in Psalm 88, to the sorrow and grief of Psalm 51, up to the highest peaks of joy and praise that culminate in Psalm 150, the psalms demonstrate the unmatched ability and usefulness of music to express such emotion. Enoch Hutchinson in Music of the Bible explains:

“The essence of lyric poetry is the immediate expression of feeling; and feeling is the sphere in which most of the psalms move. Pain, grief, fear, hope, joy, trust, gratitude, submission to God, everything that moves and elevates the heart is expressed in these songs.” [1]

4. The psalm titles demonstrate the wide range of musical expression possible in worship. Many types of instruments are mentioned in the inscriptions including stringed instruments, flutes, an instrument of Gath, as well as a host of others mentioned in the texts of the psalms themselves (such as Psalm 150). Vocal forces include solos (individual praise and lament) to “everything that has breath.”

5. The psalm inscriptions highlight the connection between music and God’s work in human history. They link the psalms to real situations recorded in Scripture and actual worship practices of ancient Israel and the Temple. We sing the words penned by David and other Old Testament songwriters as they looked to God for strength and help. We join our voices with God’s people in past ages, singing the words that carried their praise and comforted their hearts. The psalms remind us that we are part of something much larger than what we see God doing in our lives today. We are part of God’s covenant promises and plan of redemption that has shaped all of human history since the Garden of Eden to the present day.

6. The psalm inscriptions intimate a place for personal expression (I and me) in music for worship. The psalms are the heartfelt and authentic cries of David, Asaph and other songwriters, expressing their petitions and praises, their thanksgivings and laments. Though many of the psalms began as individual expressions of worship, expressed in the first person (I and me), God’s people in all ages have identified with the psalms and found an affinity with their message. We sing the words of the psalmists as our own because they express common experiences and feelings, such as remorse over sin, repentance of sin, praise to God, thanks to God, and adoration of God. The psalms demonstrate that we can address God in personal and intimate ways, though corporately as the gathered people of God.

7. The psalm titles suggest a connection between the popular or familiar music of the culture and music in worship. The sound of the music in the Temple was not markedly distinct from the music of the people. Temple musicians borrowed from familiar tunes, styles and instruments of the day. The psalms set a precedent for the church throughout its history to harness the music of the world for the glory of God. This is evident in the New Testament as well. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, alongside psalms, Paul lists hymns, a musical form borrowed from pagan culture, first used to honor false Greek and Roman gods, but now synonymous with music of the church.

8. The psalm inscriptions reveal that our worship of God should extend beyond our times of gathered worship. The Psalms of the Ascents (120–134) were sung by Israel as they journeyed to the Temple in anticipating of corporate worship. We see David and others lifting praise and crying out to God in many situations and circumstances, in times of joy and in times of need. We can pray and sing to God at any time and in any place and He will hear us and answer us.

9. The psalm titles set a precedent for care and planning for music in worship. The psalmists were careful to include instructions concerning how the psalms should be musically performed. This involved care in using appropriate instruments and tunings, care in using the psalms for appropriate occasions, and care in finding the right tune to fit with a certain text. The psalm titles teach us the value of being thoughtful and intentional in preparing for and leading worship.

10. The psalm titles highlight the value of ministry of those who compose, compile, plan and lead music in worship. They remind us to give thanks for songwriters, musicians and worship leaders in the church. We need to encourage them and pray for them. We need to pray that God will raise up more servants in the church who will use their musical gifts for His glory and benefit of His people.

For more on Music and Worship, see “What Then Shall We Sing?”

Part 1: Thoughts on Music
Part 2: Thoughts on Music and Worship
Grid for Evaluating Music

Note:
[1] Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61.

This series is based on a seminar paper for “Special Research in Church Music” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (May 1995).

See a Table of Contents for this series: Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions

(Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Titles of Interpretation

Played by Flutes

Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions
In Leading God’s People in Prayer and Praise

Titles of Interpretation

The inscriptions included at the beginning of many of the psalms offer valuable instruction for church musicians. They provide brief glimpses of the worship practices of ancient Israel and the Temple. In earlier posts we considered four categories of titles: designation, description, explanation and application. The final category of psalm inscriptions is interpretation.

Thirteen inscriptions included in the first three books of the Psalter relate to interpretation, clarifying how the psalm was musically performed or sung. These inscriptions always follow the designation to the chief musician (lamnatstsech). Although these headings are the most difficult of the five types to satisfactorily understand and adequately translate, they include terms that most likely denote musical instrumentation, voicings, melody or tune names, and musical styles. All but one use the preposition ‘al meaning upon or according to or the proposition b meaning with.

Instrumentation

Three of the headings appear to indicate musical instrumentation. They refer to stringed instruments, flute or wind instruments, and an unknown instrument of Gath.

With Stringed Instruments

An instruction to perform with stringed instruments appears in five psalms. [1] The singular with a stringed instrument occurs in two psalms. [2]

The Hebrew inscription binginoth consists of the preposition b meaning with or on and the plural form of the noun neginoth. Neginoth comes from the root nagan meaning to touch (strings) or to play a stringed instrument. [3] Most modern versions translate the inscription as with stringed instruments or simply for strings. The KJV leaves the term untranslated as on Neginoth.

Stringed instruments were especially important for the accompaniment of the psalms in the Temple worship, as Edersheim explains:

That music was chiefly sustained by the harp (Kinnor) and the lute (Nevel). Of the latter (which was probably used for solos) not less than two nor more than six were to be in the Temple orchestra; of the former, or harp, as many as possible, but never less than nine. There were, of course, several varieties both of the Nevel and the Kinnor. The chief difference between these two kinds of instruments lay in this, that in the Nevel (lute or guitar) the strings were drawn over the sounding-board, while in the Kinnor they stood out free, as in our harps. [4]

Idelsohn adds: “These two instruments were the most important ones, without which no public religious ceremony could be held.” [5]

Upon Flutes

The inscription el-hanechiloth occurs only in Psalm 5. It consists of the preposition el meaning upon and the plural form of the noun nechilah which most likely denotes a flute. [6] Most modern versions translate the heading as for flute accompaniment or simply for flutes. As with neginoth the KJV leaves this term untranslated, upon Nehiloth.

Flutes were primarily used on special occasions and festivals in the worship of Israel, including Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. [7] According to Edersheim, “the flute was also used by the festive pilgrim-bands on their journey to Jerusalem, to accompany ‘the Psalms of Degrees,’ or rather of ‘Ascent,’ sung on such occasions.” [8] This heading does not appear on any of the Songs of Ascent, however, all of the psalms in Book V lack titles of application.

When flutes were used in the Temple, they were highlighted as solo instruments as Edersheim notes:

In the Temple, not less than two nor more than twelve flutes were allowed, and the melody was on such occasions to close with the notes of the flute alone. [9]

Upon the Gittith

The instruction ‘al-hagitith appears in three psalms. [10] The Hebrew phrase consists of the preposition upon ( ‘al), the definite article h and an uncertain term gittith.

The term gittith most likely refers to a musical instrument named after the Philistine city of Gath. [11] David spent time in Gath when he was fleeing from Saul (1 Samuel 21:10–15). He would have been aware of their musical practices. Kraus suggest, however, that the term “probably refers to a melody” and should be rendered according to the Githitic (tune). [12] The KJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV all leave the term untranslated. The NKJV has on the instrument of Gath.

Voicings

The two headings indicating a certain voicing or tuning of the stringed instruments are the first of the headings to appear in Scripture outside the Psalter. They are found in 1 Chronicles 15:20 and 21 where David prepares to bring the ark to Jerusalem and appoints Levites to oversee the worship of God.

The singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound bronze cymbals; Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah were to play harps according to Alamoth; but Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed- edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah were to lead with lyres according to the Sheminith. Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, should direct the music, for he understood it (1 Chronicles 15:19–22).

The use of the inscriptions in this historical context reveals that they are ancient, going back at least to the beginning of David’s reign as king.

According to Sheminith

The heading ‘al-hasheminith occurs in Psalms 6 and 12. The term is unclear, but likely instructs the instrumentalist to tune to or play in a lower key.

The KJV, NIV, ESV and NRSV leave the term untranslated. NKJV has on an eight-stringed harp. The NAS has upon an eight-stringed lyre. Klein suggests two possible meanings: a musical instrument probably of 8 strings or an octave. [13] Peter Craigie, in his commentary, renders it upon the octave implying a lower tuning or bass accompaniment, which, he says, “would be appropriate to the solemn theme of the psalm.” [14]

According to Alamoth

A similar heading to sheminith occurs in Psalm 46, ‘al-‘alamoth. This term is also uncertain, but is likely a compliment to sheminith, especially in light of their use in 1 Chronicles 15:20–21. Alamoth, therefore, would denote a tuning to or playing in a higher key.

The KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV all leave the term untranslated. Klein refuses to speculate on this term saying it is “of uncertain origin and meaning.” [15]

Melodies

At least seven headings in the psalms suggest the use of pre-existing tunes or well-known melodic patterns to perform the psalm. Idelsohn explains the role of these tunes in Israel’s worship:

The vocal song of the Temple, like all religious song among the ancient and primitive nations, drew its sap from the folk song, though foreign tunes may have occasionally crept in. These Temple songs—folk-tunes modified and sanctified—were in turn copied by the ‘representatives of the people,’ the Anshe Maamad, from all parts of the country, who learned the melodies together with the texts, and would carry them to their homes. [16]

Curt Sachs further clarifies the use of these melodic patterns:

Oriental music has always been, and still is, composed in well-defined designs or melodic patterns. These melodic patterns might be compared to the three Greek orders or styles in architecture, the composition of which had detailed rules with which the artist was compelled to comply, and only within these specifications could he follow his personal interpretation. In music, melodies using the same scale, and relating to each other by their general mood, belong to one melodic pattern. [17]

According to Aijeleth Hashachar

The tune Aijeleth Hashachar is found only with Psalm 22. The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated, but other versions have spawned a number of suggested translations. These include: The Deer of the Dawn (NKJV and NRSV), The Doe of the Morning (NIV), and Doe of the Dawn (ESV).

According to Jonath Elem Rechokim

The title ‘al-Jonath Elem Rechokim occurs only in Psalm 56. The terms in the heading are uncertain and have produced a number of various translations: The Silent Dove in Distant Lands (NKJV), A Dove on Distant Oaks (NIV), The Dove on Far Off Terebinths (NRSV and ESV). The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated.

According to Shoshannim

The inscription ‘el-shoshannim means literally upon Lilies. Of the seven inscriptions that likely refer to tune names or melodic patterns, this one presents the most difficulty. It occurs in three psalms, 45, 69, and 80. Psalm 45 is a song of love replete with praise and adoration. Psalm 80, however, is a lament containing a refrain that pleads with God for revival. It seems improbable that two psalms of such different character could be performed with the same musical setting.

The phrase is literally translated as Lilies (NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and ESV). The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated.

According to Shushan Eduth

The title ‘al-shushan appears only in Psalm 60. Although the term ‘eduth meaning a testimony is often included as part of the tune name, it should be considered as a separate title of description, as in the heading to Psalm 80. The title ‘al-shushan consists of the preposition according to (‘al) and the noun lily (shushan) which appears in the plural form in Psalm 45, 69, and 80. Commentators who attached ‘eduth to this title assume unnecessarily that the noun shushan is in the Construct state and must be linked with the following term. The translation of the title should read, however, to the tune “A Lily.”

The KJV, NAS and ESV leave the title untranslated. Translated tune names include: Lily of the Testimony (NKJV) and The Lily of the Covenant (NIV and NRSV).

According to Muth-labben

The heading ‘almuth labben occurs only in Psalm 9 (Psalm 10 is a continuation of this psalm and does not have its own heading.) Owen suggests that the title derives from the words ben meaning son and ‘almah meaning young woman. He translates the performance instruction as soprano voice of boys. [18] Other scholars suggest the first word in the title relates to the Hebrew root muth meaning to die. [19]

The KJV, NAS, ESV and NRSV leave the title untranslated. NKJV and NIV translate the name of the tune as Death of the Son.

According to Machalath (Leannoth)

The title of Psalm 53 uses the uncertain term machalath with the preposition according to (‘al); Psalm 88 uses both machalath le‘annoth introduced by according to (‘al). Marvin Tate says in his commentary that the phrase is “assumed to be a tune or chanting pattern to be used with the psalm.” [20] The KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, ESV and NRSV leave the terms untranslated, implying this possibility.

Do Not Destroy

The heading ’al-tashcheth appears in four psalms. [21] It consists of the negative particle ’al and the Hiphil (causative active) form of the verb shachath meaning to spoil, ruin, or wipe out. [22] The KJV and NAS leave the title untranslated. The NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and ESV all translate the title as Do not Destroy.

The inscription may relate to Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 9:26, or David’s words in 1 Samuel 26:9, or more likely, to the words of a song recorded in Isaiah 65:8 which begins:

Thus says the Lord:
“As the new wine is found in the cluster,
and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
for there is a blessing in it,’
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
and not destroy them all.”

Marvin Tate explains:

The “do not destroy it” expression seems to have been a popular saying or proverb which reflected the idea of a vineyard keeper refusing to destroy grape-vines when the first clusters of grapes were bad. The vines still had the blessing of life in them and a potential for future production. Like the vines, Israel had brought forth the grapes worthy of destruction but Yahweh would not destroy Israel because she still contained a blessing (cf. Isa 28:23-28). [23]

Styles

According to Jeduthun

This heading referring to Jeduthun, one of David’s chief musicians, appears in two psalms (62 and 77). Jeduthun’s name also appears in a title of designation (with the preposition  לֹ) in Psalm 39. Tate suggests that the title in Psalm 62 and 77 employing the preposition ‘al may be “referring to a tune or musical setting, according to which the psalm was to be sung.” [24] The Hebrew preposition, however, is best translated here as according to. [25] Kraus suggests the proper rendering “After the manner of Jeduthun’s music making,” [26] denoting a particular style for which Jeduthun was known.

Conclusion

Although the titles of interpretation are the most difficult to translate, they do shed some light on the use of music in worship.

First, the titles indicate a measure of thoughtfulness and planning in the preparation and performance of music. The musicians who served in the Temple were intentional in choosing what instruments were used (strings, flutes, and even an instrument of Gath) and the key or tuning of the musical setting (lower or higher). They used specific melodic patterns or tunes to accompany certain psalms. They even used the musical settings or styles of particular composers (as with Jeduthun). The titles of application serve to remind us to put thought and care into the planning of music for worship.

Second, the titles also suggest a rich crossover between the music of the Temple and the popular music of the people (sung in homes, in the fields and in other cultural settings). Temple musicians borrowed from well-known or popular settings; they included melodic patterns that were familiar to the people. This is a point worth noting. There are some who have concluded that sacred music (music used in the worship of God) should have a decidedly distinct sound or style from secular music (music used for other purposes in the world). The psalm inscriptions, however, suggest that the musical style and arrangement of sacred and secular are not so markedly separate.

In the New Testament Paul provides a paradigm for church music that encompasses a vast array of musical sounds and styles down through history and around the world. We are to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) to the glory of God. The music of the church begins with the psalms, rooted in the worship of ancient Israel. But even in the psalms we see the beginnings of the varied sounds of praise in worship. Along with popular melodic patterns accompanying some of the psalms, we see remarkably, instructions to use an instrument (or possibly a tune) from Gath. A part of the musical tradition from a city of the Philistines, one of Israel’s enemies, is selected and sanctified for use in worship.

The psalms set a musical precedent for worship that God will accomplish in fuller measure in the New Testament through the church. Throughout church history, God has added and continues to add many musical styles and sounds to His praise. As the gospel goes out in the power of God’s Spirit, conquering hearts and lives, people from each generation and from every tribe and tongue and nation add their voice to the music of the church. There is not one sound that is solely sacred, but a vast array of musical composition that God is weaving into a tapestry of praise for His glory.

Notes:
[1] Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61.
[2] Psalm 67, 76.
[3] The New Brown–Driver–Briggs–Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon [BDB], 618.
[4] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (New York: F. H. Revell, 1874; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1987), 78-79.
[5] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1929; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 8.
[6] John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1992), 3:263.
[7] Edersheim, The Temple, 79-80.
[8] Edersheim, The Temple, 80.
[9] Edersheim, The Temple, 80.
[10] Psalm 8, 81, 84.
[11] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. (New York, MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987), 111.
[12] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalm 1–59: A Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1988), 31.
[13] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 666.
[14] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 90.
[15] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 473.
[16] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 20.
[17] Curt Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1940), 126.
[18] Owen, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, 3:269.
[19] Klein, Etymological Dictionary, 327.
[20] Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 20 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990), 394.
[21] Psalm 57, 58, 59, 75.
[22] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1988), 366.
[23] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 77.
[24] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 120.
[25] Tate, Psalm 51-100, 120.
[26] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, 30. See also BDB, 393.

This series is based on a seminar paper for “Special Research in Church Music” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (May 1995).

See a Table of Contents (thus far) for this series: Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions

(Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)