Lessons from the Psalm Inscriptions: Introduction

To the Chief Musician

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

Introduction: Why Consider the Psalm Inscriptions?

The psalms are a rich source of devotion and worship. Throughout history they have taught God’s people how to sing and pray and praise. They lifted the voice of Israel in worship through the Old Testament, comprising the songbook of the Temple. The psalms spoke of Christ and prepared the way for His coming (Luke 24:44). They are mentioned first among the music of the church in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). We are exhorted to sing them in light of their full expression and fulfillment in Christ. The psalms teach us how and what to sing, as our hearts are drawn out and our affections are raised in the presence and power of God. They are a treasure for the Christian and we should turn to them often.

Many of the psalms include inscriptions, headings that appear at the beginning, added when the Psalter was complied and the psalms were ordered for use in worship in the Temple. The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections, each ending with a doxology: I (1-41), II (42-72), III (73-89), IV (90-106), V (107-150). [1] The majority of the psalm titles appear in the first two books as indicated in the following table:

Psalms Titles Chart

As noted in the table above, some of the psalms have more than one inscription. In the entirety of the 150 Psalms there are a total of 337 inscriptions attached to the beginning of 116 of the psalms. Many of the headings were likely fixed to the psalms by the authors. Others may have been added at a later time as the psalms were gathered into collections and finally put into their present form. The headings were attached to the individual psalms to add explanation and clarity as the psalms became part of the corporate worship of Israel. These inscriptions offer insight as we sing the psalms and embrace them as our own expressions of worship.

Unfortunately the psalm inscriptions tend to be overlooked in the study of the psalms. The rich theological content and poetic beauty in the psalms themselves have held the interest of scholars and theologians, but the headings are often subject to mere cursory mentions.

There are several possible reasons for this:

  1. The inscriptions are considered to be secondary additions to the psalms and of limited value.
  2. The inscriptions focus more on musical matters and are of less interest to theologians and commentators than the rich texts of the psalms themselves.
  3. The inscriptions remain the subject of a wide array of speculation.

The meanings of some of the terms and phrases found in the inscriptions are uncertain and elusive. Some of the mystery surrounding the inscriptions lies in a loss of knowledge of the practice and performance of music in the Temple. Even by the 3rd century BC, when the Septuagint (LXX) [2], the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was made, the titles were already regarded as ancient and many of the terms found in the titles were not understood. Some of the translations supplied by the LXX appear arbitrary and misinformed. Commentator Peter Craigie suggests that the poor translations of the psalm headings may “indicate a lack of musical or liturgical knowledge on the part of the translators, or the lack of equivalent or appropriate terminology in the Greek language.” [3] According to Idelsohn this lack of knowledge was exacerbated by the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.

A short time after the destruction of the Temple the entire art of the instrumental music of the Levites fell into oblivion; and two generations later the sages lost all technical knowledge and all sense of the reality of that silenced music. [4]

Lack of musical knowledge has led some commentators to embrace many untenable theories concerning the meaning of the terms. Speaking of the commentators, Alfred Sendrey comments:

Whenever they were guided mainly by musical considerations, they were able, in most cases, to offer natural as well as logical interpretations. In other instances, they were bound to lose themselves in fruitless speculations, which necessarily ended in a blind alley. [5]

Though the precise meaning of many of the inscriptions remains a mystery, they are still a valuable aid in understanding the psalms. The psalm titles are part of the canon of Scripture. In the Hebrew (Masoretic) text they are included in (or as) the first verse of each psalm which has a title. They are therefore a part of God’s revelation and to some degree profitable for the people of God, especially to those concerned with serving God through music.

This series of posts will explore the psalm 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 psalm inscriptions present an intriguing study for musicians and worship leaders. As we survey the inscriptions in upcoming posts, we will aim to answer three basic questions:

What do the inscriptions reveal about the use of poetry and music in the life and worship practices of ancient Israel?

Do the inscriptions have relevance for worship practices today?

What can the inscriptions teach us, especially in regard to composing, arranging and planning music for worship?

Notes:

[1] The Doxologies are found in 41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, and 150:1-6.
[2] The LXX was widely used during the time of Christ and is often quoted in the New Testament
[3] Peter C. Craigie, Psalm 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al., vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983), 33.
[4] Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1929; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 19.
[5] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1969), 137. For a more thorough survey of suggested meanings for the psalm titles, see, 93-158.

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)

Rest at Palace Beautiful

Thus they discoursed together till late at night; and after they had committed themselves to their Lord for protection, they betook themselves to rest. The Pilgrim they laid in a large upper chamber, whose window opened towards the sun-rising. The name of the chamber was Peace; where he slept till break of day, and then he awoke and sang:

“Where am I now? Is this the love and care
Of Jesus for the men that pilgrims are?
Thus to provide! That I should be forgiven!
And dwell already the next door to heaven!”

Following supper, Christian continues the conversation with the family at Palace Beautiful until late in the evening. The opportunities we have to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ are precious and valuable. We should not rush through them or take them for granted, but savor the time we have together.

As the family prepares to sleep, they trust themselves to the Lord.

I will both lie down in peace, and sleep;
For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
(Psalm 4:8)

I lay down and slept;
I awoke, for the LORD sustained me.
(Psalm 3:5)

Window of PeaceThe spacious upper chamber where Christian finds rest represents Christ. Its window opens to the rising sun. Jesus is the “sun of righteousness” who rises “with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). He is the light of the world (Isaiah 60:1; John 8:12), the Dayspring who gives “light to those who sit in darkness” (Luke 1:78-79, Isaiah 9:2).

Christian’s bedchamber is called “Peace.”

You will keep him in perfect peace,
Whose mind is stayed on You,
Because he trusts in You.
(Isaiah 26:3)

Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). In Him we find rest for our souls; He tells us:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).

Peace is a gift of Christ (John 14:27) and a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). And peace is a hallmark of Christ’s church. Most of the letters in the New Testament, written to encourage and instruct the churches, begin with a reference to peace: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 3; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:2; 2 John 3; Jude 2; Revelation 1:4.

Paul exhorts us, as we fellowship and walk together in the church, to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The peace and unity we share in household of God is a demonstration of the power of gospel. It is a miracle of grace that God can take diverse and sinful people and make us one in Christ. It is Jesus Himself who is our peace, who rescues us from sin and selfishness and unites us together as His people for His glory. Paul explains:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:13-18).

It is Jesus who cares and loves us. He is our Savior and Redeemer. It is He who brings us near to God and near to one another in the family of God. As with Christian in Bunyan’s story, this truth should stir our hearts with joy and song.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Supper at Palace Beautiful

Now I saw in my dream, that thus they sat talking together until supper was ready. So when they had made ready, they sat down to meat. Now the table was furnished “with fat things, and with wine that was well refined.” And all their talk at the table was about the Lord of the hill; as, namely, about what He had done, and wherefore He did what He did, and why He had built that house. And by what they said, I perceived that He had been a great warrior, and had fought with and slain “him that had the power of death,” but not without great danger to Himself, which made me love Him the more.

For, as they said, and as I believe (said Christian), He did it with the loss of much blood; but that which put glory of grace into all He did, was, that He did it out of pure love to His country. And besides, there were some of them of the household that said they had been and spoke with him since He did die on the cross; and they have attested that they had it from His own lips, that He is such a lover of poor pilgrims, that the like is not to be found from the east to the west.

They, moreover, gave an instance of what they affirmed, and that was, he had stripped Himself of His glory, that He might do this for the poor; and that they heard Him say and affirm, “that He would not dwell in the mountain of Zion alone.” They said, moreover, that He had made many pilgrims princes, though by nature they were beggars born, and their original had been the dunghill.

Supper at House BeautifulAfter Prudence, Piety and Charity question Christian and examine his life and testimony, the family comes together for a meal. From its earliest days the church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). The meal at Palace Beautiful represents the fellowship that believers share together in Christ, especially in the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The table displays God’s abundant provision for us in Christ. It is described as rich and sumptuous, “furnished with fat things, and with wine that was well refined.” Bunyan draws his imagery from Isaiah:

And in this mountain
The LORD of hosts will make for all people
A feast of choice pieces,
A feast of wines on the lees,
Of fat things full of marrow,
Of well-refined wines on the lees.
(Isaiah 25:6)

The conversation at the table centers on Christ, “the Lord of the Hill.” It is all about the gospel: who Jesus is, what He has done, and why that matters. Bunyan highlights several truths of the gospel from Scripture in his description:

It is in Jesus, coming to save us, where we see the glory of God’s grace displayed:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Jesus is the Master Builder of Palace Beautiful (Matthew 16:18) and its Chief Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). He is the Great Warrior who took on flesh and stood in our place, defeating death and triumphing over the evil one.

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15).

At the supper we are reminded that it is Jesus who redeemed us by His shed blood and broken body on the cross.

And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:19-20).

It is Jesus who brings us near to God.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).

We have the testimony of Paul and others of the household of faith who saw Jesus raised from the dead that this gospel is true:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

It is the testimony of those gathered at the table that our Savior is “a lover of poor pilgrims.” Christ “loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The Apostle John records:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end (John 13:1).

Christ is building His church “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The success of His mission is assured. He will “not dwell in the mountain of Zion alone.”

For God will save Zion
And build the cities of Judah,
That they may dwell there and possess it.
(Psalms 69:35)

He is able to raise up a beggar to be a prince.

He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S,
And He has set the world upon them.
(1 Samuel 2:8)

He raises the poor out of the dust,
And lifts the needy out of the ash heap,
That He may seat him with princes—
With the princes of His people.
(Psalm 113:7-8)

At every point in Bunyan’s description of the supper at Palace Beautiful our attention is drawn to Christ. Jesus is at the heart of the love and joy we share together in the church. Our fellowship is in Him (1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 John 1:3). It is He who rescues us from sin and makes us sons and daughters of His Kingdom. Our lives display the power of His gospel as trophies of His grace and mercy. The table reminds us that we never get beyond our need for the gospel. We need to keep it on our lips and ringing in our ears. It is Jesus we remember as we proclaim His death till He comes (1 Corinthians 11:25-26).

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Come You Thirsty, Come to Christ

The Featured Song for August is a hymn based on Jeremiah 2:13 and Psalm 36. There is nothing more satisfying in life than coming to God, the “Fountain of Living Waters.” All other pursuits will prove empty and dry in comparison.

Check out the lyric video on youtube:

And download the music from bandcamp:

Click here to download lyrics and free sheet music: including song sheet, chord chart and music arranged for classical guitar.

—Ken Puls

 

Worship Piano and Forte

Worship Piano and Forte

Scripture compels us to “Shout to God will loud songs of joy” (Psalm 47:1). But when we lift our voices and play our instruments in praise to God, how loud is too loud? Especially in venues that benefit from amplification and sound systems, is there a right sound level for music in worship? There are many opinions and preferences in our day. Some like the volume turned up; others want it kept at a minimum.

Judgment of volume is both objective and subjective. Objectively volume can be measured with a decibel meter and compared to standards. We certainly want to keep the volume within safe and acceptable ranges for hearing. Also the kind and number of instruments we use will affect the volume. A worship band will put out more sound than a single guitar. A pipe organ can soar to much higher levels than a piano. Subjectively, our judgment can be affected by familiarity and preference. We tend to turn up the volume on songs we know and songs we like. We turn down songs we don’t like. Perception also plays a role in our judgment of volume. A worship band playing at 90 dBA might seem loud to us, while a pipe organ playing at 95 dBA seems glorious.

So when does loud become too loud? While there is no one right level for every venue and every congregation, there are some principles that can help bring clarity to the question of sound levels.

These are five principles to follow in setting volume:

1. Clarity

The first priority is clarity, especially if our music is accompanying text. Aim to make the lyrics clear. In Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” In the parallel verse, Ephesians 5:19, he speaks of “addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Our music carries the Word of God as well as our response to the Word in prayer and praise. We must the deliver and respond to the Word in a way that people can comprehend what is being said. Always when music is joined to text, keep the vocals up in the mix so every word is understandable and able to be heard. In all elements of the service—preaching, praying, singing—aim to make the words clear.

2. Variation

Aim to vary the volume in the service, especially during the music. Don’t make every song loud, and don’t make every song soft. Vary the instrumentation as you are able: sometimes voices alone (no instruments), sometimes with only one or two instruments accompanying, and sometimes with a larger group of musicians. We see in Scripture a wide range of dynamics in worship. There are times for quiet and stillness:

For God alone my soul waits in silence
(Psalms 62:1a, 5a)

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him
(Psalms 37:7a)

Be still, and know that I am God
(Psalms 46:10a)

And there are times to sing aloud and shout for joy:

Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob!
and let your saints shout for joy.
(Psalms 81:1)

And praise with loud clashing cymbals:

Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
(Psalms 150:5 )

In Deuteronomy the people of God were told:

Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 27:9).

In 2 Chronicles:

They swore an oath to the LORD with a loud voice and with shouting and with trumpets and with horns (2 Chronicles 15:14).

At the dedication of Solomon’s temple “120 priests who were trumpeters” join with singers, cymbals and other musical instruments to “make themselves heard in unison” (2 Chronicles 5:12–14).

At the laying of the foundation of the temple in Ezra after the return from exile:

… the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away (Ezra 3:13).

And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away (Nehemiah 12:43).

In Heaven there is both silence and overwhelming sound:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Revelation 8:1).

And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps (Revelation 14:2).

Even God Himself displays a range of dynamics:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
A Mighty One who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you by his love;
He will exult over you with loud singing.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

Our worship should exemplify the full range of dynamics found in God’s Word.

3. Appropriateness

Along with variation, aim for appropriateness with volume. Be loud when you should be loud, and be soft when you should be soft. It is the worship leader’s responsibility to give direction for dynamics in the singing. There are times for restraint, times to pull back or not play at all. And there are times to soar, times to play as David did, with all our might (1 Chronicles 13:8).

The volume should make sense with what we are doing and saying in our music. Some songs require softness and gentleness. Others demand energy and loudness. Some can be sung either soft or loud depending on the moment. Music serves to emotionally express and interpret the text. We must be sensitive to and intentional with dynamics and musical texture so the music can serve the Word and not distract from it. Even in the same song, vary the dynamics. Take time to arrange the song in ways that will allow the music to convey and bring out the meaning of the words. Vary the instrumentation and harmonies to create dynamic contrast. Allow parts of the song to pull back and then build as makes sense with the words. Aim for appropriateness with the volume and instrumentation, so the music is fitting and not frustrating, helpful and not a hindrance.

4. Ministry

Aim to serve the congregation well. While you will not be able to suit everyone’s preference for every song regarding volume, remember you are there to help them voice their songs to God in worship. The church is gathered to give glory to God, not marvel at the sounds and riffs of the musicians. Set levels that will serve the church family—that will draw them in and encourage them to participate.

The music should be loud enough, even when soft, to be heard and to the support the singing of the whole church. Most of the time the music should be soft enough, even when loud, so the congregation can hear themselves singing.

5. Excellence

Finally, aim for excellence. Never substitute volume for preparedness and confidence. Volume (too soft or too loud) can certainly affect congregational singing. But volume isn’t the real killer of congregational participation, uncertainty with the musicians is. Be sure the musicians are well-prepared and the songs are arranged and presented well. Take time to practice and rehearse. Be sure everyone knows the songs and knows the arrangements, knows when to play and when not to play. As the musicians lead out with certainty—hearts and minds in tune to praise, the church family will follow. When the musicians seem unsure or unengaged themselves in worship, the people will hesitate and hold back. There are certainly times to bring loud praise to God, but at all times aim for excellence and give your best.

Sing to him a new song;
Play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
(Psalm 33:3)

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

Conversation with Charity

Then said Charity to Christian, Have you a family? Are you a married man?

Christian: I have a wife and four small children.

Charity: And why did you not bring them along with you?

Christian: Then Christian wept, and said, Oh, how willingly would I have done it! But they were all of them utterly averse to my going on pilgrimage.

Charity: But you should have talked to them, and have endeavored to show them the danger of being behind.

Christian: So I did; and told them also of what God had shown to me of the destruction of our city; “but I seemed to them as one that mocked,” and they did not believe me.

Charity: And did you pray to God that he would bless your counsel to them?

Christian: Yes, and that with much affection. For you must think that my wife and poor children were very dear unto me.

Charity: But did you tell them of your own sorrow, and fear of destruction? For I suppose that destruction was visible enough to you.

Christian: Yes, over, and over, and over. They might also see my fears in my countenance, in my tears, and also in my trembling under the apprehension of the judgment that did hang over our heads; but all was not sufficient to prevail with them to come with me.

Charity: But what could they say for themselves, why they did not come?

Christian: Why, my wife was afraid of losing this world, and my children were given to the foolish delights of youth. So what by one thing, and what by another, they left me to wander in this manner alone.

Charity: But did you not, with your vain life, damp all that you by words used by way of persuasion to bring them away with you?

Christian: Indeed, I cannot commend my life; for I am conscious to myself of many failings therein; I know also that a man by his conversation may soon overthrow what by argument or persuasion he does labor to fasten upon others for their good. Yet this I can say, I was very wary of giving them occasion, by any unseemly action, to make them averse to going on pilgrimage. Yea, for this very thing they would tell me I was too precise, and that I denied myself of things, for their sakes, in which they saw no evil. Nay, I think I may say, that if what they saw in me did hinder them, it was my great tenderness in sinning against God, or of doing any wrong to my neighbor.

Charity: Indeed Cain hated his brother, “because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.” And if your wife and children have been offended with you for this, they thereby show themselves to be implacable to good, and “you have delivered your soul from their blood.”

Charity now joins in the conversation and she begins to question Christian about his home and family. Charity represents our compassion and love for others. She is highly commended in Scripture. Paul teaches:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1, KJV).
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Corinthians 13:13, KJV).

Conversation with CharityChristian arrived at House Beautiful alone and Charity voices her concern for his wife and sons. Christian tells her that his family was opposed to him going on a pilgrimage. Though he warned them “over and over and over” and tried to tell them of the danger of staying behind, they would not listen. Though he was brokenhearted, they rejected his pleas and mock his efforts to persuade them. Christian quotes from Genesis 19:14, comparing the response of his family to that of Lot’s family when he warned them to flee Sodom:

So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had married his daughters, and said, “Get up, get out of this place; for the LORD will destroy this city!” But to his sons-in-law he seemed to be joking (Genesis 19:14).

In the dialog between Charity and Christian, Bunyan offers some helpful lessons in how we should respond to loved-ones who reject the gospel and become offended with us who so desperately want to see them come to Christ.

1. We must pray for and plead with those we love to come to Christ, knowing that God alone can change their hearts.

Christiana was afraid of losing this world. The children were ensnared by the foolish delights of youth. Though Christian loved them, nothing he did could convince them to join him and escape Destruction. In their rejection we see the blindness and darkness of being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). They walked, as Paul describes, “in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart (Ephesians 4:17-18). Christian told them the gospel. He prayed for them. He lived before them. They could see his fears and tears for their sake, yet none of these prevailed. Their blindness was like that of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel saw the hand of God bring them out of Egypt. They saw Pharaoh’s army crushed in the sea. They saw the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, yet many died in unbelief. Even in the days when Jesus walked the earth, many heard the Savior teach and saw Him work miracles. They saw Him crucified, yet did not believe.

Our best efforts cannot break through the hardness and oppression of sin. As Bonar reminds us in the hymn Not What My Hands Have Done, “all my prayers and sighs and tears” will avail nothing without divine strength and power. We can strongly desire the salvation of those we love, but only God can change their hearts. Paul reminds us that it is God in love who triumphs over death and brings life.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:4-9).
And so, we must pray and plead, as Charity compels us, looking to God that He would do what we cannot do—that He would reach down and graciously save.

2. As we pray and plead, we must live before others in a way that commends the gospel and does not discredit it.

We must live the gospel ourselves. We must show love and be quick to repent and ready to forgive. Too easily our own sin trips us up and threatens to undo others around us. Our sin can dampen our testimony and our efforts to bring the gospel to others.
Charity asks: “But did you not, with your vain life, damp all that you by words used by way of persuasion to bring them away with you?” A hundred sound words and wise instructions can be washed away in one slip where we do not heed instruction and follow wisdom ourselves, and fail to live the gospel by repenting and asking forgiveness. We will never live before others perfectly in this life. But even our failings can strengthen our testimony when we respond to sin in right ways: confessing and owning our sin, repenting and seeking reconciliation, and loving and forgiving those who sin against us.

3. We must never give up praying for and pleading with those we love to come to Christ.

Charity commends Christian for following Christ and doing what was right, even though it made him offensive in the eyes of his loved-ones. Charity quotes from 1 John 3:12, comparing their response to that of Cain who was ensnared by “the wicked one and murdered his brother.” Christian did what was right and followed Christ, though it set him at odds with his family. The world is at enmity with God, even when that world is bound up in the hearts of those we love. Though Christian’s family was dear to him, he did not hold back his love to God in order to keep their approval. Rather, he did what was most compassionate and loving toward them. Their souls were in danger of Destruction, so he continued to warn them and plead with them to go with him.

Charity concludes with a quote from Ezekiel 3:19 reminding us of the role of a watchman:

Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul (Ezekiel 3:19).

We must stay at the wall and sound the alarm, whether our warnings are heeded or not. We must not give up, not step down, not keep quiet so not to cause offense. If the danger is real—and it is—we must continue to plead and to pray. We do not know how or when God may choose to use our testimony and answer our prayers.
Concerning Christian’s wife and sons, Bunyan relates the rest of the story in Part 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Though Christian came to the end of his journey and died without seeing his family repent and come to Christ, his testimony remained. His family remembered his faith in Christ and his love for them. His prayers were, in God’s time, answered. In Part 2 Christiana and her four sons are convicted by their sin and how badly they treated Christian. They flee Destruction to follow Christ and make their own pilgrimage to the Celestial City.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Conversation with Prudence

Then Prudence thought good to ask him a few questions, and desired his answer to them.

Prudence: Do you not think sometimes of the country where you came from?

Christian: Yes, but with much shame and detestation: “Truly, if I had been mindful of that country from whence I came out, I might have had opportunity to have returned; but now I desire a better country, that is, an heavenly.”

Prudence: Are you ever enticed by some of the things that then you were accustomed to do?

Christian: Yes, but greatly against my will; especially my inward and carnal cogitations, with which all my countrymen, as well as myself, were delighted. But now all those things are my grief; and might I but choose mine own things, I would choose never to think of those things anymore. But when I would be doing of that which is best, that which is worst is with me.

Prudence: Do you not find sometimes, as if those things were vanquished, which at other times are your perplexity?

Christian: Yes, but that is seldom; but they are to me golden hours in which such things happen to me.

Prudence: Can you remember by what means you find your annoyances, at times, as if they were vanquished?

Christian: Yes, when I think what I saw at the cross, that will do it; and when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it; also when I look into the roll that I carry in my bosom, that will do it; and when my thoughts wax warm about where I am going to, that will do it.

Prudence: And what is it that makes you so desirous to go to Mount Zion?

Christian: Why, there I hope to see him alive that did hang dead on the cross; and there I hope to be rid of all those things that to this day are in me an annoyance to me. There, they say, there is no death. And there I shall dwell with such company as I like best. For, to tell you truth, I love him, because I was by him eased of my burden; and I am weary of my inward sickness. I am eager to be where I shall die no more, and with the company that shall continually cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

PrudenceThe conversation at Palace Beautiful continues with Prudence asking Christian some questions. Prudence represents our carefulness to walk in the wisdom and truth of God’s Word. To be prudent is to live and act with discretion and to exercise good judgment. Prudence is the practical outworking of wisdom. Christian prudence is godly wisdom in action, as we apply God’s Word to what we think, say and do.

Piety began the discussion by drawing out Christian’s story and testimony for the benefit of all in the Palace; Prudence probes deeper. She presses Christian into a more weighty conversation that explores his inner motivation and struggles. Her questions focus on:

    1. His inward battles with former lusts
    2. His fortitude to fend off carnal thoughts and worldly temptations
    3. His strategy to guard his heart and mind against sin

Earlier in his pilgrimage Christian had been careless and unwise. Rather than heeding truth and keeping in the Way, he was swayed for a time by the advice of Worldly Wiseman. The answers that Christian now gives to Prudence’s questions show us the progress that he has made on his journey in gaining spiritual wisdom.

First she asks him if he ever entertains thoughts about his former way of life: “Do you not think sometimes of the country where you came from?” Christian formerly resided in the town of Destruction, but when he thinks of that place now, it is with “shame and detestation.” Israel sinned in the Old Testament when their hearts were “turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). But Christian is intent to leave behind his old way of life. He desires “a better country” quoting from Hebrews:

And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:15-16).

Prudence then asks if he is ever enticed by some of the things that he once was accustomed to do in his former way of life. Christian admits that he struggles, but he truly desires now to do what is right. He does not want carnal thoughts to disturb and trouble him. Those thoughts in which he once found sinful pleasure are a grief to him now. He acknowledges the ongoing battle in his heart against remaining sin.

If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice (Romans 7:16-19).

Sometimes evil thoughts are brought down and subdued. At other times they rise up to entangle and agitate. Christian confesses to Prudence that the hours when his thoughts are free from carnal temptations, while too few, are like gold to him.

Prudence then asks Christian about his strategy to guard against carnal thoughts. What means are most effective in vanquishing besetting sin?

Christian mentions the value of meditating on God’s Word. He ponders the truth of Scripture and preaches it to himself. He anchors his thoughts in the promises of the gospel: the cross of Christ (the place of deliverance), the imputed righteousness of Christ (the coat he now wears), the assurance of salvation (his roll that he carries close to his heart), and his destination (eternal life in heaven).

Finally Prudence asks him why he is so eager to reach heaven. Christian is anchored in God’s Word and aiming for eternity. He has embarked on a journey and understands that this world is not his home. It is filled with sin, death, trials and afflictions, and it can wearisome as we press on day by day. We must remember that we are just passing through. Christian longs for the joys that await us in glory:

    • There we will see Christ face to face (1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 22:4).
    • There we will be free, not just from sin’s condemnation and power, but from its presence (Revelation 21:27, 22:3).
    • There we will have life eternal; there will be no more death (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4)
    • There we will be in the company of angels (Revelation 4:8) and the redeemed (Philippians 3:20) forever.

In the next post the conversation will continue with Charity.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Prompting Our Prayers

What can we do to be more consistent and more abundant in our prayers? Here are five practical ways you can bolster your praying.

1. Look for reasons to pray

as God burdens you
as you remember truth, Scripture
as you hear of requests from others
when you face difficulties and decisions
when you receive blessing and prosper

We live in a fallen world; we don’t have to look far to find reason to cry out to God. Look for those reasons to pray. Are you facing difficulty? Are brothers and sister in Christ facing difficulty? Are you facing decisions? Has God blessed you and prospered you?
As Scripture testifies, all of live is an occasion that should drive us to prayer. Ask God to make you sensitive to occasions for prayer and more intentional in going to Him in prayer. Prayer doesn’t always have to be long or formal or even well-thought out, but prayer should be frequent, spontaneous, and from the heart.

2. Try to begin and end the day in prayer

Make it a practice of seeking God with your first thoughts as you awake and your last thoughts as you fall asleep. In your first waking moments, thank Him for giving you a new day, for keeping you through the night. As you drift off to sleep, turn your thoughts to God. You will not offend God by taking to Him when you are tired or even by falling asleep in the middle of your prayer. There is, in fact no better way to prepare yourself for rest than by crawling into the arms of God as you pillow your head at night. Make it a practice as you doze off at night to thank the Lord for bringing you through the day. Trust Him! Set your mind at ease acknowledging that He is good and in control of all things. Sleep is a wonderful gift of God that reminds us that we are not God and we are not in control. There are regular intervals when we are out and the world goes on without our involvement. Sleep is a wonderful reminder that God is God and we are not. Use those times of retiring and rising as prompts to prayer.

3. Take opportunity with other believers to pray

Use the times of fellowship you have with other Christians as occasions for prayer. We gather together  as a church family at times specifically for prayer, but even when you visit during the week, or have occasion to see one another, or speak to one another on the phone, take time to stop and pray, especially as your hear of needs and blessings. Pause to intercede and to praise.

4. Set aside time during the day to be alone and pray

Make opportunities for yourself to be alone for prayer. Go for a walk; go to a place where you can be by yourself for a time. Unplug. Turn off your TV, your computer, your phone—and pray. You may need to take advantage of times you are already by yourself: driving to or home from work in you car, taking a bath or a shower. Seek times to be by yourself that you can give to God. Ask God to create time for you and prompt you to pray. When God in His providence removes you from the presence of other people (by sickness or by other means), use the opportunity to seek Him.

5. Use everyday tasks to prompt your prayers

As people we are often habitual and very predictable. We do the same things over and over. We have our routines and daily practices. These can work against us if they are sinful or harmful and hard to break. But many routines are actually quite useful in helping us navigate and manage our day. And these can be enlisted and established as prompts to prayer.

One to whom we can look as an example of this is General Stonewall Jackson. Jackson was a general in the Confederate army during the civil war, and he was a devout believer. He took the command to “pray without ceasing” as a rule of life.  Here is an excerpt about his life written by his wife:

[A] friend once asked him what was his understanding of the Bible command to be “instant in prayer” and to “pray without ceasing.” “I can give you,” he said, “my idea of it by illustration, if you will allow it, and will not think that I am setting myself up as a model for others. I have so fixed the habit in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without lifting my heart to God in thanks and prayer for the water of life. Then, when we take our meals, there is the grace. Whenever I drop a letter in the post-office, I send a petition along with it for God’s blessing upon its mission and the person to whom it is sent. When I break the seal of a letter just received, I stop to ask God to prepare me for its contents and make it a messenger of good. When I go to my classroom and await the arrangement of the cadets in their places, that is my time to intercede with God for them. And so in every act of the day, I have made the practice habitual.”

[from Life and Letters of “Stonewall” Jackson by Mary Anna Jackson (1892; reprint, Harrisburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1995), 72-73.]

Water GlassJackson took even the menial tasks of life and associated them with prayer: Getting out of bed in the morning, getting dressed in the morning, getting a drink of water, eating a meal, getting ready to teach a class—all of these became prompts to prayer.
I encourage you tonight, as we come to a time of prayer, to be thoughtful and creative in ways that you could begin prompting yourself to pray. Don’t wait for time of need. Don’t wait for circumstances or trials to bring you to your knees. Make your life a life of prayer. Look for signposts in your life that will continually and consistently direct your thoughts to God. We can learn to pray without ceasing!

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study entitled “When Should We Pray?” taught at Grace Baptist Church on July 2, 2014.

Conversation with Piety

So when he was come in and sat down, they gave him something to drink, and consented together, that until supper was ready, some of them should have some particular discourse with Christian, for the best improvement of time; and they appointed Piety, and Prudence, and Charity to discourse with him; and thus they began:

Piety: Come, good Christian, since we have been so loving to you, to receive you in our house this night, let us, if perhaps we may better ourselves thereby, talk with you of all things that have happened to you in your pilgrimage.
Christian: With a very good will, and I am glad that you are so well disposed.
Piety: What moved you at first to betake yourself to a pilgrim’s life?
Christian: I was driven out of my native country by a dreadful sound that was in mine ears: to wit, that unavoidable destruction did attend me, if I abode in that place where I was.
Piety: But how did it happen that you came out of your country this way?
Christian: It was as God would have it; for when I was under the fears of destruction, I did not know whither to go; but by chance there came a man, even to me, as I was trembling and weeping, whose name is Evangelist, and he directed me to the wicket-gate, which else I should never have found, and so set me into the way that has led me directly to this house.
Piety: But did you not come by the house of the Interpreter?
Christian: Yes, and did see such things there, the remembrance of which will stick by me as long as I live; especially three things: to wit, how Christ, in despite of Satan, maintains His work of grace in the heart; how the man had sinned himself quite out of hopes of God’s mercy; and also the dream of him that thought in his sleep the day of judgment was come.
Piety: Why, did you hear him tell his dream?
Christian: Yes, and a dreadful one it was. I thought it made my heart ache as he was telling of it; but yet I am glad I heard it.
Piety: Was that all that you saw at the house of the Interpreter?
Christian: No; he took me and had me where he showed me a stately palace, and how the people were clad in gold that were in it; and how there came a venturous man and cut his way through the armed men that stood in the door to keep him out, and how he was bid to come in, and win eternal glory. I thought those things did ravish my heart! I would have stayed at that good man’s house a twelvemonth, but that I knew I had further to go.
Piety: And what else did you see in the way?
Christian: Saw! Why, I went but a little further, and I saw one, as I thought in my mind, hang bleeding upon the tree; and the very sight of Him made my burden fall off my back, (for I groaned under a very heavy burden,) but then it fell down from off me. It was a strange thing to me, for I never saw such a thing before; yea, and while I stood looking up, for then I could not forbear looking, three Shining Ones came to me. One of them testified that my sins were forgiven me; another stripped me of my rags, and gave me this broidered coat which you see; and the third set the mark which you see in my forehead, and gave me this sealed roll. (And with that he plucked it out of his bosom.)
Piety: But you saw more than this, did you not?
Christian: The things that I have told you were the best; yet some other matters I saw, as, namely: I saw three men, Simple, Sloth, and Presumption, lie asleep a little out of the way, as I came, with irons upon their heels; but do you think I could awake them? I also saw Formality and Hypocrisy come tumbling over the wall, to go, as they pretended, to Zion, but they were quickly lost, even as I myself did tell them; but they would not believe. But above all, I found it hard work to get up this hill, and as hard to come by the lions’ mouths, and truly if it had not been for the good man, the porter that stands at the gate, I do not know but that after all I might have gone back again; but now I thank God I am here, and I thank you for receiving of me.

Conversation at Palace BeautifulWhen Christian arrived at Palace Beautiful he was greeted and interviewed by the Porter and Discretion. When they were convinced that Christian’s testimony was sincere, they invited him into the family, into the household of faith. In this portion of the story Bunyan highlights the joys of Christian fellowship and value of church membership. At Palace Beautiful Christian is refreshed from his journey. Members of the family engage him in gospel conversations to pass the time in a profitable way.

The first to converse with Christian is Piety. Piety represents our personal devoutness and devotion to God. It is our earnest and sincere desire to love God and to remain faithful to Him. Piety asks Christian to share his testimony, all the things that have happened to him thus far on his pilgrimage. She inquires about:

    1. How he first heard the gospel and became a pilgrim
    2. What he learned in the House of the Interpreter (the Word of God)
    3. His salvation at the cross and his hope in Christ
    4. Dangers and distractions that he has faced and overcome

Piety’s interest in hearing Christian is that “perhaps we may better ourselves thereby.” In other words, by hearing Christian’s story of how he escaped Destruction and found faith in Christ, others will be strengthened in their faith and encouraged to press on in their journey. By hearing what he has learned from God’s Word, others will be edified and helped. Gospel conversation magnifies the goodness and faithfulness of God as He is at work in our lives and draws out our hope and confidence in him for the benefit of others.
In the next post the conversation will continue with Prudence.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Music at Grace

Music at Grace

Often I am asked about the music we sing at Grace Baptist Church. Are the lyrics available? Where can I find a recording? How can I get the sheet music?

The music we sing at Grace comes from many songwriters and composers, embracing new songs of our day as well as cherished hymns of the faith. Some of our music is composed and arranged in house. The rest comes from many other sources. Most of the songs are available online.

Each year I post a list of 150 titles of our current and favorite music for worship. The list includes composers, publishers and (for some titles) links to help find the music online.

Here is the list of our current and favorite music for worship thus far in 2014.

Music and Resources for Worship