Sermons and Articles | Ken Puls
Sing a New Song
Series: Thoughts on Worship
Call to Worship — Psalm 96
Open your Bibles to Psalm 98. In our time together this evening I want to look specifically at one phrase—one command—in this psalm. This command is found at the beginning of the first verse: "Oh sing to the LORD a new song!" We will look briefly at an overview of the psalm and then focus more directly on the opening words. Let's begin by reading the psalm together. Hear the Word of God.
May God bless the reading of His Word.
I. An Overview of Psalm 98
Psalm 98 begins in with a command addressed to the people of God: "O Sing to the LORD a new song!" The remainder of verse 1 and verses 2 and 3 then give us six reasons to sing.
These are reasons for the church to sing! This is cause for a new song! But the psalm does not end with verse 3. In verses 4–6 the command is amplified.
The ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. This speaks of the spread of the gospel to the nations. As the truth of what Christ has accomplished on the cross is spread to the nations in the proclamation of the gospel, "all the ends of the earth will witness the salvation of our God." We see this fulfilled in the New Testament.
This psalm is about the victorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He came to rescue and redeem. He came to conquer hearts and claim the nations. Christ is King, not just of Israel, but of all the earth. And so all the earth is to shout joyfully to the Lord. All the earth is to break forth in song and shout joyfully before the King.
In verse 7 the praise is then joined by all creation—the sea, the people, the rivers, the hills—all commanded to be joyful together.
Why should all creation be joyful? Why burst into song? The last verse gives us the answer. It is Christ! He is coming. He is the King and He is bringing and establishing righteousness. This is the force behind the ongoing command the opens this psalm.
II. The Command of Psalm 98
In light of the glorious rule of Christ as He goes forth to conquer the nations and display the power of His salvation, we are told in verse 1:
This command is not unique to this psalm. It is found 9 times in the Scripture—5 more, beside Psalm 98, are in the psalms:
The command is echoed in—
In the New Testament, the command appears twice in the book of Revelation:
So what exactly is a "new song"?
In light of what God is accomplishing on this earth in fulfilling His purposes in redemption and judgment and glory—how are we to sing a "new song"? How is a "new song" new?
I want to show you tonight 7 elements that can make a "new song."
Each generation, each culture adds its own voice. We have considered before elements that shape the voice of a church in worship; but major among these are the people God brings together. Everyone whom God brings together in a local church adds and contributes to the voice of that church.
We see the promise of this in Psalm 98. The new song is heard when all the earth shouts joyfully to the Lord. We hear the fulfillment of this in Revelation when those from every tribe and nation and tongue join before the throne to sing a new song in praise to the Lamb.
The Lord adds people to His church—new living stones that take their place in the house of God—new members of the body of Christ that serve and impact the rest of the body.
As new believers and new members learn the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs of the church, there is a new song—fresh praise born out of changed hearts and lives.
We are to make known what God has done through our singing:
As God gives us children, we seek to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Part of our teaching truth to our kids is instructing them in praise and worship. We are to teach our children to sing the praises of God, to acknowledge Him and honor Him through psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
One of the ways we sing a new song is with new voices as the gospel goes out and conquers hearts and brings people to repent of sin and come to Christ and bow down at His throne.
As we grow in our knowledge of truth, we have fresh understanding and application.
The psalms teach us to sing, not just with passion and emotion, but also with understanding.
As God teaches us from His Word and we learn more and more truth—the words we sing can be seen in new light and fresh ways. You may have experienced this before. You learn a song or maybe sing a song that you already know, but you realize that it is expressing just what God has been showing you in His Word—and the song becomes precious to you—it becomes part of you and your praise.
William Cowper expressed this in a hymn composed in 1779. He wrote:
Songs can take on new meaning as God gives us more light and understanding of the truth. We sing a new song when we sing in light of the understanding He has granted us to follow Christ and walk in His ways.
Songs become meaningful as we sing them in the midst of joys and trials—they teach us, comfort us, remind us. As God brings us through various events and circumstances, we sing with new insight and perspective.
We saw an example of this in 2004 when we learned the song "Made Me Glad" a few weeks before Hurricane Charley. The song uses words from the psalms:
Many of us sang the song in the midst of the storm and in the days that followed, rejoicing in God's goodness in bringing us safely through. For us that song has strong associations with that event as we lived its truth. It became for us a new song to celebrate direct and specific deliverance.
We sing a new song when we embrace the words as our own and make them our voice and our praise—when they express our hopes and comforts.
We need to pay attention to what we sing and voice our songs in light of our joys and trials. We see this all through the psalms as David and others praised God for specific answers to prayer and called out to Him in specific times of need.
We need also to make new associations—to pay attention to what God is doing in us and around us—to acknowledge Him and look for Him—to pursue Him in all things and include Him in all things. We need to be living and learning and growing as believers in Christ—applying and living the gospel every day.
If we are not caring for our souls and pursuing spiritual growth, there is a real danger. If we are not careful, we can fall into a mode where we are just coasting. We just assume the truth rather than pursue it. If we are not meditating on the truth as we should—not applying it, not looking for it, not digging into it for a better understanding—a casual sameness can settle in. We go to church and its not a big deal. We half-heartedly sing and they are the same old songs. We hear the praying and they are the same old prayers.
This is why worship can become dull and worn to some. If we don't listen or heed the truth, if there is no understanding, no new associations, we will lack a new song.
Fresh praise is born out of new understandings, new applications and new associations.
As the gospel has spread to new generations and in new places, new musical forms have developed.
We are commanded in Ephesians and in Colossians to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in our worship and praise of God; but the form these have taken throughout the history of the church has varied greatly.
Go back for a moment, about 400 years, to the arrival of the pilgrims in America. What was music like in the churches at the time of the founding and settling of colonies?
Their singing sounded different from ours. When the pilgrims and first settlers arrived in America, church music was very simple, mostly the singing of unison, unaccompanied metrical psalms. The metrical psalm was the primary musical form that came out the reformation in Geneva and made its way to England and eventually to America.
Some of the metrical psalms we still sing today.
The metrical psalm was the prominent musical form until the early 1700s when a young man from England named Isaac Watts began writing music.
God used Isaac Watts to significantly impact the church music of his day.
Watts began writing poetry as a boy. When he was about 5 years old, his mom was cleaning the house and found several poems he had written. They were so good she did not believe that he had actually written them. He went to his room and made up a poem based on acrostic of his own name to prove to her that he was indeed the author.
As a teenager Watts became concerned with the poor state of music in the church. Most of the singing in his day was of unaccompanied metrical psalms. The intent and content were good—they wanted to honor God and they were singing the Word of God, but unfortunately, the quality of the music and practice of singing in many places was very poor.
Metrical psalmody had flourished in the French language. When Calvin set out to create the Genevan Psalter and set all 150 psalms in French, he had in his congregation among the refugees some of the most gifted poets and musicians in Europe. The result was beautiful, memorable and singable compositions. When metrical psalmody came over into English, however, unfortunately the level of craftsmanship was not there. With some exceptions, many of the attempts to set psalms into English were of poor quality and hard to sing.
Another difficulty churches faced was a practice of singing called "lining-out." Most in the congregations could not read (English or music) and Psalters (printed music) were usually not available for everyone in the congregation. So one of the leaders in the church would sing (or say) a phrase of the song and then the congregation would repeat it. This interrupted the flow of the song and made the songs difficult to follow and sing.
Isaac Watts heard the music of his day, and he was not opposed to singing psalms—but as one who loved and wrote poetry, he realized that many of the attempts to fit words to meter were poor and unsingable. He also took exception with those who claimed that the church should only sing the words of the 150 psalms in the book of Psalms. Watts believed that the music of the church should be of Christ. He believed that if we are going to sing the psalms, we ought to sing them well and we ought to sing them in light of the gospel with new words that clearly show how they speak of Christ.
On one particular evening, while coming home from church, young Isaac was disparaging the music he had heard that day. His dad became frustrated with him, turned around and challenged him—if you don't approve of what we sing, why don't you write something better?
Watts did exactly that, and in the course of life to follow composed over 600 hymns and became known in years to come as the father of English hymnody. Watts published his first collection of hymns in 1707, called Hymns and Spiritual Songs. It was received so well that by 1709 he followed with a second edition.
His success was not with his critics, however. He was accused by many of abandoning psalm singing. He answered his critics with a collection in 1719 called: The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.
It included a setting of Psalm 98 that we have looked at this evening. Watts wanted people to see and hear and understand Christ in this psalm. He had two main concerns in the hymns he composed:
And so he read verses 4-6:
And then he composed:
He read verses 7 and 8:
He responded with:
He read verses 1–3:
And he wrote:
He read verse 9:
And he concluded his setting with:
Watts wrote this and many other beautiful hymns like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" that we still sing and cherish today as treasures of church music. But in their day, they were new songs.
About the time Watts began writing and publishing his new hymns, the Lord was bringing about a revival. The First Great Awakening arose in the 1730s and 1740s with the preaching of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton and continued to spread through the Colonies with the preaching of George Whitefield. George Whitefield heard the hymns of Isaac Watts and loved them. He began singing them and teaching as he traveled through England and the Colonies preaching.
Many churches embraced hymns and they became the prominent musical form through the 1700s.
The next new style came with the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. The awakening started in Logan and Bourbon counties in Kentucky where people would travel to attend outdoor meetings called Camp Meetings. Often these meetings would last for weeks as people would refuse to leave and they would stay to hear more preaching and teaching.
Many who were converted did not know the hymns of the church, but they wanted very much to join in the singing and the worship. So a new form arose called the Camp Meeting Song. These were short, simple songs, very repetitive to encourage people to participate, much like the Praise Choruses of the mid 1900s. Most were very personal and subjective. Some were added as refrains to existing hymn.
In the late 1800s the Camp Meeting Song gave way to the Gospel Song and Gospel Hymns, beginning with Philip Bliss and Ira Sankey. The YMCA and the Sunday School movement were introduced in the mid 1800s as part of an effort to reach young people for Christ. Also around 1870 evangelistic teams began to travel around the country. They would often include a preacher and a song leader who would begin each meeting with about 30 minutes of singing. They included evangelist Dwight Moody and "revival song leader" Ira Sankey. Other notable teams that followed included Billy Sunday and Homer Rodenheaver (1909–1929), and (beginning in 1947) Billy Graham and Cliff Barrow.
These efforts introduced the Gospel Song to churches. The songs were rhythmically livelier than the older hymns. They would include songs like.
The Gospel Song continued as a prominent style through the mid 1900s.
Other musical forms have followed as God providentially brought a new song.
Maranatha Music was formed in 1971 at Calvary Chapel to publish and promote the Praise Choruses and Scripture Songs of the 60s and 70s—songs like "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God" and "Be Exalted O God."
God has given us fresh praise in our day for which we can be grateful—songs like "In Christ Alone" and "Grace Unmeasured" and many others. We sing a new song as new musical forms are created as God conquers new generations and new cultures with the power of the gospel. It is worthy noting, when you look at the history of the church new forms tend to be pronounced during times of true revival and spiritual awakening—when God brings a wave of fresh voices and fresh praise.
Along with new musical forms, there have also been new instruments introduced to accompany God's people in worship. Let me give you one example—the piano.
The piano was invented early in the 1700s. It became a popular instrument in the home for family singing, but it was the church organ that became established in many churches in the United States and carried the voice of the church in worship through the 1800s.
Pianos were used frequently in Sunday School and youth meetings at church, but not in worship. That all changed with the evangelistic crusades of the early 1900s. As the crusades popularized the gospel songs, many churches wanted to included gospel songs in their worship. The only problem was the accompaniment.
The church organ served well to undergird the stately, majestic hymns, but it did not serve well to keep up with the lively, bouncing rhythm of the contemporary songs.
The people could sing well in Sunday School, but when they tried to sing the newer songs in the church service with the organ, they just didn't sound the same and were hard to follow.
One of the evangelistic teams found the answer. Charles Alexander, who also popularized having a choir sing on the platform and sit behind the preacher, began using a piano to accompany the singing. He was a gifted pianist and he demonstrated how the piano could serve well to accompany the contemporary music of the day.
Many churches were reluctant at first. The organ was the only instrument they had known to carry their voice in worship. But gradually in the 1900s (200 years after its invention) the piano became the primary instrument of worship. In the early 1900s you could tell a church that had contemporary singing in their service by noticing that the piano had been moved into the sanctuary.
This is just one example. At one time every song, every musical instrument, and every style of music was new. Today it is electronic keyboards, guitars and percussion that have joined the piano to provided the needed support to undergird and express the fresh music of our day.
The command to sing a new song is a command for every generation and every culture that God invades with the gospel. We are to compose and add our own words to the voice of the church, enriching its heritage and depth.
We sing a new song when we compose new songs to express our worship in our own words. We sang an example this evening:
I wrote the words to this hymn in 1995. The tune is a setting of a melody by Mozart from the late 1700s.
We also can compose new music to express our worship. This can be new music set to new words or it can be new music set to old words. Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs of the past can be sung in fresh ways with new music and new arrangements.
Let me give you one example. One of the leading composers of church music in the 1800s was Lowell Mason (1792–1872). Mason established the Boston Academy of Music in 1834. He also introduced music into the public schools in Boston and then New York.
Lowell Mason loved the hymns of Isaac Watts, but he wanted to sing them to a more contemporary sound. He attended a concert of George Handel's Messiah and heard one of the selections from Messiah: "Lift Up Your Heads, O You Gates." Handel's tune was stuck in his head for several days and he put the first few notes with Watts' hymn "Joy to the World." This gave him the idea to write a fresh tune for the hymn.
He set it with the contemporary beat of the day: "And heaven and nature sing…"
He took an older text and set it to a new sound.
We sang another example of existing words sung to a new tune this evening.
So how can we put this in practice?
What can we do to obey this command and sing a new song to the Lord? Let me close this evening with five brief applications.
Ask God to help you sing from the heart and join in the music of the church. Ask God to give you understanding of truth and spiritual growth—to deepen your knowledge of Him.
Pay attention to what you sing. Notice the words and the tunes. Mine the music we sing for doctrine—look for the truth and rejoice in it as you sing.
Take the truth you are learning and songs we are singing and find the connections. Ponder the words—compare them with Scripture—sing with understanding.
God has given a wealth of new sound music in our day. Many are writing good biblical, theologically rich words with fitting and moving tunes. Learn the new songs of our day.
Join in with heart and mind and soul and strength to the singing of God's praise.
The praise of God is much too glorious and expansive to be contained by one musical form or one group of instruments or one musical collection, or one people or culture.
Let's joyfully add our voice to God's glory and offer a new song in our day to the Lord.
Let us pray.
©2007 Ken Puls