The Strange Sounds of Praise

A Sufferer’s Introduction to the Psalms

The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 ancient Hebrew praise songs that were composed by numerous writers over hundreds of years.

That’s a true one-sentence summary, but it’s also incomplete — woefully incomplete. It leaves out the most important dimension of what the psalms are.

So, let’s briefly explore where these songs came from, why they have been preserved for thousands of years, and how they model, sometimes in surprising ways, what the author of Hebrews calls “acceptable worship” (Hebrews 12:28). Then we will be able to add in the crucial dimension to our one-sentence summary — and perhaps challenge some of our assumptions for what makes worship “acceptable” in God’s eyes.

What Is a Psalm?

Why do we call these Hebrew poems “psalms”? The word psalm is an English transliteration of the Greek word psalmos, which means “song.” And psalmos is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “song.” That’s one way we know these poems were written to be sung. The word appears in many of the titles of individual psalms.

In my one-sentence summary, I referred to the whole collection of psalms as “praise songs.” Some obviously fit that description, like Psalm 135 (“Praise the Lord! Praise the name of the Lord . . .”), but some psalms don’t sound like the praise songs most of us sing in church, like Psalm 10 (“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”). So, is it accurate to call them all praise songs?

The reason it’s right to call all the psalms in sacred Scripture “praise songs” is because the ancient Hebrews did. The Hebrew title for this book is tehillîm, which means “praises.” This gives us a critical insight: the original singers of these songs considered the breadth of these expressions to all be praise to God. And if our ancient forebears in the faith had a broader definitional range for what qualified as praise than we modern worshipers do, it seems to me that some reevaluation on our part would be good, especially since these praise songs were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Songs Written to Remember

These songs were written to provide God’s people collective expressions of worship through singing. They are means by which believers in every era can teach and admonish one another through song in order to stir up the adoration and thankfulness of faith (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). And just as important (integral, actually, to achieving this), these songs were written to help God’s people remember.

Keep in mind that during the centuries when the Psalms were written — and, really, up to just a few centuries ago — the vast majority of any population was illiterate. The most important information had to be memorized. And recent studies have since confirmed what history has demonstrated, that among the most effective human mnemonic devices ever discovered is combining words (especially poetically arranged words) with a pleasing, patterned musical melody. Songs have always helped us remember.

“Songs have always helped us remember.”

Some psalms were written to mark special occasions (Psalm 20), or to recall pivotal moments in Israel’s history (Psalm 78). Others were crucial in helping the ancient Hebrews remember who God truly was (Psalm 103), who they, as a people, truly were (Psalm 95), how intimately aware God was of each individual (Psalm 139), what happened at key moments in their history (Psalm 135), why they had good reason to thank God (Psalm 136), and why, in spite of the toil and trouble of life, they had cause to give God exuberant, loud praise (Psalm 147).

The reason this book is still beloved by millions today, though, is that so many psalms were written to help God’s children remember a crucial truth that God (the Son) later articulated this way: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Sacrifices of Praise

God’s people throughout redemptive history have been called to “hope in God” (Psalm 43:5) while living as full participants in a world full of suffering. Which means we all live much of our lives “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

That’s why there are so many psalms of lament in this sacred book. And it is in these darker psalms that we find what might be for us the most surprising expressions of “acceptable worship,” because they give worshipful expression to a wide range of human misery — the kinds we all experience — with its accompanying fear, grief, and confusion.

These ancient Hebrew composers wrote with sometimes startling honesty and transparency about their faith struggles. They wrote about feeling abandoned by God (Psalm 22), suffering severe illness (Psalm 41), fearing great danger (Psalm 54), almost giving up on God out of disillusionment (Psalm 73), experiencing a faith crisis (Psalm 77), enduring chronic, lifelong, severe depression (Psalm 88), feeling dismayed over God seemingly neglecting to keep his promises (Psalm 89), seething with anger over another’s treachery (Psalm 109), and more. They also wrote candidly about grievous sins they committed (Psalm 51) and being on the receiving end of God’s painful, fatherly discipline (Psalm 39). And these authors all wrote their deeply personal, even exposing, songs for the benefit of all God’s people, since some members at any given time would be experiencing something similar.

“Every psalm encourages the readers to believe God’s promises over their perceptions.”

All these psalms of lament were considered “praise songs” by the ancient Hebrews. Why? Because every psalm, whether sorrowful or rejoicing, encourages the singers (or readers) to “trust in the Lord” (Psalm 37:3), to believe God’s promises over their perceptions. And whenever a believer exercises and expresses true faith in God — that is, “the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” — God receives it as “acceptable worship,” as a “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15).

It’s interesting to note that in the structure of most of these darker psalms, as well as in the general structure of the whole book, there is a progression from fear to faith, from doubt and discouragement to hope in God, from sin to repentance and forgiveness, from sorrow to joy. The Psalms were written to help us shift our focus from ourselves and our circumstances to the God of hope, who fills us with joy and peace as we believe him (Romans 15:13).

Does Our Worship Sound Like Psalms?

Now we can fill out our one-sentence summary:

The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 ancient Hebrew praise songs that were composed by numerous writers over hundreds of years in order to help God’s people remember in every circumstance that God is the only source of the salvation they most need and the joy and peace they most long for, so that they will always put their full hope in him.

The more that added dimension is an experienced reality for us, the more we engage in “acceptable worship.”

I can’t help but think that we Western Christians should examine how closely our definitions of “acceptable worship” align with what we see modeled in the Psalms. In particular, does the thematic range of songs we’re willing to sing (or for leaders, allow people to sing) during corporate worship strike the same notes as the psalms?

A dangerous temptation we face, especially in America, is being too influenced by our consumer-driven culture in how we design our corporate worship events and what songs we incentivize modern praise-song composers to write. Christian worship music is a large and profitable industry. Which means our modern psalmists in many cases (though certainly not all) are being incentivized to compose songs for quick mass-consumption (to score a hit), rather than out of real, deep, complex spiritual experience. The predictable result is a fairly narrow thematic range and relatively shallow lyrical content.

What’s best for God’s people is often not the same as what sells the best and attracts the most. It’s what provides fresh worshipful expressions for the wide range of complex and sometimes deeply painful experiences God’s people go through in order to help them remember in every circumstance that God is the only source of the salvation they most need and the joy and peace they most long for, so that they will always put their full hope in him.

Thank God that he has preserved the book of Psalms for us all these years. For they continue their fruitful ministry of providing us sacred songs of praise as we seek to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). And they continue their fruitful ministry of modeling for us what worship looks like when we lose our bearings.