This sermon is part of the sermon series "Lessons from the Psalms". See series.
I've heard before that if you want to get along with people, you ought to avoid discussing politics and religion. But a list of taboo topics for preachers probably looks a little different. I suppose politics might be on it, but not religion. If you are a preacher, and you plan on preaching from the Bible, the subject of religion is hard to keep away from.
No, I suppose if someone made a list of controversial topics that preachers might want to ignore, the list would begin with the subject of worship. There is no more contentious issue in the church today. We used to fight about theology. Today our arguments are over musical style and what kind of instruments we should use to worship God.
But if a preacher is planning to preach from the Psalms, the topic of worship is hard to ignore. And when we come to Psalm 150, the capstone Psalm in this book, it is impossible to ignore, because Psalm 150 is all about worship. And not only is it about worship, but it's about the music of worship. This Psalm offers a much needed reminder that worship is bigger than our personal preferences.
Worship originates with God.
Worship is bigger than our personal preferences, because it originates with God. The direction in this Psalm is counterintuitive. We would expect it to move from earth to heaven, because we usually think of worship as originating within us. Indeed, that may be one of the reasons we are so conflicted about it. We see worship as something personal. We treat worship as if it were the expression of one's own personal devotion to God, so when something gets in the way of that—the musical style, for example, or some form of expression that is outside of our comfort zone—then we don't really feel like it's our worship at all; it's someone else's idea of worship, not ours.
But the Psalmist's portrait of worship moves in the opposite direction. Instead of starting on earth and resounding to the heavens, it starts in heaven and descends to earth. Verse 1 reads, "Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens." Praise begins in God's sanctuary, in his dwelling place in Heaven. The second phrase, "praise him in his mighty heavens," is literally, "praise him in the firmament of his might." This is the vault of the heavens. In biblical imagery God is usually portrayed as being above the firmament while the firmament displays God's glory. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." This is praise that resounds throughout the domain of God. It is echoed by the rest of creation.
From there (verses 3-5) the theme is taken up by those on earth, praising God with a variety of instruments and with dancing until the final verse, which calls on "everything that has breath" to praise the Lord. In other words, the trajectory of this worship is one that begins with God in heaven and descends from there to earth.
This is the same trajectory of worship that we find described in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 5:12-13, John, who has been caught up to heaven and sees an innumerable multitude of angels and saints surrounding the throne of God, hears the angels sing in a loud voice: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" The verse continues: "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!'" Notice the similarity: worship begins in heaven and is taken up by those on earth. The movement is from heaven to earth, not the other way around.
In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson says something about prayer that applies equally to worship. The correlation should not surprise us because prayer is one of the chief expressions of worship. "Prayer is answering speech," Peterson writes. "The first word is God's word. Prayer is a human word and is never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary." Our praise is also answering speech.
Just like a musical instrument where all the strings resonate when one string is plucked, our praise resonates with the worship that emanates from heaven. This is a very different view of worship than one in which we see ourselves trying to project our voices so that they will be heard in heaven. It is a very different view of worship than one which sees our worship as a kind of performance that is executed on the earthly stage for the benefit of a spectator God who sits passively in heaven. And it is completely antithetical to an approach to worship which sees it as something we do primarily for ourselves—as a kind of spiritual self amusement or spiritual entertainment.
A right perspective of worship sees the church as entering into worship that is already taking place. We do not initiate worship. This praise that the Psalmist describes does not start with us.
How many of you know what it feels like to enter the church sanctuary after the service is already started? People are already engaged in singing or praying. We do it delicately, with a greater sensitivity than we might have walking into the sanctuary before the service has started. There is a sense of moving into something that is already in progress. We want to enter into the experience, not interrupt it.
In a sense that is exactly what we are doing when the congregation gathers together for worship. Whenever we engage in worship, especially when we engage in congregational worship, we are engaging in a heavenly activity. We don't merely imitate what goes on in heaven, but we participate with those who dwell above, taking up a theme that is already begun before God's throne in heaven, adding our voices to theirs.
In a sermon on the subject of worship entitled "Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven," Jonathan Edwards makes this very point: "Let it be considered that the church on earth is the same society with those saints who are praising God in heaven. There is not one church of Christ in heaven and another here upon earth." Edwards goes on to say " … if we begin now to exercise ourselves in the work of heaven, it will be the way to have foretastes of heaven."
In other words, true worship does more than emulate heaven. There is a sense in which true worship brings heaven near, because the focus of worship is not on our personal preferences but on God himself. In verse 3, the Psalmist says, "Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness." Notice that this praise focuses on two things: it focuses on what God has done, and it focuses on God's nature. We praise God for his works—his mighty deeds. But to praise God as he deserves, we need to look beyond the deeds to the God who performs them. We praise God for his greatness.
It is possible to be so caught up in God's acts that we miss God himself. This was something our Lord had to contend with during his earthly ministry. According to John 6, after Jesus fed the five thousand, he and the disciples went across the lake to Capernaum. When the crowd realized that he was gone, they got into boats and went looking for him. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth: you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill."
It is natural and right to praise God for the loaves. The problem arises when we become so focused on the loaves that we lose sight of the One whose power multiplied the loaves. We are, as one writer puts it, like children who are more interested in the pennies that come from the father's hand than they are in the father's hand. Don't despise the pennies. Don't be ashamed to accept the pennies. But don't lose sight of the hand that dispenses them either.
So we recognize that true worship doesn't originate with us. It originates with God. But that still leaves an important question: Exactly how should we go about worshiping this great God? This, frankly, is the question of our generation. We all agree that God is worthy to be worshiped. We all agree that worship should be one of the primary occupations of the church. What we don't agree on is what worship should sound like. So it is especially worth noting that the snapshot the Psalmist gives us of worship in this final song is a musical snapshot. And the description he gives is a sobering reminder that worship is bigger than our personal preference.
Worship incorporates a variety of means.
Worship is bigger than our personal preferences, because it incorporates a variety of means. The Psalmist's point is not merely that we should worship God. His point is that we should worship God "by every means possible." Verses 3-5 say, "Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals."
One thing is clear from this: it is appropriate to worship God with music. Moreover, it is appropriate to worship God with accompanied music. We could even say that it is appropriate to worship God with loud music. Or at least it is appropriate to worship God with loud, clashing cymbals. Few, if any of us, would disagree with this. Well, some might disagree with the assertion about the cymbals, although it's hard to understand the words "clash" and "resound" as being anything other than "loud." But at least most of us would agree that it is good to worship God with music accompanied by instruments.
What we don't agree on is the kind of music. And sometimes we don't agree on what instruments are worthy to accompany our worship. The reasons for our differences are varied and far more complex than we realize. Some of our differences, obviously, are a function of culture and personal taste. We grow accustomed to certain instruments; we prefer a particular style of music—I like the music I grew up with, I hate the music my kids listen to, etc. But tastes can change.
My father was a huge fan of jazz—old school jazz like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. As a kid, I hated his music. But when I became an adult, especially after my father died, I found I came to like it, because it reminded me of him.
Personal experiences shape our musical preferences, as do society and culture. In his book Resounding Truth, author Jeremy Begbie writes that music not only reflects a social and cultural order, but it's also embedded in what he calls a "sonic order." Music " … involves the integrity of the materials that produce sound and of sound waves, the integrities of the human body, and the integrity of time." "When we hear music," Begbie writes, "a whole range of elements are pulled together—in particular, our state of mind and body, memories and associations, social and cultural conventions, and other perceptions that come along with the musical sounds. Together, these greatly affect the meaning the music will have for us."
What does this mean for us as far as musical worship is concerned? For one thing, it means that we cannot help being profoundly affected by the music we hear. Music affects us on every level. It affects us neurologically; it affects us physiologically; it affects us on an aesthetic level; and it affects us emotionally. So when someone says to me, "I just can't worship to that music," I believe them.
But the Psalmist's description also tells me something else. Because it indicates that the variety of musical instruments and styles that should be used to worship God—even some of the methods that might be used to worship God (notice the reference to "tambourine and dancing" in verse 4)—far exceed the scope of my personal taste. It is very possible that I would not enjoy every instrument the Psalmist includes in his list. And I am certain that the particular style of music to which he was accustomed would sound alien to my ears. If that's true, then I don't need to be ashamed of the fact that I really hate some of the music I hear in church. But the Psalmist's directive also means that it's unreasonable to expect everyone else to agree with my judgment.
I would go further and say that the Psalmist's directive means that it is unbiblical of me to demand that everyone else agree with my judgment. Simply put, it means that I should do my best to praise God by every means possible. Praise him with the music I like, but praise him also with the music I don't like. Praise him with the instruments I love, but accept that he can also be praised with the instruments I hate. More than that, admit that he accepts such praise. I don't have to like it; he does.
In light of this, I will make three pastoral observations regarding this subject. First, I think it is time we admit that it is impossible to please everyone when it comes to worship. Given the variety of styles and tastes, I do not personally believe that we can please all the people all the time when it comes to the music the church uses in worship. We can please some people—maybe even most people—but it is impossible to please all people. What one person loves, you can be sure someone else hates.
Second, the quality of music is not always the most important factor in terms of my worship experience. There is part of me that wants to say we should only offer God the best music. And some music is qualitatively better than other music. A Beethoven piano concerto is qualitatively better than chopsticks. But when it comes to worship, the music that moves me most and is the most effective vehicle for helping me to enter into God's presence is not always the best music.
Third, it is not our differences in musical taste that have caused the most damage to the church. It is our mutual contempt. It is our lack of respect. What has hurt us the most has been our unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate the loss some of us have suffered in this sphere. We have been hurt by our inability or else our unwillingness to admit that all of us suffer in some respect in this matter—and rightly so, because worship is not just a private practice. It is a corporate practice. That's why worship is bigger than any personal preference we might have.
Worship is the duty of all creation.
Worship is bigger than our personal preferences, because it is the duty of all creation. Worship is the duty of every creature. Notice how this book of worship concludes in verse 6: "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord."
Who should worship? The Hebrew text literally says, "all the breathing." Everything that breathes. Not just the singers, not just the instrumentalists, not just the angels who surround God's throne, not just the martyrs under the altar. The one who stands in the pulpit and those who are seated in the pew; the adult and the teenager; the husband and the wife; the parent and the child. Everyone. Everyone that has breath. All that God has created.
I think this universal call to worship is an important corrective for evangelical church today. It provides a necessary balance to the trend toward professionalism in worship. In saying this I am not criticizing the presence of people who lead worship on the church staff. I think the Old Testament at least provides biblical warrant for such a position. I am referring instead to the temptation we face today to reduce worship to a performance. This can cause us to leave the responsibility of worship in the hands of the elite; they worship and we watch.
We can do this for a variety of reasons, and some of them are understandable. We want our worship to honor God; we want our worship to be the best worship possible. But we also have selfish reasons. Frankly, some of us like to listen to others worship. They know how to sing and play instruments. We don't think we have much to offer in comparison. Besides, we know that in today's market-oriented church culture, dynamic worship attracts people to the church.
But the New Testament like the Old Testament describes worship as a corporate responsibility. In Ephesians 5:19-20, we are commanded: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." In Colossians 3:16, we are told to, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." These commands are not addressed to the worship pastor, the church choir, or the worship team. They are commands addressed to the church as a whole. Worship is every believer's calling.
The Psalmist's call for everyone who has breath to worship warrants one other observation: Worship is more than music. This Psalm highlights the musical aspect of worship, but the Bible does not confine worship to music. This too is a much needed corrective, because the evangelical church today tends to identify worship pretty much exclusively with musical portion of the service. There is the worship, and then there is preaching. Some of us would like more "worship" and less "preaching." We call the hour we spend together the "worship service." Yet in Romans 12:1-2, the apostle Paul describes worship as a lifestyle when he says, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."
When the music stops, the worship continues. When the service ends and the benediction is pronounced, the worship continues. When you lay your head on the pillow tonight and thank God for the day, the worship continues. And when you get up tomorrow and begin counting the days to the weekend as you make your way to work, the worship will continue.
Some would go so far as to say that the Psalmist's call to worship includes more than man. In his commentary on the Psalms, A. F. Kirkpatrick observes that the Hebrew word translated "breath," " … most commonly denotes the breath of man; but it may include all animals. Not priests and Levites only, but every living thing must join in the chorus of praise. The universe is Jehovah's Temple, and all its inhabitants should be his worshipers." Kirkpatrick goes on to point out that the Psalmist's vision is finally fulfilled in the book of Revelation as all creation worships Jesus Christ. In Revelation 5:13, John writes: "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!'"
This, then, is the good news: one day the worship wars will end. All God's people—indeed, all of creation—will be united in one great Hallelujah Chorus. The first notes have already begun as saints and angels that surround the throne in heaven offer their hymns of praise to the Lamb. Their theme is echoed by the rest of creation, as the heavens declare the glory of God. The church joins in, until the entire domain of God resounds with praise. All that remains is for you to add your voice too.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.