Saturday, 5 February 2011

Singing the Songs of Jesus

Singing the Songs of Jesus (Revisiting the Psalms), Michael Lefebvre, Christian Focus, 2010.

This easily-read book by the best publisher provides an interesting approach to using the psalms. It is not a defence of exclusive psalmody (although the author agrees with that view). Instead the book is about spiritual benefits that individuals and congregations will receive through using the Psalms in their worship services. Even at a basic level, the Psalms, because they are divinely inspired, inform us of the features that God wants us to sing about when we are worshipping him.

In the first chapter, the author surveys the practice of psalm-singing throughout church history, providing evidence for their ongoing use from the early church, on through the Dark Ages and into the Reformation period. His concern is to discover why interest in psalm-singing declined. Major reasons for the decline was poor participation in congregational singing of them and the suspicion that some features of the Psalms, such as those containing imprecations, were unChristian.

In his second chapter, Lefebvre, after highlighting the divine inspiration of the Psalms, explains a second crucial aspect of them which is that each was composed by a ruler of Israel or supervised by one – I had not noticed this feature before (but then there are lots of things that I have not observed) – and that the rulers led the singing of the public praise of God in Israel. Their roles pictured the activities of Jesus as the provider of worship songs (the Psalms) and the royal leader of our praise. He ‘sings his own songs in his own words (composed prophetically for him). They are his praises of the Father which he calls us, as his subjects, to join him in singing.’

Since Jesus sings the psalms with us, it means that in a sense the psalms are conversations with Jesus about various aspects of his person and work. The author explores this reality in chapters 3 and 4. When using the Psalms, sometimes we sing with the King about God and his ways, sometimes we sing to the King, and sometimes we sing to one another in the presence of the King. In the Psalms, we sing about his deity, his humanity, his birth, his life, his love of God’s law, his atoning death, his resurrection, his ascension, his exaltation, his kingdom, his return, his role as Judge, his role as Priest, his role as Prophet, his role as Shepherd, and many other facets of his person and work. The author here helped me understand further how Paul could in Colossians 3 equate the communal singing of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ with the ‘word of Christ’.

What is the heart motion behind our singing that will stimulate appropriate praise? The author states that the Psalms indicate it is meditation, which is stressed by the prominence of this activity in Psalm 1, a psalm that is generally recognised as the introduction to the Psalter. Indeed, he argues that a possible translation of hagah (meditate) is singing as against the usual suggestion that the blessed man of that psalm is muttering or speaking to himself. The evidence that meditation has this role is seen in the wide range of human situations dealt with in the Psalms, and how the psalmists are led to praise God after reflecting on how he can deal with these situations.

Of course the big problem with the Psalms, at least for western Christians, are those containing imprecations (psalms that call for divine judgement). The author notes that such imprecations are also found in the Gospels (even on the lips of Jesus) and in the Epistles, which makes one wonder why they are a problem only in the Psalms for such people. These psalms, when sung with Jesus or to him or about him, remind us that he is the Judge of all as well as the Saviour of his people. They enable us to express with him deep cries for justice to be administered by God. These psalms are not cries for personal vengeance but descriptions of why awful consequences of sin must be dealt with by God.

In addition, the Psalter also leads us to contemplate victory. But who gives the victory to us and who celebrates the victory with us? As we sing such psalms of triumph we should be aware of the presence of King Jesus leading us to participate joyfully in his triumphs for us and through us.

In this short book of 160 pages, we have a good summary of the theology (purpose) of the Psalms. The author provides clear principles for interpreting the Psalms in a Christ-centred way and shows us how we can develop a precious intimacy with the King through ongoing usage of the Psalms. Using them in public worship is a God-given way of exalting King Jesus as we see him fulfil his role as Leader of the praise of God’s people.