Old Testament Psalms and New Testament Worship
Pr. P. J. Daniel
The Bible does not give a formal definition of ‘worship’.
Worship is an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. The word ‘worship’ is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon English word worthcipe – meaning worthiness or worth-ship – to give worth to something. The English word ‘ship’ is used as a suffix in friendship, then the meaning is wonderfully changed, which becomes “the quality of being a friend”. So worth-ship is the quality of having worth or of being worthy.
When we worship, we are saying that God has worth, that He is worthy. Worship means to declare worth to the worthy. “Offer something worth to the worthy in full intimacy and love is worship.” In biblical terms, worship is ‘praising God’,speaking or singing how good and powerful God is! This is the purpose we are called for. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1Peter 2:9).
In the Hebrew language worship is ‘shachah’ which means to bow down or to prostrate oneself before a higher authority. In the New Testament, various Greek words are used for worship, but a primary word is proskuneo, which means to bow down before a Sovereign. So, the word ‘worship’ means ‘to express deep respect and adoration to God’.
These words do not give any ample definition of worship, but it illustrates three types of worship; worship that involves speaking, worship that involves listening and worship that involves doing. There is worship that expresses our heart, worship that involves our mind, and our body. There is a worship that giving praises upward, a worship that receiving instructions from above, and a worship that carries out instruction in the world around us. We need all three types of worship. Some people focus primarily on speaking or singing praise to God. Praise is good, if all we do is praise God, without ever listening to what He says, we have to ask ourselves whether we believe the words our own words. It is similar to a person who telephones another and keeps talking without the other person available to listen at the other end. Similarly, all talk and no action does not give respect to God. Action speaks louder than words. Worship should change our attitude and behaviour. It has a vertical and a horizontal effect. One is our attitude towards God and the other is our dealing with our fellow men.
Importance of Psalms in worship
The Book of Psalms is an amazing gift to the church. John Piper says, “The Psalms, more intentionally than any other book of the Bible, is designed to carry, express, and shape our emotions”. The Psalms are quoted in the New Testament more than any book in the Old Testament. This is not only because the Psalms are “a little Bible, and the summary of the Old Testament” (as Martin Luther put it), but also because they point to the salvation found in Jesus Christ (as Jesus himself said in Luke 24:44).
Martin Luther said: No devotional book has ever appeared that is superior to the Psalms. The Psalms have been considered as the Church’s prayer book, the prayer of Jesus, and the songbook of Israel. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have been singing and speaking from the Psalms as a part of corporate worship. New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used Psalms in corporate worship and it has remained an important part of worship in most Christian churches.
Apostle Paul quotes from Psalms in Romans chapter three (3:10–18). Jesus was well versed with the Psalms; when dying on the cross, He twice expressed in the words of Psalms (22: 1; 31: 5). “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” “In your hands, I commit my Spirit”. He also reminded the disciples that ‘everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled” (Luke 24: 44). Thus, Psalms have a pivotal part in the worship and the day-to-day life of a Christian.
In the Psalms, we find the most powerful poems of praise and worship. For every emotion and mood, we can find a psalm to match, which gives us inspiration, encouragement, and instructions in our life. Psalms stimulate our prayer life. It also encourages us to worship Him more diligently.
Some misunderstandings of reading Psalms in the Church
There are various categories of Psalms, like songs of praises, prophecies, lamentations, prayers, as well as imprecations. Someone asks: Is it rightful to read psalms such as of imprecation in the New Testament age? New Testament always emphasizes forgiveness and kindness towards the enemies. But we should consider that the period of Psalms was the period of the law, which emphasizes eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life. In such a period prayer of imprecation was common and accepted. But we live in the period of grace so we are not permitted to pray in such a manner. Those psalms of imprecation can be read in the church because it is the word of God. But the believers should be taught plainly about the background of such psalms and can remind them of the need for forgiveness to our enemies.
Some others misinterpret the statement of 1 Corinthians 14: 26 “when you gather, everyone has a psalm, teaching, revelation, other tongues, or interpretation”. For such people, reading from the book of Psalm is an obligatory read in the service. But the word ‘psalms’ mentioned here does not refer to the book of Psalms, rather a spiritual gift, which enables the believer to sing a hymn in the Spirit of God. The reference ‘everyone is having a psalm’ is quite interesting. If it refers to the book of psalms, our worship time will not be sufficient for everyone to read a psalm each. The book of Psalms offers us ways to rejoice in prayer, to bow in worship, to exalt God for all he does and for all his blessing to us. Yes, Psalms stimulate us to active worship.
Some Pentecostal Churches read from Psalms as a ritual, similar to the reading of liturgy is many other church worship services. They feel that if a responsive reading of Psalm is missing, the totality of worship will not be deemed complete. This remains a mere ritual if it does not motivate the believer in worshipping the Lord enthusiastically.
Some pastors use psalm reading to hit out at the believers and use imprecatory psalms against those they have any difference of opinion. Yes, they forget to read the Scripture portions, which are assigned to be read in the churches. “I order you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5: 27). “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and be sure to read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4: 16)
New Testament worship and Psalms
During the time of King David, worship had been renewed and re-established in Israel. He gave importance to active worship than to rituals, to the common gathering of both the Jews and the gentiles. The middle chapter of the Bible, Psalms 117 gives importance to the former fact. It invites all nations to exalt God. The people of Israel once considered that worshipping God Yahweh was their heritage, but now the status quo is changed. Gentiles were also given the privilege to worship God. In the temple of Jerusalem, 14 acres out of twenty were separated as the court of gentiles, which emphasizes the privilege of the gentiles in the temple. Another important fact in the time of David’s worship was that he introduced musical instruments in worship. Priests were trained in using instruments in the temple for public worship. Leaders were appointed to lead songs in the temple. (2 Chronicle 5:11-14). Another notable change in his time was that he gave importance to praises rather than to animal sacrifices. “Indeed, you do not delight in sacrifices, or I would give them, nor do you desire burnt offerings. True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit. A broken and chastened heart, God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16,17). “Offer to God a thanksgiving of praise” (50:14) “Let me praise the name of God with a song that I may magnify him with thanksgiving. That will please the Lord more than oxen and bulls with horns and hooves”. (69:30,31). There were singing and dancing in performing worship. (2 Samuel 6:5; 13:25-28). So, all these changes in worship renewed Israel in worship from liturgical and lethargical encumbrances.
This type of worship continued only for some years after the death of David. But there was a prophecy given by Amos after many years: “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins and build it as it used to be. So, my people may inherit the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name” (Amos 9:1112) This prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament worship. In Acts 15, in the first Jerusalem Council, the chairman and the Bishop of Jerusalem, Apostle James reciprocates that the words of the prophet of Amos are in agreement with their decisions, as it is written: “After this, I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild and restores it so that the rest of the people may search for the Lord, including all the gentiles who are called by my name” (Acts 15:14-17). So, the New Testament worship is a reiteration of the time of David’s worship.
Thus, the New Testament worship has become lively, active, and enthusiastic. We are redeemed from the nominal, and ritualized worship, which was written on the stone that leads to death. Now we enjoy the glorious, spiritual, and life abounding worship, which was once enjoyed by the worshippers during the time of David.
We offer sacrifices of praises rather than animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 13:15) We worship the Lord with various kinds of inspiring musical instruments. We also praise and dance before Him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Jews and the gentiles were united in one body through the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12: 13) What a glorious experience we have in Christ Jesus!! We experience heavenly joy in earthly worship, an experience which even the heavenly angels desire to look into (1 Peter 1: 12). The angels worship God by order, but we worship God in love, because of the love of God manifested on the cross of Calvary.