I love music. Visit my apartment, and you’ll witness my collection of vinyl records lining the shelves of my IKEA furniture—along with a turntable that’s older than I am. In A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, Don Saliers notes that almost everything in creation fits some sort of rhythm: our heartbeats, the rise and fall of our breathing, the seasons, the orbit of celestial bodies—even toddlers who get their start by clanging a wooden spoon against a metal pan. Music is everywhere, and as we grow older music begins to be an increasing reflection of what we think, how we feel, and where exactly we find ourselves.
In the film High Fidelity, John Cusack plays an eccentric record store owner whose life is defined by every groove of the records that line his shelves. Every victory, every heartache, every failed attempt at romance had its own song. In one pivotal scene, his friend marvels at the complex new system by which he’s organized his collection. “Not alphabetical,” they mutter. “Autobiographical.” Music became his story.
THE ANATOMY OF PRAISE
John Calvin once referred to the Psalms as “the anatomy of praise.” Though David is the author of many of these songs, throughout history men and women have taken his words and made them their own. Bono—the frontman of the band U2—credits David as a major influence of his own music:
“At the age of 12, I was a fan of David. He felt familiar, like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious, and he was a star. Before David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting. This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm – a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22).
The Psalms are where ideas about God meet the harsh terrain of human experience. Do you have a favorite record, or maybe just a song that you look toward and say, “That’s my song.” Maybe you and your spouse have a song that is “our song.” It wasn’t written by you, but you’ve absorbed its meaning and in so doing the music became deeply personal. The book of Psalms is God’s way of saying, “here’s your song. This is what life looks like when you live it with me.” And in that sense, not every part of this “anatomy of praise” looks happy or bright. We find hymns of praise, yes. But we also find the blues. We find folk rock protest anthems. We find an entire record collection of what life with God really looks like.
A PSALM FOR ALL SEASONS
As an introductory example, we can look at Psalm 24. The Psalm is originally attributed to David. But scholars have recently argued that most Psalms came to be used outside of their original context and can be equally understood as forming the backbone of Israel’s worship. For instance, Psalm 24 was written by David, but it came to be used by Israel during their time of exile in Babylon—sung every Sunday as a reminder of God’s power over every circumstance.
Here’s what they sang:
A Psalm of David. The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, 2 for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah 7 Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle! 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory! Selah (Psalm 24:1-10)
This Psalm can generally be categorized as a “Praise Psalm,” though it also fits a sub-category known as “Enthronement Psalms” describing the might of God’s kingship. Don’t worry about understanding all the categories just yet—stick with us this summer and you’ll gain a better picture of the diversity contained in the Psalter.
Notice as well the presence of musical terms in the Psalms—such as David’s use of the word Selah, above. What does this word mean? No one really knows. Suggestions have been made that it represents some sort of musical term, like today’s musical notations of fortissimo or D.C. al coda. Other suggestions have been more scattered—one person even speculates it’s what David uttered when he broke a harp string! Our English Bibles leave words like this untranslated—but they remind us of the way the Psalms were meant to be experienced: sung out and rising in a crescendo of human voices.
SINGING OUR LIVES
A Christian writer named Walter Brueggeman suggested that all Psalms can fit one of three categories:
- Psalms of orientation: Psalms that reflect regular human experience and life with God.
- Psalms of disorientation: Psalms that reflect a disruption of our experience—such as suffering or injustice.
- Psalms of new orientation: Psalms that reflect a change in our attitude toward God and His Kingdom—that is, Psalms that orient us away from self and toward a love for God and neighbor.
It seems to me that these categories could actually be said to vary from person to person. For instance, a song of praise might certainly be disorienting when I spend my life devoted to the worship of self (!). And this might also push me towards a new orientation as a result. The larger point, though, is simple. As we read the Psalms—both individually and as a church—we find our hearts increasingly shaped by the beauty of God and His Word. Worship therefore stretches beyond the borders of a traditional Sunday morning gathering and into every waking facet of our lives. If Calvin was right in calling this book the “anatomy of praise,” then it is God’s church that animates this body that we might walk into the world with God’s new song in our hearts, and a song of praise on our lips.