Worship that Pleases God (Psalms 92-98)
I don't know about you, but I'm weary of the worship wars that have wreaked havoc in so many churches. It's sad to look back over the past twenty-five years or so at the damage and division that have resulted from this internecine conflict. Should we use traditional hymns or contemporary songs? Which do you prefer, a robed choir or praise team? Baldwin piano or acoustical guitar? Liberty or liturgy? Standing or sitting? Formal or free? Long or short? Hands raised or at your side? Solemnity or celebration?
As much as I may wish otherwise, I suspect the battle will continue. No, I don't have a solution for a cease-fire or a remedy that will make everyone happy. But perhaps a start would be for us to return to the biblical text to determine, not what makes us feel comfortable, but what it is in worship that pleases God.
As I was reading through Psalms 92-98 I couldn't help but notice the exhortations and counsel concerning how and why and to what end we are to worship. So, without further ado, look with me at ten truths or principles that we need to keep in mind when we worship and as we try to draw the near the throne of grace in a way that will honor and exalt the name of Jesus.
(1) Worship that pleases God is perpetual and constant. It is always and ever appropriate. The psalmist resolves "to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night" (Ps. 92:2). We should never think of worship as something reserved for a Sunday morning, as if there were any hour of any day where it wasn't the thing to do.
(2) Worship that pleases God is instrumental. The psalmists speak of "the music of the lute and the harp" as well as "the melody of the lyre" (Ps. 92:3) and "trumpets and the sound of the horn" (98:5-6). This isn't to say that singing a cappella is forbidden or unacceptable to God (far from it), but our Lord does appear to enjoy the loud and harmonious sounds that come from all sorts of instruments. Psalm 150 speaks of "trumpet sound" and "lute and harp" and "tambourine" and "strings and pipe" and "sounding cymbals" and even "loud clashing cymbals" (vv. 3-5).
(3) Clearly God delights in joyful worship (92:4; 98:4). "For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your works; at the works of your hands I sing for joy" (Ps. 92:4). Again, we are to "make a joyful noise to the Lord" and "break forth into joyous song" (Ps. 98:4).
So, I guess there are good grounds for the hymn writer having penned the words, "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee" rather than "Grumpy, grumpy, we adore thee" or "Somber, somber, we adore Thee"!
(4) Worship that pleases God is grounded in the recognition and celebration of his greatness. Listen again to the psalmist: "How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!" (Ps. 92:5). Contrary to the blasphemous sentiments of Christopher Hitchens' recent book (God is not Great), I concur with King David: "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable" (Ps. 145:3). A great God calls for great praise.
(5) Worship that pleases God is both loud and logical. That may sound a bit strange, but seems reasonable in light of Psalm 95:2 (cf. also Pss. 66:1; 88:1; 98:4-6), for there we are exhorted to "make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!" Note well that worship here entails noisy songs! There is volume to David's praise, but not random or chaotic sounds. His noise takes the form of songs, of theologically precise and well-formed articulations of God's worth and glory and majesty. It is good to know that one can be both exuberant and exact, both passionate and precise, or as I said, both loud and logical. We do not merely shout aimlessly in the air but fashion our delight into melodies of spiritual substance and theological clarity.
(6) Worship that pleases God is physical. In an earlier meditation I focused on the raising of one's hands and its symbolic importance. Later, in our study of Psalms 149 and 150, we'll look at the place of dancing. But in Psalm 95:6 we are called to "worship and bow down" and to "kneel before the Lord, our Maker!"
I can't recall the number of weddings I've performed, but one in particular stands out in my memory. The bride was from England, and asked that I use portions of the Anglican ceremony that she had heard so often growing up. At one point the bride and groom take this pledge:
"My body will adore you,
And your body alone will I cherish.
I will, with my body, declare your worth."
What a beautiful expression of marital affection! So I'll ask, do you adore and cherish God with your body, no less so than with your mind and heart? Do you declare his worth physically as well as spiritually? Ron Allen put it well:
"We are not simply spirit beings. We are more than hearts or souls or ‘inner beings.' We are persons possessing an intricate complex of physical and spiritual realities. We who worship God truly with the heart, do so with our physical bodies as well" (132).
(7) Worship that pleases God is fresh and creative. Numerous times in the Psalter we are exhorted not simply to sing a song, nor even to sing a song joyfully, but to sing a new song (see Pss. 96:1; 98:1; as well as 40:3; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9).
I can only surmise that we are to sing new songs because God is always doing new and creative and unprecedented and heretofore unseen and unrevealed things for his people. God is fresh in his love and his redemptive and providential dealings with us, so let our worship of him be fresh as we constantly compose new and exciting songs of praise.
(8) Worship that pleases God is public. Now, no one enjoys private worship more than I do. Whether in my car or on my bed at night or in my study by day, I love to have a continuous flow of worship filling the air. But this should never justify the failure to corporately worship in the presence of all. "Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!" (Ps. 96:3).
(9) Worship that pleases God ascribes glory to his name but doesn't add to it. Take special note of Psalm 96:7-9 - "Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!"
We should never purport to give God glory as if we were capable of adding to his supply or somehow enhancing and expanding the quantity of divine splendor. God's glory and worth always have been, are now, and forever will be infinite. Our responsibility, indeed our joyful and delightful privilege, is to ascribe or predicate or declare or make known or display or pronounce what is inherently and eternally true of him.
(10) God is especially honored when the whole of creation joins in celebrating his goodness and greatness. So, "let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord . . ." (Ps. 96:11-13a). And "let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth" (Ps. 98:8-9a).
I've been known to be quite exuberant at times in my worship of the Lord, both in terms of passion and physical posture. Several years ago a man approached me and said, no doubt sincerely, "Sam, I'm not comfortable with the way you worship."
I did my best to be kind and considerate, but found this response in my mouth: "I'm certainly open to correction, and I'm sorry you were offended, but I'm not particularly concerned with what puts you at ease. When the day comes that you are the object of my praise and adoration, I'll pay a bit more attention to what makes you feel comfortable. Until then, I'm primarily concerned about what pleases God."
That may not have been the most diplomatic response, but I do hope all of us have but one preeminent concern in our souls: to worship in a way that pleases and honors our great Triune God. When I'm persuaded from Scripture that my worship brings God discomfort, I'll be the first to change.