Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.
For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a language I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.
“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes.
Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Psalm 81 (ESV)
Shouting for joy and jumping around with trumpets and tambourines might not sound very Lutheran- though it actually is. Lutheran congregations in Africa- and there are more Lutherans in Africa than in the United States- are known for very lively and colorful worship. Those of us in the American Midwest tend to be rather conservative and reserved in our expressions of emotion, including our expressions of emotion in worship. Even so, the northern European Lutheran tradition- where many of us Midwesterners originate from- includes the music of great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel (Handel was an Anglican, but we like his music anyway). Martin Luther himself wrote many hymns, the best known of which is, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Music of many genres and styles has traditionally held a high place in Lutheran worship.
The people of Israel in David’s time, when many of the Psalms were written, were not conservative about their expression in worship. It was normal and expected for people to sing, play instruments, and dance (yes, dance) as part of worship. (2 Samuel 6:12-18)
The Psalms were a big part of both teaching and worship. Since most people weren’t literate in ancient times, it was easier to teach essential truths if they were set to music and sung out loud.
The Psalms don’t sound as lyrical and poetic in the English language as they were written in the original Hebrew, but they are prayers as well as lessons- and they were generally meant to be sung.
There is a contrast here between the beginning of the Psalm, as the Psalmist is praising God and singing for joy, and the second part of the Psalm where God’s people are being obstinate and stubborn. On one hand we as new creations in Christ want to hear the good news and praise God and live as God’s people. Then the old Adam steps in and starts screaming like a petulant toddler, “MY way, not THY way.” We think we can do better than God. We try to live life our way. Then we get mad when our way just doesn’t work out. It’s frustrating, but it is also part of the human condition in this broken world.
We can’t just make up our minds on our own to “straighten up and fly right.” When we do this on our own willpower, we are not really conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ. We end up becoming legalistic and stuffy and self-righteous. (Think Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.) Rather, we must rely on the mercy and grace of God to let Him transform us. A good way to visualize our transformation is as we “put on baptism” every day- we acknowledge and remember that we are named and claimed as children of God. Baptism is a means of grace that comes completely as a gift of God and is through no works of our own. He will do for us what we are not able to do on our own.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)
So we return to the themes of Psalm 81- Joy. Worship. Trust God– but trust in ourselves…not so much. When we confess to Jesus that we continually sin and fall short of His good will for us, He promises to forgive us and bind up our wounds, as we learn from 1 John 1:9. We have the assurance that God will carry our burdens. We can be confident that God will see us through our distress and that God will provide us with all good things. We can’t be afraid to sing it loud and sing it proud- and to live a life of worship. God feeds us with the finest wheat. Jesus freely gives us the feast of His Body and Blood, the honey from the rock, and He sustains us with His good and healing Word. We are set free to love God, to love and serve our neighbor, and to sing out in worship.