Think of the songs that have been popular for the last few decades. The ones you’ve bought or downloaded. The ones that have lyrics that make you feel as if they are singing about your own life. The ones which people listen to over and over again.
They’re diverse. They’re wide ranging. You probably have an old mixtape (if you’re from the 90s), or a spotify playlist with multiple different moods, styles and genres.
There are love songs, songs about loss, songs about celebration. There are songs sang by one person, two people together or a whole group. Different songs for different times.
They form the soundtrack to our lives. They are often associated with key moments in our history and culture. Many songs record our history and are instantly recognisable. Songs and music are key parts and identifiers for any culture. They bind us together.
This is what the book of psalms is in the Bible. It is a collection of songs which span the whole time of Israel as a nation in the Old Testament - from the moment they were led out of Egypt by Moses to the time when the nation was conquered and crushed by Babylon.
There are songs of pure joy celebrating great times in Israel’s history – victories and deliverance from God. There are songs of lament with people pouring out their misery before God. There are prayers for help from God, and psalms of thanks when help is received. There are heart wrenching songs with servants of God in despair at what has happened to them and questioning God’s faithfulness. There are long psalms and short psalms. Psalms written to be sung by one person and psalms written to be sung by whole choruses.
So the important question – why? Why are these psalms recorded for us? We know that when Paul the apostle speaks of the Old Testament he says:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
These songs are here for us to learn from. They were written by people who were trying to follow God. They describe their thoughts, the experiences which they had – but they are given the words to express these feeling and attitudes by God. We can read them and see that whatever we go through – people have been there before. We can learn from their mistakes and their successes.
If we are down emotionally, when we are weeping and feel like people are against us – we can see how David felt exactly the same way (I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping Psalm 6: 6). However we can also see how he came through it – by remembering God’s promises and having confidence in this (The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment. Psalm 6:9-10)
When we are feeling confident and remembering God’s deliverance and want to find words to express these – we can see King Hezekiah’s words (I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Psalm 116: 1)
If we are questioning God and feeling doubtful because of things that are happening in our life then we can take comfort that we are not the first to do this. People have been there before (Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Psalm 77:8-9). We can then read further in the psalm and see how the writer of the psalm overcame these doubts (a challenge for readers to do so!)
Whatever we experience in life we can find something to help us. The full spectrum of human experience and emption is recorded for us to read and learn from. Some psalms may not even make sense to us until we are in that situation. But they are all there to show us what servants of God experience.
The psalms also teach us how God likes to be worshipped. Since he gives the words to these writers and there are plenty of songs of praise – we can see the kind of things that we should be praising God for and use these in our own prayers or worship songs.
The most powerful thing in the psalms though is the foreshadowing of the emotions, thoughts and experiences of the Lord Jesus. So many psalms are about him. They are quoted in the New Testament as really being about Jesus. That is why God gave the words to the psalm writers – he put their experiences into words in a way that also enables him to prophecy of the Lord, and show us a small window into Jesus’s mind. A key to discipleship is getting to know and love the Lord Jesus. God gives us a whole book of songs – may of which we can read in order to learn how the Lord felt during his life, his death and even his resurrection and return to rule as king of the earth.
So songs are relevant and powerful in any culture – but in the culture of a group of believers, this collection of 150 songs gives a powerful tool to us to help us understand God, understand discipleship and get to know the Lord Jesus better.