Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 118:1-4 (ESV)
Next in our series on biblical worship we come to the Psalter reading. Although the responsive reading of a psalm does not have as long a history as some other elements of worship, such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Gloria Patri, the use of psalms in worship obviously dates back to the Old Testament, since the Psalms were indeed the worship book of Israel. The responsive reading of a psalm probably dates back to the 19th century, though its roots go much deeper, such as the apostles using a psalm in corporate prayer (Acts 4:23-30).
The Psalms are the hymns and prayers of Israel, the people of God. They are God’s revealed pattern for worship, for speaking to him, for praising him and praying to him. In worshipping God in Spirit and truth, we use the language of Scripture to rightly do so. And because it is God’s Word, God is also speaking to us as we read it, teaching us, revealing himself to us, even as we speak the words of Scripture to him. Psalms are often sung during the service, and many of our hymns are based on a psalm. But we also can read the Psalms aloud, either by having a psalm read, or by reading it responsively. The responsive reading is both prayer and praise, both us responding to God and God speaking to us. We are praying back to God the words of Scripture, which of course has an effect on us as we pray them. And by reading it responsively, we highlight even more the pattern of God speaking and we his people responding.
By reading a psalm responsively, we also stress the communal nature of biblical worship. We are gathered together as God’s covenant people, his church; as with singing hymns, reciting creeds, and corporately confessing our sins, a responsive reading unites us together in prayer and praise of our Living God (Eph. 4:4-6). There are numerous examples of psalms that seem to be written as a call and response (Ps. 67, 118, 136), and there are similar examples of worship elsewhere as well (Ex 19:8, Deut. 27:14-26, Ezra 3:10-11, Rev. 7:10).
The Psalms are wonderfully varied in praising different attributes of God, in a range of emotional responses, in dealing with living in a fallen world with the right perspective. Churches should use variety of psalms, a varied diet, so to speak, in order to encompass the whole range of Christian experience. The Psalms teach us the language of biblical prayer. They help to conform our thoughts to God’s thoughts, to focus our minds on worship and on God. It is also a way of reading the Old Testament, though this element of worship should not substitute for the reading of Scripture; responsive reading is a prayer element. There are some who feel that a responsive reading of Scripture is not biblical, since Reformed worship tends to emphasize that the public reading of Scripture should be performed only by ordained teachers and that perhaps the only appropriate congregational response is to say “Amen” (1 Cor. 14:16); however, the responsive reading is more properly viewed as prayer and not the public reading of Scripture. Indeed, our Book of Church Order states that “the reading of the Scriptures by the minister is to be distinguished from the responsive reading of certain portions of Scripture by the minister and the congregation. In the former God addresses His people; in the latter God’s people give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments. The psalms of Scripture are especially appropriate for responsive reading.”
The Psalms teach the whole range of practical theology and emotional experience, of dealing with struggles, of God’s providence, his work in human history, his ultimate judgment, his goodness, grace and mercy, his salvation, his justice. They teach us to lament and to mourn over our sin, and to rejoice in the goodness of God. They teach us to live a life of continual praise (Heb. 13:15). They teach us how to think and feel rightly as we go through this life as elect exiles together. They teach us how to pray and to worship God properly. What better way to practice biblical worship and to learn how to worship God properly could there be than to use the very prayers and songs he has given us. May we continually give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love indeed endures forever.