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What is Biblical Worship? (Part 2)

We move from Daniel to the Psalms as a testing ground for my definition of worship, and especially of my choice of the word celebration – ceremonies marked by festivity and rejoicing – as appropriate summary description of worship. I serve in the Reformed tradition. Deep in that tradition is the conviction that the covenantal relationship between God and his people is characterized by mutual joy: he rejoices over his people and we respond in joy through acts of service, including worship.1 The old covenant lays the foundation of this joy, which the new covenant brings to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I believe this conception is accurate, and that it characterizes worship in the Psalms. Worship arises as a response of celebration, it struggles to remain a celebration amidst the challenges of sin and suffering, and it ends in celebration.2

Consider Psalms 95 and 100 as calls to worship. Psalm 100 is a compact rhapsody on the theme of worship as joyous celebration. As Israel comes into the presence of God, it is done with shouting, worshiping, singing, thanking, and praising. It happens with joy and gladness, through joyful songs of thanksgiving and praise. Verse three roots this worship in the knowledge of God, that he has made us and that we are his people. Verse five anchors worship in the nature of God who has revealed himself as good, loving, and faithful. God our Creator and Redeemer is worthy of celebration.

Psalm 95 similarly calls us to joyful worship, and connects this joy to acts of submission. The exuberant celebration of verses 1-2 focuses on God as Creator in verses 3-5, the “great King above all gods.” Singing becomes bowing and kneeling in verse 6, acts of submission. These are not anxious, fearful acts before a capricious, unknown god. These acts happen in remembrance: in the wilderness, Israel ignored the mighty acts of God they had seen (verse 9) and fell under his wrath. Our acts of submission in worship thankfully acknowledge our identity as God's people under his special care (verse 7), and acknowledge our faith that the Creator God is at work mightily in us to bring us to his promised rest (verse 10). The opening verses of exuberant celebration move naturally into joyful submission.

Consider Psalm 136, which makes explicit the response Israel should have to God. The story of God is proclaimed in declarative statements. These move from broad acclamations, to summaries of specific events in the redemption of Israel, to statements of God's general care for his people and creation. Creation is the broad framework for God's redemptive actions. Each statement is followed by statements of praise. God is being thoroughly celebrated.

At times the celebration is implicit. Psalm 23 never praises God directly, but it drips joyful thanks at every point. The same is true of Psalm 139, with praise coming explicitly only in verse 14, but permeating the whole Psalm. Psalm 8 contents itself with the phrase at its beginning and end, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Psalm 78 is a long rehearsal of the “praiseworthy deeds of the LORD” (78:4), though it never breaks into praise. The Wisdom Psalms and Torah Psalms – such as 1, 37, 49, 119 – set their reflections in the context of joyful thanksgiving, at times speaking explicitly of our delight in the Lord and the treasure of his Law. These function as the fuel of celebration.

The challenge to celebration comes through sin and suffering, reflected in the Psalms of penitence and lament. The celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer forces the Psalmist to examine sin in light of redemption, to question God when his governance of things seems in question, or to demand relief when joy is not present. In Psalm 51, sin is the problem: it has broken fellowship with God, and only through confession and absolution will the joy of his salvation be restored. In Psalm 130, the claim made “from the depths” upon the covenant God of Israel is nuanced again by the reality of sin, and it is the forgiveness of God that causes him to be worshiped. The celebration of God opens the way to penitential prayer, the restoration of joy, and the resumption of celebration.

Lament over the circumstances of life functions similarly, where the celebration of God calls into question his nature and ways. Some, as with Psalm 5, move rather quickly from petition to resolution; others, as with Psalm 88, end with no resolution. But as Clause Westermann has demonstrated, worship provides a context for these Psalms to move from petition to praise, from plea to resolution, reflected in a song of thanksgiving.3 Suffering has caused the celebration of God to be challenged; lament opens a means to address suffering and restore worship as celebration.

This resolution is usually through remembrance and hope, as in Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalmist is oppressed by his enemies, with their recurring taunt, “Where is your God?”4 His tears turn to longing for the presence of God, to the memory of the “shouts of joy and praise” of the people of God coming into the house of God.5 Peace arrives as a combination of that remembrance and hope:

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.6

Celebration marks worship, challenged by the circumstances of life, calling on remembrance and hope to restore celebration in anticipation.7

This memory and anticipation of worship as celebration is common in the Psalms. Psalm 84:4 reflects on the experience of worship in this way: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, they are ever praising you.” Psalm 122:1 confesses, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD.'” Psalm 134 calls the ministers of the LORD to praise because celebration is what happens in the presence of God. These reflections are of joy, happiness, praise and thanksgiving – worship is about celebration.

Celebratory worship encompasses and fuels daily obedience. In Psalm 40, the LORD has heard the cry for mercy and placed “a new song,” “a hymn of praise,” in the mouth of the Psalmist.8 This is rooted in hope: the end of the Psalm recalls the challenges that remain in life. But to sing to God, to offer ritual sacrifice and offering, to proclaim the “saving acts of God in the great assembly,” is truly to offer oneself in obedient service to God. The events of daily life flow into communal worship, which in turn flows into the “sacrifice” of daily life.9

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come; it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” 10

Psalm 51 moves in a similar vein. The Psalmist is consumed by personal sin and the need for cleansing forgiveness, and his petitions plead for a restoration of his covenant relationship with God. His penitence, a lament over his own fallenness, brings the response of divine forgiveness, restoring the joy of his relationship with God.11 In verse 8, the petition, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice,” is phrased in verse 12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” The culmination in verses 14-19 is a profound restoration of worship that spills over into the whole of life: lips opened by God to personal praise, a heart broken before God and obedient, blessing poured out on Zion, and purity in corporate worship. Worship encompasses and empowers the obedience of daily life.

It should also be noted, in light of this Psalm, that worship assumes a powerfully reciprocal relationship between God and his people. God has chosen to cleanse and forgive his people and provide avenues for the cultic maintenance of his relationship with his people. This gracious decision of God leads the Psalmist to confess his sin, claiming the forgiveness of God. This is a choice to confess, commanded of all Israel in Psalm 130:7-8, and it opens the path to restoration with God. God responds by opening the lips of the Psalmist and restoring praise, an acknowledgment by the Psalmist of divine agency in redemption.

Thus, worship is at once a choice, the decision of creatures to praise their Creator, and a divinely-enabled event, rooted in the redemptive action of God. Each type of lament represents a similar choice to make claims on God, rooted in God as Creator and Redeemer, that forces a resolution to the problems of life, even if that resolution is in hope. Brueggemann rightly points out that this reflects the power of the covenant relationship and the standing of God and his people as covenant partners.12 It leaves the Psalmist free to call us to worship, to warn the nations lest they refuse to worship, and yet acknowledge God as the initiator.13

Before we leave the Psalms, mention should be made of the missional vision of celebration flowing from the people of God to all creation. Psalm 47 calls all the nations to worship the King of all the earth. This is the God1 of Jacob, reflecting the conviction that Israel is to lead the nations into that worship.14 This worship is celebration: they are to clap their hands and shout to God with cries of joy. Indeed, God ascends “amidst shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets.”15 This celebration spills over into the whole of creation in Psalm 96, rooted in hope.

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;

let the sea resound, and all that is in it.

Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;

let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,

he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness

and the peoples in his faithfulness.16

Worship in the Psalms is a celebration, a celebration of God the Creator and Redeemer.


1For example, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer one, says that the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer two, summarizes the Christian life as service flowing from thanksgiving.

2For a summary of Psalm types, see John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 70–71.

3Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta, Ga: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), 27–30, 33, 75.

4Psalm 42:3, 10.

5Psalm 42:4

6Psalm 42:5, 11, 43:5.

7Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2013), 34–35.

8Psalm 40:3.

9The movement from gratitude to sacrifice and worship is described wonderfully by Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2012), 861–872.

10Psalm 40:6-9.

11Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, 178. His subsequent exegesis develops the Psalm as a lament.

12Walter Brueggemann, Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 2005), 46-53.

13See, for example, the warning of Psalm 2, and the praise of God in Psalm 103 and 139 in which gracious God initiates his covenant relationship with his people from inception through all of life.

14The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), reflected in passages such as Isaiah 56:7 or Zechariah 8:23.

15Psalm 47:5-6.

16Psalm 96:11-13.

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