While reading and studying the Psalms over the years, I came to a disturbing conclusion: much of the stirring praise poetry in the Psalms is actually a celebration of the psalmist’s war victories over enemies.
Take Psalm 7, for example. David tells a story of unjust persecution, divine intervention, and the just punishment of his enemies, who sought not only to murder him but to humiliate him AND God’s truth while doing it (Psalm 7:8). At the end of the Psalm, David declares his response to his enemy’s comeuppance: “I will praise the LORD according to His righteousness, and I will sing praise to the Most High” (Psalm 7:17). This verse of praise is a celebration of God’s victory over enemies. We see this pattern over and over in the Psalms. Psalms 3, 5, 9, 18, and 20 (just to name some in the first 20 of the 150) contain similar refrains of praise in response to God’s victorious intervention. So how does this pertain to worship in our modern culture? What can we learn from this Scriptural pattern?
First, I think it’s important to point out that we are still just as much at war as David was, even though “the game has changed” as well as the cultural context with the dawning of the New Covenant. As Ephesians 6:12 says, “Our war is not with flesh and blood but with the rulers, the principalities, and with the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Our war as the New Israel is a spiritual one.
But we often forget that we are at war. As A.W. Tozer said, “Many Christians view this world as a playground rather than a battleground.” The less we engage in the battle against Satan and his kingdom, the less we experience real victory. And if we never experience the thrilling victories of being on God’s side of the war (the winning side!), there’s not nearly as much to praise Him for. This is one underlying cause of the lethargic worship you see in many churches – not much victory is being experienced. Maybe mostly defeat, or just plain apathy (which is defeat by default – a forfeit). When there’s so little victory, there’s little cause for celebration. And certainly not much cause for enthusiasm!
Some of the most raucous praise in Scripture is a direct celebration of watching God triumph over evil. Look at the elaborate, epic worship song sung by the Israelites just after crossing the Red Sea and seeing their oppressors, the Egyptians, swallowed up behind them (see Exodus 18). Look at the similarly epic worship song sung by King David in Psalm 18 (echoed in 2 Samuel 22) which was written “when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all His enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (see preface to Psalm 18). These songs are moving, inspired poetry, filled with striking imagery, lively metaphor, passion, and a genuine, overwhelmed tone of joy and gratitude. They were inspired by real events in the lives of the worshippers, not a desire to hit the top of the worship pop charts (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with hitting the top of the worship charts, mind you). They are deeply personal experiences of victory.
We often don’t “get the Psalms” because we often choose not to live on the front lines of the spiritual war like David and Moses did. We therefore miss out on the exhilarating highs and dejecting lows of the battle as it rages on. The Psalms are set in a culture rife with opposition and dangerous enemies, where opting out of the battle wasn’t an option (no police officers, no court systems…even these would be laughably insufficient remedies for the ruthlessly implacable armies overrunning the region). If we want our worship to be a God-glorifying feast of celebration, we need to enlist in the battle (2 Timothy 2:4), accept its risks, and let our praise arise out of the thrill of Yahweh’s endless string of victories, just as it does in the Psalms.
I noticed this quite quickly in my experience as a worship leader: the congregation became most passionate, animated, and joyful when singing a lyric referencing spiritual warfare and the victory of Christ over the devil. It is not a coincidence that most of the praise in the Psalms is of this sort. Nothing “fires up” the human spirit like being immersed in a just battle. There’s an inherent desire in each of us to not just be good, but fight for good. That’s when we’re most fully alive. As Oswald Chambers wrote, “You are not fully alive until you’re living for something you’re willing to die for.” Part of my prescription for livening up corporate worship is simple: sing more songs set in the context of battle. Sing about victory in Jesus. Sing about the crushing of the enemy. Sing songs that sound more like the Psalms. Sing the Psalms, declaring them as prophetic spiritual truth, in a New Testament context.
Worship, in the context of singing, is even used as a form of warfare in the Bible (see 2 Chronicles 20:21). They put a chorus of singers, musicians, and worshippers at the front of the army to sing, worship, and declare God’s glory as they advanced! When we divorce worship from the reality of warfare, the result can be an apathetic, neutered, “me-centered” worship, not worship focused on God’s glory as the ultimate goal.
Praise in the Psalms is mostly cultivated from the soil of triumph. It should be the same way in the church today. Life is not a playground, despite the tacit claims of an idolatrous and distracted culture. It’s a battleground, where exhilarating worship springs up from our shared experience of victory alongside the One who is victorious over all things.