Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” Whenever it came to rest, he said, “Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel”– Num 10:35-36 (NIV).
“Moses Praying” (1922) by J.H. Hartley (illustrator),
in James Bailie, The Bible Story:
a connected narrative retold from Holy Scripture
(A & C Black Ltd., London, 1923)
During Israel’s passage through the wilderness, Moses signaled the making and breaking of camp with invocations that gave their journey the atmosphere of a religious procession. The ancient images of God “rising up” to scatter His enemies and of “returning” to dwell among His people are preserved and enlarged in the Psalms. For example, God’s “return to dwell” is reflected in the Hymns of Zion and His “rise to rule” is present in the Enthronement Psalms (Ps 47, 93, and 95-97). For Israel, both images were a cause for rejoicing. In “returning,” God showed His covenant loyalty, and in “rising up” He acted as a warrior to scatter their enemies.
God “rose up,” not to abandon Israel, but to rule over their opponents. The Enthronement Psalms reflect this image with enthusiasm. Their words seem to imply some type of worship activity. For that reason, many scholars argue for the existent of an annual festival in which Israel celebrated its historic victories in language that proclaimed “God reigns!” No hard evidence exists for such a festival, but allusions to specific acts of worship are common in the Enthronement Psalms and in other psalms as well.
All psalms are related to Jewish worship, but certain ones (such as the Enthronement Psalms) seem to have connections to particular acts of worship apart from familiar offerings of thanksgiving and praise. These “liturgical psalms” include psalms 15, 24, 50, 68, 81, 82, 115, 132, and 134. Other psalms could be added based on superscriptions or tradition. The Psalms of Ascent (120-134) are traditionally tied to the pilgrimage of Jews to the Temple in Jerusalem. Psalms 30 and 92, on the other hand, have superscriptions that link them to specific observances. According to their titles, Psalm 30 is “for” dedication of the House” and Psalm 92 is “for the Sabbath.” An important point is that these latter psalms offer few if any clues to their connection with worship apart from superscriptions or tradition. Psalm 30 is particularly interesting because it shows how the king’s individual thanksgiving for healing became a communal thanksgiving for national restoration. This easy equivalence between king and nation– or “rebirth of images” as some call it– sets the stage for Matthew’s treatment of Jesus’ life (e.g., “out of Egypt I have called my son”).
Enthronement Psalms and Psalms of Worship amply illustrate how written and oral traditions, born under one set of circumstances, were later picked up and reused for other purposes by subsequent generations. This explains how the king’s oath of office (Ps 101) found its way into Israel’s worship, long after the Davidic dynasty had been overthrown, to express Israel’s hope for a future Messiah. NT writers, in turn, practiced this “rebirth of images” to transform ideas that were originally rooted in a physical kingdom and an earthly king into visions of a spiritual kingdom and a heavenly Messiah. If not for their success, the Psalms would no doubt be a totally alien book to most Christians. Instead, it has been and continues to be at the center of Christian worship and devotion.
The singing of Psalms was normative in Christian worship for centuries– to do something different was scandalous. In modern times, Isaac Watts (Presbyterian) and the Wesleys (Methodists) led the departure from psalm singing. Isaac Watts deliberately paraphrased the Psalms and set off a storm of protest. He did such a good job, however, that later attempts to tamper with his work set off similar protests. Charles Wesley (brother of John) was a prolific hymnist who did similar work among the Methodists. Fannie Crosby continued the trend away from metrical psalms during the 20th century, but beginning in the 70’s, moves were taken in the mainline denominations to restore psalms singing in the church. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have lagged behind and continue to embrace what other groups have discarded.
Worship should appropriate the best of culture. Many songs used in worship today are “camp songs” that have no lasting value or theological substance. They take their cues from society, so spiritual matters are “dumbed down.” By focusing on fads, modern Christians cut themselves off from thousands of years of Christian experience.