I grew up in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s on a farm in the country by Lincoln, NE. The only music that I was allowed to listen to was good old-fashioned country music. Real country music from the likes of Jonny Cash, Willie Nelson, Alabama, Waylon Jennings, Chris LeDoux, George Straight, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, Lorretta Lynn, Dolly Parton.
This was real country music. It was not like the music that gets passed off today as country music from artists who have never sat on a horse in the freezing rain much less put on a cowboy hat for more than a photo opp. The country music of today with all of its techno beats, rap overtones and tennis shoe wearing front men with baggy jeans… well, that ain’t country!
In fact, Aaron Lewis sings about this problem in his song, “That Ain’t Country”. Listen to the lyrics: “So tell me, whatever happened to the country songs. Full of truth and consequences, all the things gone wrong. Someone came and changed it up, made it all a lie. I’d like to spit a little beach-nut right in that dude’s eye. ‘Cause that ain’t country. That’s a natural fact. It’s full of tails of good times and happy endings. My life ain’t like that. So I’ll keep listening to the old songs that my Grandad used to play. Full of pain and heartache and desperation and the ones that got away. The ones that speak to me, the way I feel today.” Simply put: Real country music connects the listener to real human emotion and experience.
The Psalms are kind of like real country music. They are a goldmine of human emotion and human experience poured out to God in poetic songs and prayers of praise. Life on this earth is not all rainbows and unicorns, is it? Life is gritty. Life is tough. Life is definitely full of seasons of unexpected joy and happiness, but it is also full of unexpected pain, heartache and fear. Think about these real-life questions for a minute:
How do you relate to God during the different seasons of this life under the sun? How do you go to him when life throws you a curveball that is traveling so fast it nearly takes your head off? What does it look like to come into God’s presence when your enemies, Satan, Sin and Death are breathing down your neck again? Where do you find true and lasting joy despite the overwhelming circumstances of this life? How do you cling to the finished work of Jesus in the cross, the empty tomb and the promise of eternity when life seems to be laughing in your face at every turn?
One of the conduits or pipelines for staying connected to God during the ups and downs of this life is music. Music has always had a way of connecting the emotions and the experiences of human life to the presence, promises and provision of God. But I have a beef with much of the music in the church today that gets passed off as “worship” music. At times it seems as if modern worship music has a tendency to elevate man’s thoughts while deflating God’s thoughts; elevating emotions over right thinking and relying on repetition over the power of the gospel.
So, just as Aaron Lewis has a beef with modern country because “That Ain’t Country” I too have a beef with modern worship music because “That ain’t worship”! This is the heartbeat behind our rhythm of studying the Psalms for ten weeks every summer. My hope is to help connect all of us to the music and the poetry and the prayers of the Bible in such a way that our hearts would connect with the God of the universe regardless of what season we are in.
So, today, to kick off this Summer in the Psalms series, I want to do a brief overview of the first twenty Psalms to prepare us for the next ten Psalms. I want us to dig into small portions of the first twenty Psalms that we have studied over the last two summers and as we do that, my prayer is that our hearts would be moved to worship the God of the universe. Take a look at what true worship looks like in the Psalms.
PSALM 1 :: RIGHTEOUS LIVING (VV 1 – 3)
Worshipping God is all about living a lifestyle that is righteous in God’s sight. Do you ever stop and wonder what it means to be a righteous person? By the grace of God, as you and I trust in the finished work of the cross, the empty tomb and the promise of eternity, we can say with the Psalmist, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers” (vv. 1 – 3). Real worship that honors God is the kind of worship that is backed up by a righteous lifestyle that is full of the spiritual fruit and lifegiving presence of the Holy Spirit.
PSALM 2 :: JESUS IS THE KING OF KINGS (VV 6 – 9)
When you and I survey the world around us it’s easy to see that the nations are raging against anything godly or good. Where do we turn when we see how hostile the world is to the ways of the Lord? We turn to the King of kings. We turn to the crucified, risen and returning Christ who is the King of all kings. We sing with the Psalmist who remembers that God has said, “‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me: ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’” (vv. 6 – 9). Real worship that honors God is the kind of worship that lifts high the name of Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
PSALM 3 :: GOD SAVES (VV 7 – 8)
We all have our days when it feels like our enemies Satan, Sin and Death are breathing down our necks. We have days when Satan’s lies feel like too much to bear; when Sin’s seductive voice is all we can hear; when Death reminds us that our days on this earth are numbered. But we can worship the God who saves with the Psalmist by proclaiming in a voice that drowns out our enemies, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to the Lord” (vv. 7 – 8). When Jesus died on that cross and when he left the tomb empty three days later and when he ascended into heaven leaving us with the promise of his return, it is as though he curb-stomped Satan, Sin and Death! How’s that for motivation to worship?
PSALM 4 :: GOD ANSWERS OUR PRAYERS (V 1)
Sometimes it feels like our prayers never get any higher than the ceiling, but the reality is that God hears and answers every one of our prayers. We may not always like the answer we get but we can always call out to God with the Psalmist and say, “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayers” (v. 1). True worship is surrendering all of my wants and all of my needs to the God who answers every prayer and then asking God to relieve my distress when he doesn’t answer those prayers the way I want him to. Have you ever experienced the gut-wrenching kind of worship we see here?
PSALM 5 :: GOD LEADS US INTO RIGHTEOUSNESS (VV 8 – 9)
Sometimes it feels like life is one never ending highway with multiple twists and turns and blind spots. Sometimes it feels like we are just being pushed through those twists and turns by the heavy traffic of the world around us. How often do you just hit the brake pedal right in the middle of the traffic and wonder where life is headed next? How often do you find yourself wondering what is around the next bend and you are asking God to lead you in the right direction? The Psalmist was able to say to God, “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue” (vv. 8 – 9). The traffic of the world around us is running around in circles trying to outpace God but the heart of a true worshipper is filled with the fuel of desire to submit to God’s leading. True worship is about trusting God to lead you into righteousness.
PSALM 6 :: GOD DELIVERS US FROM OUR ENEMIES (VV 1 – 4)
The theme of wanting to be delivered from our enemies is all over the Psalms. Truth be told, it’s all over our hearts too! How often do you find yourself begging God for deliverance from some oppressive enemy; some long-term words of condemnation from Satan; some sinful pattern that won’t let go; some deep anxiety or fear as you remember that the days of your life are numbered? Feel the desperation; feel the hope in the Psalmist’s voice when he cries out, “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord – how long? Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love” (vv. 1 – 4). When I survey the bloody cross, the empty tomb and the promise of eternity, I am reminded that God has done all of the work of delivering my soul from the power of my greatest enemies and my heart is moved to truly worship my Father in Spirit and in truth despite my circumstances. This is true worship.
PSALM 7 :: GOD IS MY REFUGE (1 – 2; 10)
I don’t know when the last time was that you felt like curling up in a ball in the corner away from society, but it seems to be a natural part of living in this broken world. We all have days where want to hide out from all of the pain, the trauma and the fear of this life. Where do you run to when you want to hide? The Psalmist, with a true heart of worship, runs to God and he says, “O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver. My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart” (vv. 1 – 2; 10). Worship gone wrong seeks to find shelter and refuge in the things of this world or in the accomplishments of self, but worship done right finds safety and shelter in the arms of our crucified, risen and returning Savior!
PSALM 8 :: GOD’S NAME IS ABOVE ALL NAMES (VV 1 – 2)
It is interesting to think about what happens inside of me when I am facing a particular problem that I cannot fix. When my car is broken and I cannot fix it I feel frustrated, afraid and maybe even angry. But then when I see the name of my mechanic pop up on my phone and I hear his voice reassuring me that it can be fixed and it won’t cost me too much, I feel relieved because I trust that he has the answers. This is kind of what it is like to realize that God’s name is above all names. Once I realize that he alone is able to fix anything and everything then I am inclined to come to him just like the Psalmist and say, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (vv. 1 – 2). True worship trusts God enough to know that his name is above all other names, and he alone is able to fix what is broken inside of me.
PSALM 9 :: GOD DOES AMAZING THINGS (VV 1; 3; 6; 9 – 10; 12; 16)
Have you ever made a tangible list of all the things that God has done for you and then shared that list with everyone you know? The Psalmist says, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. When my enemies turn back, they stumble and perish before your presence. The enemy came to an end in everlasting ruins; their cities you rooted out; the very memory of them has perished. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted. The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands” (vv. 1; 3; 6; 9 – 10; 12; 16). True worship tells the unvarnished truth about the amazing things God has done in our lives.
PSALM 10 :: GOD HELPS AND DEFENDS THE HELPLESS (VV 12 – 15)
There are so many ways that I feel helpless. I feel helpless to overcome my sin sometimes. I feel helpless at times when the shaming voice of Satan enters into my heart. I feel helpless when I remember that my days and my abilities here on earth are limited. This is what motivates the Psalmist to say, “Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted. Why does the wicked renounce God and say in his heart, ‘You will not call to account’? But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none” (vv. 12 – 15). True worship is relying on God to help you and defend you when you are helpless.
PSALM 11 :: GOD IS ON HIS THRONE (V 4)
When the ugliness of this world begins to weigh on my heart, I have to remind myself that God is still on his throne and that he will never be removed. This is why the Psalmist says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man” (v. 4). True worship realizes that nothing gets past God; he sees everything because he is on his throne and one day, he will execute perfect justice.
PSALM 12 :: GOD ALONE IS FAITHFUL (VV 3 – 6)
It can be discouraging some days when you survey all of the unfaithfulness in the world around us. It can really be discouraging when you survey the unfaithfulness in your own heart. But it is really encouraging when you think about how perfectly faithful our Father in heaven is. It is the faithfulness of God that leads the Psalmist to worship God when he says, “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, ‘With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?’ ‘Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will place him in the safety for which he belongs.’ The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (vv. 3 – 6). The Lord is faithful to defend the weak. He has been faithful to cut off the lips of our greatest enemies: Satan, Sin and Death. The cross, the empty tomb and the promise of Heaven are the proof of God’s faithfulness towards us who are unfaithful. We worship a faithful God.
PSALM 13 :: GOD LOVES AND SAVES (V 5)
Have you ever questioned God’s love for you or wondered if he has really saved you? This is a normal human question, but the Psalmist proclaims the gospel to his own soul in worship when he says, “I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (v. 5). God’s loving salvation of us through the cross of Christ is meant to fix our eyes on him in worship. Worship should be centered on the loving salvation of sinners by God in Christ Jesus.
PSALM 14 :: GOD IS MY SHELTER FROM THE FOOLISH (V 6)
Foolish people are everywhere, and I often think I am one of the most foolish people around. Who will protect me from the foolishness in my own heart? The Psalmist says, “You [oh foolish one] would shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge” (v. 6). When you and I find shelter in the presence of God by worshipping him alone, we find safety from the foolishness not only in this world but from the foolishness in our own hearts.
PSALM 15 :: IN GOD’S PRESENCE I WILL NOT BE MOVED (V 5)
The wind and the waves of temptation and condemnation are always seeking to move us from the presence of God. But when we give ourselves over to God in a lifestyle of worship that seeks to honor him in all that we think, says or do, then we can say with the Psalmist that, “He who does these things [God honoring things] shall not be moved” (v. 5). Worship is the anchor of a lifestyle that will not be moved from God’s presence.
PSALM 16 :: GOD WILL NEVER LEAVE ME (VV 5; 10)
Loneliness is a powerful motivator that can cause even the strongest of men to curl up in the corner in tears. It can cause a person to look for acceptance in some of the most despicable of sinful pleasures. This is why you and I must constantly be reminded that, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol [hell] or let your holy one see corruption” (vv. 5; 10). The pain of abandonment is very real in this broken life but there is one who will never abandon you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. This is the promise that motivates true worship that resists the lure of sin and the condemnation of guilt and shame.
PSALM 17 :: GOD WILL HIDE ME FROM MY ENEMIES (VV 6 – 7)
Once again, we come to this theme of needing protection from our enemies. While the Psalmist often spoke of physical enemies, we know that our most dangerous enemies are Satan, Sin and Death. To these enemies we can stand in worship and proclaim, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words. Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand” (vv. 6 – 7). God will hide you from your enemies as you find refuge in him through worship.
PSALM 18 :: GOD IS MY ROCK AND MY FORTRESS (VV 1 – 3)
When I realize that my heart is slipping away from the presence of God or is being bombarded with temptation and shame then I need my heart to be reoriented through worship as I say with the Psalmist, “I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies” (vv. 1 – 3). When you and I turn to God as our rock and our fortress in times of trouble, we are giving him the worship he deserves and as we worship him we find a solid rock to stand upon and an impenetrable fortress to hide behind.
PSALM 19 :: GOD IS AN ARTISTIC PROPHET (VV 1; 7)
There are a lot of ugly things to face in this life and if you and I are not careful our hearts can get weighed down with all of the ugly stuff. This is why the Psalmist reminds us that God is an artistic prophet who speaks through the beauty of his creation and his spoken Word when he says, “The Heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims his handiwork. The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (vv. 1; 7). True worship is all about moving the heart through the beauty of creation to our Creator God; an artistic prophet who speaks loudly through his creation and his spoken Word.
PSALM 20 :: GOD’S NAME IS TRUSTWORTHY (VV 6 – 7)
When I look back over my life and I think about all of the times I have felt let down, or have let someone else down, I am encouraged with the truth that “I know that the Lord saves his anointed [those who belong to him]; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (vv. 6 – 7). In the midst of all of the untrustworthy things in this life we can trust in the name of God who gave his Son to die in our place, overcoming the presence, power and penalty of sin and leaving the grave empty three days later while depositing the promise of heaven in our hearts. This is true worship!
As you go about your week, I pray that this brief survey of the first twenty Psalms helps to move your heart in true worship of our Savior who gave it all at the cross of Calvary.
In Christ alone we find a Savior who lived the perfectly righteous life for us; he is the King of kings; his work of salvation over his enemies at the cross is complete; he is always ready to hear your prayers and answer them; he is happy to lead you into a God-honoring lifestyle; he does all of the work to deliver you from your enemies; he is the safest hiding place you can run to; at his name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords; the miraculous things he has done are immeasurable; he is always ready to defend you when you are helpless; he never leaves his throne no matter how bad things get; he’s always in control; he will never be unfaithful to you; he loves you unconditionally; he will shelter you from foolishness; his presence will bring stability to your life; he will never leave you alone; he will hide you from your enemies; he is the rock that you can stand on in the midst of every storm of life; his creation and his spoken Word work together to reveal the beauty of his heart towards his children; he is absolutely trustworthy. Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).