06 October 2010

Praise the Lord, O my Soul. Thoughts on Psalm 103

How does one lead worship?

In most churches today, worship is led by a screen that hangs down at the front of the church. One pastor of a small church in Lafayette admitted to me recently that "if you don't have a screen, you have a shrinking church." In decades past, worship was read from a hymn book or psalter and led by a speaker in the service.

In my study of temple-based worship from the era that stretched from Solomon to Josiah, I have tried to find a replacement for the screen and the psalter. I have investigated the sights and the sounds of worship, yet I must acknowledge that the vast majority of the population of Judah was illiterate at this time. No doubt the literate class, the Levites and priests, held primary roles in temple worship.

So how then did worship, well, "work" in this environment? Worshipers arrived in the temple courts expecting to worship, thousands of them on feast days, including pilgrims from the four corners of Judah and beyond. How could a worship leader coordinate the efforts of Levites and laity alike to present passionate, focused praise to God?

Having organized my fair share of worship services, I can attest to the challenge here. I guess that's what makes the psalms so amazing: they are worshipful, they are focused on praise, they connect the speaker with God in ways that are still powerful 3,000 years after they were written.

As I have studied Psalms over the past month, I have tried to put myself into the middle of temple-worship. In a recent blog I examined the role of the temple surroundings---the building, its courtyard, and the outer courts--in worship. As I have focus on the production of the worship service, I have found that four elements served to direct worship for all participants: Levites, musicians and laity.
1. Tradition. There is a reason why the vast majority of the psalms were written in the two generations over which the First Temple was built. David, Asaph (David's music director) and Solomon are credited with the authorship of a majority of the psalms. Many more of the psalms that weren't written at this time, carry on the traditions of the original psalmists. As generation followed generation over the 377 years of worship in the First Temple (Solomon's), the words of the psalms became ingrained.
2. Repetition. Each psalm uses repetition in praise of God. If we break down each psalm, we can find a simple line that would have been repeated by the common worshipers in the courts. With no screen or hymnbook, these lines would have been given at the gates of the temple or announced by the music director prior to worship.
3. Concentration. The Levites, whose role it was to amplify the words of the speaker, really had to listen to pick up on the cues of the speaker. The crowd in the courts needed a sense of the rhythm of the psalms--they needed to get their lines right, and they didn't want to miss a beat of the worship performance. I worship because I need spiritual and moral direction for my life. As a worshiper in Jerusalem, I would have needed direction for my worship.
4. Music. This is the wild card of the psalms--something we can never really recapture. Accounts of worship and psalms demonstrate that worship was LOUD, with trumpets, cymbals and lutes used. It is fun to read the psalms and look for breaks where musical interludes would fit. Psalm 103 gives a few such opportunities.

The Introit of the Psalm
Psalm 103 begins with the praise line: the line shouted from the courts, joined by the singers and worship leader: "Praise the Lord, O my soul." Six times throughout the psalm, the phrase, "Praise the Lord" (in Hebrew, "Hallelujah") is repeated. This is our link to the role of the laity. I love that the psalm begins with the people!

The choir joins the people with the words, "O my soul," and they continue alone with the lines, "all my inmost being, praise his holy name" (verse 1) and a similar response in verse 2.

I can hear music with these first two verses: a trumpet introit, perhaps, or cymbals keeping time to this remarkable rhythm of the words.

Verses 3-5 provide reasons why God is worthy of praise: "He forgives all our sings...redeems our lives from the pit...[and] satisfies our desires with good things." There is a call and response aspect to these verses, suggesting two voices in the performance. Consider verse 5:
Who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's
Can you hear the distinct voices built into the line? In my imagination choirs on either side of the courtyard proclaim the words to each other. The speaker is on hand, however, preparing for his sermon. It is possible that the speaker and the choir would be involved with this exchange.

Verse 6 is the climax of praise: "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed." This is the reason to praise God, He is a doer of justice and a worker of righteousness. The praise is loud. Where does it come from?

I want the shout to come from the people, although this line goes well beyond the stock, memorized phrase, "Praise the Lord," that they would have repeated in this performance. Imagine the shout! I can hear a cheer break out with this exhortation.

It is more likely that the choir shouted it--although I must admit that I would have joined in from the courts with all my heart (and I doubt anyone in the courtyard would have minded).

After verse 6, the music blares an affirmation of praise. This isn't written in the psalm, of course, but there is a natural break here just asking to be filled with music.

The Message
The sermon begins in verse 7. God is a God of justice, and here's the proof. He guided Israel through the desert, He seeks ways to redeem us. I love the final line of the sermon. The speaker proclaims:
"He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities (verse 10)"
What I love about this Psalm is the intensity of the praise. The psalmist (David) has just given us an exquisite description of God's grace. Can it get better than this? It will, we aren't even to the midpoint of the psalm. I want to interrupt with "Praise the Lord," but I would be jumping the gun.

The choir joins the speaker in verses 11 through 13 in a call and response. I imagine that the speaker exhorts and the choir responds in each verse:
[S] "For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
[C] so great is his love for those who fear him;
[S] as far as the east is from the west,
[C] so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
[S] As a father has compassion on his children,
[C] so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
I would add here a geographic element to verse 12. The western end of the temple complex was the Most Holy Place. From the Most Holy Place, one would walk due east through the Holy Place, through the courtyard to a gate that opened into the courts. At the western end of the courts were Solomon's Porch, a grand staircase that entered the temple complex from the Kidron Valley below. "As far as the east is from the west," would have echoed through temple courts that featured dramatic differences: the height of the temple mount versus the valley floor; the common, dirty entranceway versus the sanctuary.

There is more call and response in verses 14 through 16, but I imagine these come from choristers on the north and south ends of the temple. Where has the speaker gone? He's waiting for the high point of the psalm. Of course the structure matches 11 through 13. Let's carry it on:
[S or C1] "for he knows how we are formed,
[C2] he remembers that we are dust.
[S/C1] As for man, his days are like grass,
[C2] he flourishes like a flower of the field;
[S/C1] the wind blows over it and it is gone,
[C2] and its place remembers it no more.
One thing that amazes me about this call and response is the dynamic aspect it adds to worship. I will admit that I "amen" regularly throughout a service. I don't make a big deal about it--or do it loudly. However, these responses do more than affirm the voice of the speaker, they affirm it and take it a step beyond!

The worshipers aren't just listening, they are talking back. They aren't affirming the speaker's voice, they are expanding it. God isn't just using the speaker in this worship, He is speaking through the choir; He is ministering to the minister.

Verses 17 & 18 are a solo. The call and response style has ended. The words have a musical quality. The speaker (or the singer) calls out:
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children--
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
The people join in. Verse 19 caps the build-up. The choir and speaker have shown what God has done. The choir answers the singer:
The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
The Conclusion
There is time for a final musical interlude. The psalm will end with praise. The drums boom, the trumpets dance, the cymbals clash. The people in the courts prepare for the summation.

Verses 20-22 combine all levels of speakers in a final paean. There is the memorized line for the people, "Praise the Lord/Hallelujah." There is the speaker and the director. There is the choir. (And for those with exceptional imaginations, there is much music, too.)

This is the way I hear the conclusion performed:
[People] "Praise the Lord,"
[Speaker] you his angels,
[Choir] you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.
[P] Praise the Lord,
[S] all his heavenly hosts,
[C] you his servants who do his will.
[P] Praise the Lord,
[S] all his works
[C] everywhere in his dominion.
[All] Praise the Lord, O my soul" (verses 20-22).
This is an amazing psalm--praise at its finest. What I like most about it is the way that it lets the reader hear the sounds of temple worship. The participants' roles are clear. We begin with the refrain, chanted or sung by the people. We see the way the speaker delivers the message--and the way the choir strengthens the words of the speaker. It is even easy to hear the music play between sections of the psalm or in accompaniment with the singers.

I want to move on through more psalms. There are still questions to answer. I'm hoping to unlock three or four more psalms before moving onward in my study.


Jenny said...

I had never thought about the Psalms this way. Very imaginative and well-done. It would be great to try this in church nowadays.

Phyllis Burske George said...

I' to' had never thought about the Psalms like this. Thanks for your scholarly addition to my concept of worship!