It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you inwardly groan when we sing a Psalm in our Sunday services. The tunes aren’t always gripping, and I doubt the words resonate quickly. In his great little book, “Singing the Songs of Jesus”, Michael Lefebvre uses a brilliant illustration to explain what’s probably happening when we feel like that:
“Nails are efficiently designed for what they do. With the forceful swing of a hammer, your nail will sink through one board and secure to the board behind.
Screws, likewise, are well designed for their purpose. Although similar to the nail in many ways, the screw has the added feature of spiralled thread running up its shaft, and a notched head. But the screw’s distinct design requires a distinct action. It must be turned into the surface with a screwdriver, not pounded like a nail. (Can you imagine the splintering mess which would result if a builder started hammering screws into two-by-fours?). For the screw to function at its best, it must be used according to its design.
The same is true of the Psalms. The ancient hymns of Israel (the Psalms) are as different from modern hymns as screws are from nails… the Psalms… lead us in a very different ‘method’ of praise than modern church songs…
To be specific: modern hymns are typically designed to prompt praise through declaration…
The Psalms are different, however. Although the Psalms are full of declarations of praise, they also include doubts, contradictions, problems, and expectations of judgment – all of which feel very awkward to sing if we sing the Psalms within the expectations of modern hymnody (rather like the awkwardness of driving screws with a hammer). But this is part of the distinct design of biblical hymns; and, it is a distinct design which calls for a distinct expectation and ‘heart activity’ as we sing them.
… it is my thesis… that in the Psalms, praise is the expected outcome, but meditation is the underlying activity which we undertake in Psalm singing. Unlike modern church songs which are primarily about ‘getting right to the point’ and declaring praise, the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise”. (p.95-97).
So, if you sigh when we sing the psalms, it could be that you’re trying to hammer a screw, when you should be using a screwdriver. The heart action you need to sing Psalm 71 is different to “In Christ alone”. By calling us to sing the psalms (Eph 5:19), God is reminding us that true worship is much more active than passive; this kind of heart work is hard work. Like different equipment in the gym, God is exercising different spiritual muscles when we sing psalms. If you want help to meditate on the Psalms properly, the book by Michael Lefebvre really is excellent.