Psalms 98: 4, 5, 96: The Psalms: Poetry and Song
Do you like to sing songs, glad Christmas songs and Easter songs, in church and Sunday school? Many Psalms call on us to sing unto the Lord. "O come, let us sing unto the Lord." (Ps. 95) "O sing unto the Lord a new song." (Ps. 96 and 98) "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord...Come before His presence with singing." (Ps. 100) The Psalms speak, too, of praising the Lord with all kinds of music. (Ps. 150) Several kinds of musical instruments are named. Some of them would seem to us rude, and the music harsh. But it was made sad or joyful, soft or loud, according to the words that were sung. We can think of music in the earlier days, when we read the story of David's bringing up the ark to Jerusalem, in 2 Sam. 6:4, 15. Perhaps at that time they may have sung Ps. 24: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates." Afterward when the temple had been built by Solomon, there were choirs of singers, with musicians to teach and lead them. There was much singing in the services, sometimes one choir answering to another: and the words that they sang in the temple were the Psalms, the same that we can learn to say and learn to sing. Is there some Psalm that we can sing? Perhaps Ps. 24, and think that we are with David bringing up the ark. Or Ps. 122, and imagine that we are gathering with happy pilgrims in the temple.
The Psalms are poetry and song. How can we call them poetry? They have no rhyme, and they have no regular meter. But they have a rhythm and a balance of lines, which is instead of rhyme and meter.
Sometimes the lines are balanced in pairs, sometimes in threes or in fours. There are other parts of the Bible that are in poetry besides the Psalms: the song of Moses in Ex. 15; David's lament for Jonathan, 2 Sam. 1; the Lamentations; and many others. Some Bibles are printed so that we can see what is poetry when we read.
The Psalms also were sung. I have talked with the younger children a little about the music. The titles printed above many of the Psalms remind us that they are songs and were sung by the temple choirs. For example, the title of Ps. 4, "To the chief Musician on Neginoth." Neginoth means stringed instruments. The chief stringed instruments were a small harp and a larger psaltery. Ps. 5, "To the chief Musician upon Nehiloth." "Nehiloth" means wind instruments, of which the most important were the flute; the horn, made at first of a ram's horn and later sometimes of metal; and the trumpet, long and made of silver.
The titles of other Psalms indicate a familiar tune to which the Psalm was sung, as Ps. 22, "The Hind of the Morning"; Ps. 45, "Set to The Lilies." It is as if a song in our hymn-book were marked, "Sing to Jerusalem the Golden," or some other familiar tune. Other musical words occur in the course of a Psalm, especially "Selah," which you find several times in Psalms 3 and 4. The word is probably instruction to the musicians, to strike up more loudly, accompanying the singing, or during a pause in the singing.
Such indications in the Psalms keep us reminded that they are sacred songs and were sung especially by the choirs in the temple. We may think of such singing as arranged for when the temple was built by Solomon, and no doubt Psalms of David were then used. The music was greatly developed in later times.
These musical thoughts may make more interesting to us the singing of the Psalms. Remember, too, that singing can express feeling more fully than speaking or reading. We feel this in our worship when we sing heartily songs that we know and love.
We know the power of music to express and to awaken feeling of many kinds. The Psalms call upon us to sing unto the Lord. (Ps. 95:1; 96:1; 98:1) It is a call to let grateful affections go forth to the Lord with glad heart. (A. 8261; E. 612; R. 279) We sing a "new song" when with a new sense of what the Lord has done for us our hearts overflow with new thanksgiving. Thus, the "new song" sung by those about the throne (Rev. 5:9) means the joyful confession of the Lord in His Divine Humanity as God of heaven and earth. (R. 279; E. 326) "Sing unto the Lord," in its fullest meaning, is but the first great commandment in another form. It means to love the Lord with all the heart and soul and mind and strength. Love is the song; it finds expression not in the voice alone, but in obedience, and in every useful and kindly work. Such is the unending song of heaven. (M. 9)
Some characteristics of the Hebrew poetry adapt the Psalms to be a basis for their spiritual message, especially the couplets in which one line echoes or answers to the other. There is often opportunity here for the expression of love and truth, which so often give rise to pairs of words or phrases in the Scriptures. Find the subject explained with many examples from the Psalms and prophets in S. 80-90. It is there said, "There are very often two expressions in the Word which appear like repetitions of the same thing. They are not repetitions, however, but one has relation to good and the other to truth: and both taken together make their conjunction, and thus one thing." See instances in Ps. 20:1-5; 72:1-3; 89:1-2; 90:6-9; and on every page of the Psalms.
In speech, the affection is expressed by the tone, and the thought by the articulation. This prepares us for the teaching that wind instruments like the trumpet represent an expression which is wholly from love of good, and stringed instruments, like the harp, expression which has in it more love of truth. One is more celestial, the other more spiritual. It is an indication of quality in a Psalm when wind instruments or stringed instruments are indicated for accompaniment. (A. 418, 4138, 8337; E. 323) Notice in the account of David's bringing up the ark that stringed instruments are mentioned at the beginning of the progress, and the trumpet at the close. (2 Sam. 6:5, 15) We may also see why the harp was David's instrument. David represented a spiritual understanding of truth appointed to rule the life. His music represents affection for spiritual truth and good, and confession of the Lord for these blessings. The music of his harp drove the evil spirit from Saul, for such confession evil spirits cannot endure. We may find the same protection in the Psalms.