A Fundamental Understanding of the Book of Psalms as Prophetic Ministry of Music

Dr. Allen Ross

I want to start with the fundamental understanding of the book of Psalms as a prophetic ministry.

I think it’s important that people who are involved in music ministry in the church, and people in the pew as well, need to understand the nature of what we’re doing in music and music in worship. It might go a long way to clarify some of the arguments and disagreements people have over what type of music to use. That’s what I’m hoping to do.

I’m going to take you, for our study, through Psalm 50. We sang some of it here just a moment ago. But I want to back up before I start and just give you a little bit of information that will help you, I think, with where we’re going here.

For that I need to take you to another section of the Bible. We probably know—I think everybody pretty much knows now—that the book of Psalms was the temple hymnbook and prayer book combined. Out of the books of the Bible, I would imagine that Psalms, as well as perhaps Leviticus and Deuteronomy, were the three best-known books in the Old Testament—the Psalms, of course, because they sang them and prayed them and rehearsed them and meditated on them. It provided for the sanctuary, the music, the liturgy, the prayers, the praises, and I hope before we get through today you understand how all those come together. But it also provided people with an opportunity for their own meditations. When they would go home, this would be very easy for them—they may not have stacks of Bibles on the nightstand beside them like we do, but if you think about it, the music that is sung most frequently stays with you—you know it, and if you’re singing the Psalms, then, when you are lying in your bed at night and meditating, lines of instructions and even entire songs might come to mind that you could meditate in those parts of the Scripture very easily.

It’s the whole life—the whole spiritual life that we’re talking about when we study the Psalms. But they also knew, and this is important that needs to be stressed even more so today, thanks to some of the false teaching out there, but it’s important to remember that these Psalms are divinely inspired. They are not just ordinary music from the Ancient Near East. I say that, because today, you’ll read books about Psalms or about the worship of Israel and they make statements like we have no right to believe that the book of Psalms or the book of Genesis is any different than any other piece of literature in the ancient world. Well, we as believers in Christ and in the historic Christian faith, don’t take that view. And the Israelites didn’t either because when a piece of literature was written by a prophet or when a Psalm was written, there was already in their mind a mentality of divine inspiration.

This was not just a private composition or just a poem that they’d go around trying to get it published somewhere. They would immediately deposit it in the sanctuary. And the hymns and the prayers that would be deposited in the sanctuary would be then for the Levitical choirs to use whenever people came to worship. They weren’t set in a worship pattern where you only have a couple of hours a week. The sanctuary was open every day every week.

People would come to the sanctuary with their prayers, with their needs, with their thanksgiving. And if they hadn’t enough ability to express what they wanted to say when they came in with their sacrifices, the Levitical choirs did know—they had the whole collection and they could sing one of the Psalms that was appropriate for what the person was doing. Whether it was a deeply felt prayer need or whether it was a celebration—they were all there.

So they knew that this was part of God’s design for the worship in the sanctuary and that the words that they were singing were not simply the words of some clever writer or some great poet—even though they were written by great poets and clever writers, they are divinely inspired as David himself said—the Spirit of God is working through me, he’s writing what God wants to be written and what the church needs to hear and what the praises of God should look like.

So when we’re dealing with this, we are looking at it as divine work, and it’s that which gives it the element of a prophetic ministry. By prophetic, we know in the Old Testament we will include in that, elements of predictions and prophecies in general. But if you start reading through the prophetic books of the Old Testament you soon learn that most of the material in some of these major books are not really simply predicting something in the future but are bare preaching—they are proclaiming God’s Word, they are rebuking, they are exhorting, they are comforting, they are advising, they are warning—that’s the prophetic element that comes up mostly in the book of Psalms.

But it does it in music and it does it through poetry which will be much more memorable. And we know that because when you look at the book Isaiah for example, most of it’s written in poetry.

If you were to analyze the poetry of Isaiah, it’d be like analyzing the poetry of the Psalms, because there was the understanding that it’s said so well, and so powerfully, and so beautifully, and so memorably that this is the most effective way to get the message across, because people could go out and retain it much more readily. And sometimes they would choose in their sermons and their messages ways to do that—for example Micah chapter 1 is a sermon warning the people in the lowlands of Israel down by the coast of the imminent invasion by the Assyrian army. And what Micah does is he takes all the little towns that are in the wake of where this army is approaching and he makes a pun on each name. But the entire section—and this is where we can’t really show it very well in an English translation—but the entire section in that portion of Micah is written in the meter of a funeral dirge. It matches the meter of Lamentations beautifully. So it’s almost like he’s warning them of the judgment of God and the imminent disaster of the towns, but you’ve got this rhythm that is there of a funeral. And the people would recognize that. They would understand that this is not a happy song. This is not a cheer up time. This is something that is honest.

So there is a lot that is available on the types of music, types of the instruments, the way they would use them. Because the services they were doing in the sanctuary were never the same. Some were celebrations and others were great days of repentance, and the variety was there throughout the whole year. There was nothing ever the same. But this collection would cover all of the circumstances and all of the situations. And like in your hymnbooks some of the sections were designated for great festivals, other sections were designated for more of the hope of the faith, and indeed there is predicted prophecy in the book of Psalms, because there are passages that will be prophesied of the coming Messiah, and most of these are going to be frequently recorded in the New Testament.

But when we look at the ministry of these musicians, I think we see another side to this, and I want you to direct your attention for a few moments to the book of Chronicles. Not one of the well-known books of the Bible, but nonetheless very important for our instruction.

1 Chronicles 16—David is going to set up the worship in the sanctuary—in fact David is one of those people that almost did it all except put it together. Because he not only is going to acquire a place for the sanctuary, he’s going to draw up the plans by God’s leading of the sanctuary. He’s going to hire all of the workers. He’s going to buy all of the equipment. He’s going to move the Ark of the Covenant up there. He’s even going to offer the first sacrifice in that holy place and he’s going to write the music. So it’s kind of hard to study Old Testament worship without thinking of King David.

In 1 Chronicles 16 it records how they bring the Ark of the Covenant up from the hills of Obededom and into Jerusalem, which would be the new place for the sanctuary where Solomon built the temple. We are told in verse 40 he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the Ark of the Lord, to make petition to give thanks, and to praise the Lord the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, so Asaph is apparently the individual who is over all the musicians and all the music in the sanctuary, and he’ll give the instruments and the different guilds that are there. And in verse 7 David writes a commemorative song for this event, delivers it to Asaph and his associates to be performed in the sanctuary.

Then if you go with me over to chapter 25—there are more details in here, but I just want to get you the basic idea that I want to use—in chapter 25 we read David together with the commanders of the army set apart some of the sons of Asaph—Heman and Jeduthun—for the ministry of prophesy accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service: first the sons of Asaph, Jeduthun in verse 3, Heman in verse 4, and so on.

The combination between the worship in the sanctuary, musical instruments that they had, and these people who were over the guilds—tremendously skilled musicians themselves, under the general heading of prophecy—that is that they are going to be aware from the very beginning that everything that they do and everything that they say in the sanctuary with this piece of literature is a prophetic ministry. And I think, personally, that church musicians and even the singers in the congregation need to step back and recapture that idea.

It’s not just that the church hires somebody to play the instrument very well and that maybe sings—it’s got to be much deeper than that. That everything that is going to be said, or sung or recited in liturgy is going to have to meet the test of how does this fit into the prophetic ministry of the church. Not that they are up there predicting signs and wonders, but that this is clearly a message from God to the people and they’re approaching it differently than a prophet who might get up and declare the message. They’re putting into a form that is going to memorable, powerful, and it’s going to draw out of the people not just their intellectual responses but their whole emotional life—their feelings, their sensitivities—because it’s going to be a part of their life forever.

So what we’re going to do in Psalm 50 is look at something that Asaph wrote. He is David’s director of music, and while they didn’t do it this way, you can imagine just as an introduction to Psalm 50, as a chief directing music is kind of sitting on the platform week after week watching worship—that’s one of the things that people who are always there—they’re aware of what’s going on, what’s supposed to happen, what doesn’t happen—needs changed. Well he’s not going to be sitting there because he’s a musician but he’s in the sanctuary. And what Psalm 50 is—and I’ll take you through it here—is an evaluation of worship that is going on in the sanctuary by a chief musician who is observing it—and what he is going to do is something that the Israelite prophets did frequently. He’s going to lay it out as a court case.

I know in the church liturgy and in church hymnology the first few verses of this Psalm is taken to be a prophecy of the second coming. It isn’t but I can’t fight city hall, but I’ve worked on enough translation committees where we’d send the translation in and the editor would come back and say, “Don’t change this we’ve all grown to love it.” They get the last say in the final cut. But in the book of prayer this passage is assigned for the time—Advent, this is the coming of the Lord—it isn’t really, but I can see how that could be developed.

What Asaph is going to do, is he’s going to lay this out as a court case and the first section is going to be the scene in the courtroom. It is hypothetical: What if the Lord came today, sat down in the middle of your congregation, watched what you were doing in the name of worship? What would he say? Well, Asaph has two indictments that the Lord would bring, and so that’s the layout of this chapter—hypothetical court case scene—and we’ll take a look at that for a moment and then more importantly the two defendants.

He begins the Psalm by stacking up titles for the Lord and that’s very prophetic. That’s found all the way through the prophets—Isaiah and others—that if they really want to get your attention, make sure you know who you are listening to—the Mighty One, God, the Lord—that gets your attention very quickly. He speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. The rising of the sun is to the east, sets in the west, so he’s summoning everyone to pay attention to this court case—the whole world and everything in it. From Zion, perfect in beauty, Zion is the mountain on which the temple sits—that’s the sanctuary—so out of the sanctuary in Jerusalem, Asaph says God is shining forth. The light of his presence is felt in the whole area and his light is going to expose all the darkness that’s there. Our God comes and will not be silent.

Now what he’s going to do is in this time where the Lord makes his presence known he’s going to do what the Psalmists do frequently. He’s going to go back and pick up the language of Mount Sinai and you’ll find that in the prophets—in Joel, Amos, you’ll find it in Isaiah, and others, and in the Psalms they’re actually called throne Psalms—you may have read them—Psalms 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99. All of them celebrate that the Lord reigns, but what are they describing? Lightning, clouds, thunder, earthquakes, fire—because they never got over the events of Sinai.

They always understood that the events of Sinai were what happened when God first made his law know to the people, and that was a preview of what was going to come at the end of human history, when the Lord came again to make all things new—new creation and would be with all the phenomenon of nature which the minor prophets referred to as the day of the Lord. Dark clouds with lightning, earthquakes, the whole panorama there that was there. So what he does here is figuratively use that for “here comes the Lord into our presence” and he wants to bring you all this imagery of fire devouring and tempests raging.

What is the fire and the tempest and the dark clouds—what’s all that mean in the Old Testament? It’s judgment—when the Israelites first get to Mount Sinai they’re scared to go near the mountain because the top of the mountain’s on fire and it’s dark clouds—they don’t want to go near it. But they cut the covenant and come into agreement with this covenant God makes with them in Exodus 24, and then when they’re up on the mountain eating the fellowship meal with the Lord, the priests, whatever—what they see is crystal clear blue sky. So they still are not comfortable because they’re in the presence of the judge of the whole world. That will always set you back a little bit.

I was just with a group in California which kind of leads the way in the subject for informality and there was one church where they were really putting everything on the lowest possible shelf.

And one of the other speakers simply reminded them that it’s very difficult to be pals with a consuming fire. So you know, you have to keep it in perspective. Yes, you can have boldness, like Christ, whenever He is present. But just remember who it is, because every time in the Bible when people see the Lord of Glory they fall down as if dead in the street, so there’s obviously something a little less informal. But here he must remind them this is not an appearance by the Lord for blessing, this is an appearance in which the Lord is going to judge and remove the problems. The heavens above, and the earth, that they judge his people.

Now this is a little unusual just because the defendants are the people of God—the true believers. This is not a judgment on the world of unbelievers, this is the Lord appearing in the sanctuary and heaven and earth is witnessing—so we’ve got God, he’s going to be the Judge. The witnesses are everything that exists and the defendants are the people who have entered into a covenant with the Lord and made that covenant by sacrifice—they’re consecrated to the Lord and yet God is here to judge. So it’s a hypothetical court case that Asaph wants to say and which I think we can apply too that way.

What if the Lord with all of the panoply of his glory and his power and his might came into the middle of the sanctuary, and said, “I want to evaluate what you’re doing here.” You would obviously know that he is not on a fact-finding mission—for whoever does that, sometimes the Bible writes it that way because they want to present the Lord in a very human and compassionate way—like when he’s talking to Abram, he says, “I’m going to go down to Sodom and see if it’s as bad as I’ve heard.” Well, that’s God—he obviously knows it’s as bad as he’s heard. He didn’t come by heresay, but the whole point of that “go and see” is to let people know that God is slow to judge—he’ll make sure before he judges. Here Asaph is saying that if God were to come and set up his divine tribunal here, what would he find in this congregation? So that’s really what he’s dealing with.

So, the first indictment starts in verse 7. “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against you. I am God, your God. I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings which are continually before me”—in other words, he is basically saying, “You are my people, I am your God, and I’m not going to criticize anything that you are doing. You are doing it perfectly. The sacrifices are made correctly, liturgy is said correctly, the priests have clean white clothes on—everybody—it’s all going by the book—it’s all very much what the law said, so it’s not something I can punish, I’m not going to rebuke you for that.”

But then he adds, “But I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens. For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Should I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”

Here’s his indictment—put yourself back for a moment—we’ll talk about the church in a minute—but put yourself back for a moment in ancient Israel. The whole world around them is making sacrifices to their gods and the fundamental reason that all those other nations are making sacrifices to their gods is to feed the gods because it’s all sympathetic magic. If you make the god happy, you’ll be happy. If he is well fed, you’ll be well fed.

It’s all sympathetic magic and those gods were dependent upon the sacrifices of the people. They’d bring the foods in, put it down there, the curtain would close, then the curtain would open and the food’s gone. So your god was happy. Apparently their gods liked beer because they wanted a lot of sacrifices of beer. You know the priests obviously took it away and eat it, but the whole mentality was very simply that we have to take care of our gods and make sure they’re well-dressed, well-fed and comfortable, a good night’s sleep or whatever—that way it will go well with us. That’s the background of magic. That’s why people burn effigies and stick needles and pins in dolls, whatever, because there’s a representation in their mind that if you hurt this you hurt the real person or whatever, that’s the Canaanite world, that’s the Babylonian world, and that’s the way of worship in Egypt.

And what God is telling these people is, “I’m not going to criticize you for the way you’re doing the sacrifices, but you’re doing them for the wrong reason. You might be doing them correctly, but if the reason is wrong, it’s not acceptable. Period. This is a group of people going through the form and the form was beautiful. The form would have been impressive to anybody who was visiting the sanctuary. But he says to them very coldly, very bluntly, “Do you think I need it? Do you think I need these goats, these bulls? I don’t need a thing. I own all the cattle, I own all the birds, I own all the animals. If I were hungry—and I’m not, because I’m not a human—if I were hungry, do you think I’d tell you that I need some food?”

And what they were doing is, they were bringing gifts and offerings to the Lord, because the thought was in their mind that the Lord needed them and that was wrong. The thought should have been in their mind that they desperately needed the Lord. You bring a gift to God, not because you’re trying to keep him well-fed and comfortable, but you bring a gift to God out of thanksgiving for what he has given you and as a token of your dependence on him to meet your needs as you go through your life. You give to God because you need him, not because he needs you. And to do it in reverse lowers the nature of God to a human level, that we have to take care of him.

It’s kind of like that passage in Isaiah where its talking about the Israelites will be delivered from Babylon and Babylon will be destroyed—you can see this picture where the Babylonians are taking the statues of Bel and Nebo, two gods of Babylon, putting them on the donkeys and getting them out of town so they’d be safe. If you’ve got a religion where you’ve got to save your gods then it’s not much of a religion. If a god can’t save you—leave the idol there, it’s worthless. But the people in the ancient world had that mentality, and I’m afraid it creeps into the modern Christian world as well. That we need to give money because the Lord needs it—the Lord asks for it, the Lord will use it, but it’s not the same as saying he desperately needs it. He says he owns everything—he wants to have our participation, he wants to have our dedication, he wants to have our tokens of submission, but it must come from a life of faith, and the faith attitude is that we need him for everything, and we will recognize that in the way we worship.

Now I want you to see how Asaph is a good prophet. He not only points out the fundamental flaw in their thinking, but he’s going to tell them how to correct it. That’s just good preaching. He says in verse 14, “Offer to God the sacrifice of praise; and pay your vows to the most high.” Now, what does that mean? He’ll explain it. You call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will honor me. What he’s telling them to do is to correct their attitude with the proper motive of praise and how it’s going to be conducted.

It’s called in both testaments—Old and New—the sacrifice of praise. In the Old Testament it’s actual sacrifice. We’ll be talking about it a little bit more in a later session, but the way it works is: you would pray to God—that’s what it says, “Call on me in the day of trouble.” So you pray to God with some difficulty, with some need, and then the Lord answers your prayer. Then what you do—and you must do it, you can’t ignore this—you must go to the sanctuary where you will bring a sacrifice. And this is the third one, it’s called the peace offering.

It’s not quite the way we use peace offering today. You might have some “vigorous fellowship” with your spouse and on the way home pick up what you think is a peace offering, take it home, smooth over the difficulties. That’s not Leviticus. The peace offering—if you offer the peace offering when you’re not at peace with God, it’s a sin. You offer a peace offering because you are at peace with God, and it’s a celebration of being at peace with God, which means it’s the forerunner of holy communion, that you’re going to bring a sacrifice, you’re going to eat it in the sanctuary, and it’s because God has done something for you and/or because you just enjoy the fellowship of the Lord. It means you’re at peace with God. But most of the time it’s when they have answer to prayer. And it’s not going to be a sacrifice that will be completely burnt up. It’s a sacrifice that will be put on the altar and it will be roasted for a communal meal.

That’s why you’ll find in the Psalms, it will say things like, “the poor will be here and they will eat.” They’ll eat roast beef or roast lamb or whatever—or David will say something like, “I was once young and now I am old, and I have never seen the poor begging bread.” It’s not because he’s like other political people who are out of touch with reality. He is living in a time when the sanctuary is up and running. Why would somebody sit on the corner and beg bread when he can come into the sanctuary and eat from the roast lamb on the altar? It was just common people would be there, the poorer section. But while that animal is roasting, the person who brought it would stand beside the altar and tell everybody what God did; and that’s where most of our Psalms were in play. Either the person wrote it, and wanted to ascend to the altar, and declare what it was or sing it, if he was able to do that. Or, if he couldn’t do those things, he would tell the Levitical priests what happened, they would find the appropriate Psalm, and then they would chant it, sing it together, or say it. But everybody would hear a very precise doctrinal explanation of why they are going to eat. They’re not going to eat until they hear this.

And so that idea of going to the sanctuary and bringing this peace offering and telling what God has done, that became to be called in the Old Testament “paying your vows.” I know it seems like the words “paying your vows” would be taking an offering, fine, it’s an application of it, but in Israel when you pray, and you can see this a little bit more later on that when you pray for something, you ask God for healing or for deliverance, whatever it happens to be—while you are praying for it you would include in your prayer what you are going to say when God answers the prayer. It’s done by faith.

And then it’s also done to give God a pretty good reason—we today say we pray according to the will of God. This is how they did it: “Lord, I want you to deliver me from my enemies, and when you do, this is what I’m going to say in the sanctuary. So, Lord, if you want this said in the sanctuary, you need to deliver me from my enemies.” That made them think through is this really what God wants said in the sanctuary. Is this really the right motivation? But all of those are going to be called the vows they will make—we call it a vow of praise.

They’re going through their prayer—they’ll say, “This is what I will say when I go to the sanctuary,” “I will praise the Lord in the sanctuary,” and they’ll use other expressions too—like they’ll say, “Lord, can the grave praise you?”—In other words, if you don’t deliver me and I die and go to the grave, I mean, what am I going to say about your faithfulness? Nothing. So if you want me to go in and say you rescued me from death, you restored me to life, then you’ll have to do that, and I’m perfectly willing to go in and say this.” And that was paying the vows.

So that’s what he says here—you offer this sacrifice of praise to God, and pay your vows, you bring the animal, you bring that sacrifice, which is going to be characterized by praise, and then when you’ve made your vows that [is] the praise proper. And the sequence goes like this: you call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, you will answer.

The corrective form is always praise. In fact, we’re going to have that common theme through all the Psalms today that proper biblical praise is the real evidence of true spirituality. Place an emphasis on proper biblical praise—[you go to a football match in England and you’re in the bottom seating order here,] praising God, your songs you’re singing. You’re kneeling with proper biblical praise, which is going to focus on the Lord, who He is, what he has done, and that will make the biblical praise that you offer part of a prophetic ministry, because you do it to edify the other people that are there.

That’s the whole emphasis in the book of Psalms. There are people in the sanctuary. They need to hear that God answered prayer. They need to hear that he can restore to health. They need to hear that someone else tried to live independently of God, and God corrected him, and now he’s been brought back. They need to hear this to encourage them, to edify them, and to warn them as well.

And so praise—this is what he’s saying—you can’t simply say, “Okay, we’ve been going through the motions, beautiful, but we really haven’t got our hearts into this”—attempting formalism—“so if we just sing more music that’ll help.” That’s not what he’s talking about, because when he says, “You are made to praise me; you offer the sacrifice,” you can’t do that properly unless you go back and renovate your prayers. Because praise begins with the prayers. “You cry out to me in the time of need.” When you realize in this situation you need God desperately, so you cry out to him and, basically, he answers the prayer one way or the other, in certain ways shorter—sometimes he makes you wait—but all of a sudden there’s a reality to your faith that is now going to find expression in what you say in the congregation, and that combination is what turns this into the change in worship that is going to come.

It calls for, not just a change of music, it calls for a change of the spiritual life that will lead to use of music and praise in the sanctuary. And for people who sing the hymn book, every time they sing Psalm 50 they would be reminded, “We’re not here to put on a good show; we’re not here to go through all the motions, and with the beautiful choirs with the flowing white robes, the beautiful smell of the aroma of the frankincense. We’re here because we desperately need God.” And when we know we need God, and he meets our needs, then what will flow is a genuine praise and worship that will be even more beautiful because it has come from the heart.

Now there’s a second indictment that he brings up is here. The first one formalism—perfectly good form but that’s not the correct need. Second is the indictment of hypocrisy. These two kind of go together. Certainly the hypocrisy leads the way. You become involved in some kind of sin and kind of prolong it, so you become indifferent to it. What’s the first thing that goes? It’s your prayer life. You’re not really on speaking terms with the Almighty so you don’t pray as much. Your praise isn’t going to be there except showmanship, you go into church, you’d sing loud so everybody thinks you’re a Christian.

There’s something that’s not real you become cold. It’s like in Shakespeare, you know, where you’re insistent—he [Macbeth] wants to say Amen but it keeps getting caught in his throat. He can’t say the Amens because the sin is in the way. That’s what he says—that’s to you the way God says. Now keep in mind, in this context, they are members to the congregation.

Only God knows which are the truly righteous and which are the truly unrighteous. But he’s just speaking to the congregation, “To the wicked God says, What right have you to recite my laws, or take my cup to your lips?” We would say, “Why do you go around quoting Scripture? Why are you every week saying the creeds you know that don’t mean a thing to you? What right do you have to do that, since you hate my instruction and cast my words behind you?”

In other words, you claim to be a member of the congregation, you’re saying all the right things but you really don’t want to obey the Word of God. You hate, you pretend, or you have a pretense here, [let me] give some examples. Because in a song that is built on a court case, they always love to go back and pick out a few representative commands to make sure that you know where this is coming from:

  • “When you see a thief, you consent with him.”
    It doesn’t say you stole anything, but you are very comfortable with thieves. In fact, you might have a good laugh out of somebody who nicks something from the airlines, something from you. You’re comfortable with that; it’s just a game.
  • “You throw in your lot with adulterers.”
    Doesn’t quite say that you’ve committed adultery—it’s just that you hang out with some. You’re not judging them, you’re not troubled by this, you’re very comfortable in a world that is totally abandoning the truth of the word of God. But then he does get to something that he is more direct with.
  • “You use your mouth for evil, you harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.”
    So now he’s gotten right down to the more common practices of how these people will try to destroy or tear down other people, close family members, members of the congregation.

There’s no spirit of harmony. There’s no spirit of unity here. Which means there’s not going to be any good music because you can’t have it without the unity and the harmony. They’re not true worshippers, they don’t want to obey the Scriptures. They are very comfortable hanging out with sinners. and as a result Asaph is saying, “What right do you have being here, quoting all these Scriptures?”

Well, we could say today, “We want you there in the sanctuary. You don’t have to be super saints, but we want you there, because you need to hear the truth. You need to hear the gospel, you need to hear what’s going on.” They did that too. They wanted them there, because the prophets would preach and the Levites would teach. Maybe they would wake up, but they don’t have a right to be there. If you don’t really believe in the Lord, you don’t have a right to be in the congregation.

But the progression is interesting and there’s a movement, when you start to become, let’s say, indulgent in the society, that you open up the doorway to something that is going to lead to greater problems. Alexander Pope put it this way in one of his Essay On Man. He said, “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, too familiar its face, we first endure, then tolerate, then embrace.”

That’s the progression of evil. Then pretty soon you realize that this isn’t too bad and you can embrace it a little more because it isn’t nipped in the bud. That’s why sin is so deceitful, and is so difficult, because we want to be loving, tolerant care for the saints, but there still must for the true believer be a line that says “this we do not cross” and we must—we’re not going to change the mentality of a godless society any more than Paul thought he was going to convert the whole universe. You’re dealing with a world that is really in the clutches of Satan, and yet you have to hold this line within your life as a believer in the Lord, and as a worshipper, and someone who is praising God in the sanctuary. You do not give any credence to the world’s system and what it offers.

In fact, there is a little Psalm just over a couple pages here—kind of interesting on this note—it’s Psalm 15—it’s a very brief one and I want to mention it because we’re going to talk here a little bit later about gatekeepers. The gatekeepers in Israel were priests who were stationed at the gates. They were not there to hand out bulletins and welcome the people. They are there to ask them questions because going into the sanctuary of Israel was not just anybody could come in and we welcome you—they had to go through a liturgy of questions and answers. And in Psalm 15 the question is going to be the same in most of these Psalms. The worshipper will ask, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may ascend on your holy hill?” Who has the right to come into the sanctuary of God in Jerusalem and fellowship with the holy and living God? It’s an important question, because it’s not just coming in and listening to the sermon and slipping out the back. You’re going in for sacrifices and prayers and the whole bit.

So the answer comes from the priests, and it’s going to mimic the ten commandments, because there are ten of them; but these are more things people would do than say, the major commandments:

  • the one whose walk is blameless,
  • who does what is righteous,
  • who speaks the truth from his heart,
  • who has no slander on his tongue,
  • who does his neighbor no wrong,
  • casts no slur on his fellow man,
  • who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord,
  • keeps his oath even when it hurts,
  • doesn’t put out his money with usury,
  • does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

This is the person who is a righteous person who is able to come into the presence of the Lord and worship. That’s quite a list. Most of us would knock out on the first one—whose walk is blameless.

You say, “Well, wait—what’s the point of a liturgy like this at the gate?” It’s not to keep people away, it’s to tell them you may come in, but you better have a sacrifice for your sin. You better come in and make a confession, you better get yourself ready.

But in the list—despising a vile man—a vile man is somebody who is worthless and wicked and yet very deceptive and appealing, and that line itself sticks out because in the modern version, we make them heroes. We give them TV shows, we lift them up because they’re much more interesting than a show about somebody who’s living a normal, quiet, peaceful, righteous life—that’s not what people want to see. They want to see violence and worthlessness and wickedness. And so the attitude people have about the world around them is going to be a bit of who they are spiritually.

The genuine believer knows that the world is corrupt. What he is saying here is, if you got caught up in the world, then you don’t have the right to be here, being at peace with God. So what does he tell them to do?

He says, “First of all, these things you have done and I kept silent. You thought I was altogether like you”—in other words, they misunderstood God’s patience for God’s permission. “God hasn’t struck me down yet, we must be okay.” He waited 45 years before he crippled Jacob, so don’t confuse his patience.

He said, “I will rebuke you, I will accuse you to your face. Consider this, you forget God, and I will tear you to pieces with not a rescue. Whatever sacrifice is the sacrifice of praise honors me: and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”

The remedy for hypocrisy is true biblical grace. Again, because if you’re going to offer the praise correctly to God, it means you are depending on God, and if you’re depending on God, and praying to God, and relying on him, you’re going to honor him with the way you are living. It’s very difficult to ask God to bless you when you’re saying, “I don’t care about your law, but I want you to do something for me.” That doesn’t fly.

So what he’s basically saying here is you’ve got two problems—empty followism, which means that the worship doesn’t count at all—it’s just people going through motions. It’s a nice show but it doesn’t matter. And then you’ve got your formalists, and in one way this lies behind what Jesus says to the woman at the well, that he is looking for worshippers who will worship in spirit, not empty formalism—in truth, not in hypocrisy. Of course, Jesus means also that you can only worship if you are in the Holy Spirit and in Christ, who is the truth. But his words have, I think, double meanings involved—that the faith has to be genuine, so that it is not just an empty, shallow form and it’s not just hypocrisy—neither of which God will tolerate.

We have, as far as the prophets, Malachi you may remember will say in his frustration, “O that someone would shut the door and keep these people out.” That’s not exactly our modern principle of church growth, but you know you’re dealing with “Is it okay to go in and worship hypocritically, or would you be better off staying out?” Because if you worship hypocritically, people say, “Well it just shouldn’t count”—well it actually counts against you, it’s another sin—so you know that’s a big problem.

So what are we learning here from Asaph, from we know in Chronicles, he’s got a prophetic ministry and he’s going to write about a dozen Psalms, this is not the only one, and they are going to be hard-hitting Psalms, because he is functioning much like a prophet and he sees his task as being over all the music as a prophetic ministry. Not just to give good music, and play the instruments well, and practice, and all that, which I’m sure he did; but to make sure that what is being communicated by the ministry of the music—by the hymns, by the Psalms—is clearly going to be understood as a Word from God, and the people will receive it that way.

That is this not just a nice piece of music we have to sort of bridge between the introduction, and then the music, and then the sermon, or whatever, but it is just as important part in the whole worshipping community as the sermon, because a sermon [preacher] may get up today and, say, preach a half an hour. It’s always kind of a question—maybe you don’t have that problem; I’m sure you don’t in your church—but in some churches I visit it is a question: How much of that sermon was actually the Word of God? Sometimes you really have to look and say, “Well, not much of it.”

But, when someone like Asaph and the other musicians sang the songs, every word was a Word of God. The entire composition was divine Scripture, and in that sense it rates up there with the reading of Scripture to the church, but set to music and written in poetry. It’s going to make a stronger impact and be much more memorable.

I think what we have to do in our music departments of the church is recapture this idea that it is a prophetic ministry. That you are there as part of the ministerial staff to communicate the will of God to the people—and sometimes the music will be exhortation, sometimes it will be comforting, sometimes it will be rebuke. You don’t want a steady diet of feel-good, but we want to have a balance.

This means as a prophetic ministry, like Asaph, you have to observe the congregation. You have to know the congregation—what’s needed and where the difficulties are. So basically, it’s a profound ministry, and it’s a skilled ministry, and it’s one that’s going to have as much, if not more, of an impact on the congregation than some of the sermons. Especially if it’s regularly sung music or music that your congregation is acquainted with.

This is Asaph and his observation of what was going on in worship. So this is our prophetic ministry and obviously there are instructions for singing here.