The psalms were meant to be sung—and shouted
Psalm 33:3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.
William Booth, believing the 19th-century English church had become too refined to reach the cities’ poor, took the gospel into the streets. He organized his workers into a “salvation army,” complete with uniforms and military rank.
With hecklers and drunks abounding, the “army” didn’t always find preaching easy or safe. A local builder, Charles William Fry, offered himself and his three sons as bodyguards. As it happened all four played brass instruments, which they carried along to accompany singing.
Booth’s rowdier supporters were soon dragging along concertinas, bells, hunting horns, banjos, tambourines and drums to praise the Lord. Said one leader, “It sounds as if a brass band’s gone out of its mind.”
Salvation Army recruits did not stick to traditional hymns but invented their own words for rousing popular tunes. “Here’s to Good Old Whiskey” became “Storm the Forts of Darkness.” Booth had his doubts about this trend until one night, hearing a beautiful rendition of “Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free,” he asked about the tune. “Why, Mr. Booth, that’s ‘Champagne Charlie Is My Name,’ ” the embarrassed singer replied.
“That settles it,” Booth said. “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” Soon 400 bands were crashing about England, playing hit tunes with Christian words.
The Best Music Available
David and his people would have liked that spirit. Many of the psalms were meant to be sung, and sung joyfully. Modern church formality seems far removed from their frequent command: “Sing for joy! Shout aloud!” Their instruments included cymbals, tambourines, trumpets, rams’ horns, harps and lyres. Sometimes dancing erupted. The world, in the psalmist’s imagination, can’t contain the delight God inspires. A new song must be sung. “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music” (Psalms 98:4).
First Chronicles 15:16 and 23:5 report that David appointed 4,000 professional musicians to provide their services to the temple. They offered the best music available, and the congregation joined in. Nobody knows exactly what it sounded like, but scholars doubt it was all soft and soothing. Musicians improvised. Most of the instruments used suggest rousing, rhythmic sound.
Every generation of Christians renews the discovery of this “new song,” sometimes through the music of its forebears, sometimes in a form that shocks the solemn elders. The Salvation Army did, as did the Jesus Movement in the 60s and Christian rock music in our own day. David would not have been surprised. He jolted his own wife with his spontaneous dancing (see 1 Chronicles 15:29). When people know God, they approach life with a jubilant song on their lips.
When you sing to God, what kinds of emotions do you hope to feel? What kind of music contributes to that?