To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
1 I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love
and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
For many people, the first psalm they ever learn by heart, the first psalm they hear set to music, the first psalm they ever fall in love with, is psalm 23. It remains, to this day, the most popular of all 150 psalms. But it wasn’t my first or favorite psalm. In fact, for a narrow generational window of people that includes me, my wife Amy, my high school best friends John Wahrmund and John Feighery, Craig Field (and possibly Amy Field, too), you are more likely to hear that the first psalm we ever fell in love with and committed to memory (at least the first three verses) was this one…Psalm 40.
Why? Because of an Irish rock band called U2. For many years in the 80s and 90s, U2 would close every concert with their rendition of Psalm 40. To be fair, I didn’t memorize it because it was a psalm…I memorized it because it was a U2 song, and I memorized the lyrics to most of their songs (this was in the days before the internet, when you couldn’t just google they lyrics to a song you liked; if you wanted to sing it in the shower, you had to memorize it).
Right before the chorus in U2’s version of Psalm 40, Bono (the lead singer) sings the words “I will sing, sing a new song.” This is a paraphrase of verse 3, “He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”
This idea of singing a new song really appealed to me as a teenager–I suppose it appeals to most teenagers, who are just beginning to form their own musical tastes distinct from their parents. I would belt out those words “I will sing, sing a new song” thinking that it was true, never realizing that I was actually singing the words to a song that was over 4,000 years old!
But this idea of “singing a new song” is a thread that runs throughout the book of Psalms. Those words (with some minor variations) appear in Psalm 33, Psalm 40, Psalm 42, Psalm 96, Psalm 98, Psalm 144, and Psalm 149. In fact, whenever the word “song” appears in the psalms, it is accompanied by the adjective “new” more than any other adjective (“joyful” comes in a distant second, followed by “loud” in third place).
By contrast, the adjectives “old,” “favorite,” or “familiar” never once appear with the word “song” in the Psalms (or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter) even though that seems to be the kind of song we like to sing most often in worship.
Please don’t misunderstand me here: There’s nothing inherently wrong with singing our favorite songs in worship, or following time-honored traditions and customs in our order of worship. The problem is when we get too attached to these things, too hardened in our belief that the only songs to sing are the ones we’re already singing, and the only way to worship is the way we are worshiping.
If we take the message of the Psalms seriously, our worship–while uplifting the best of our traditions and heritage–should also be pushing forward into new expressions, new songs, new forms and new ways of praising God. And so should we, in our individual worship. This is in keeping with our reformed heritage and the idea that Presbyterians are reformed and always reforming. Or as one of our Presbyterian founding fathers, John Knox put it,
“No policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies which men have devised are but temporal, so they may, and ought to be, changed, when they foster superstition rather than edify the Kirk.”
Now is probably as good a time as any to announce that beginning next week, we’ll be changing the order of worship in both services–not drastically, but significantly. The general idea behind the changes is to create an extended time of uninterrupted (or minimally interrupted) singing at the beginning of the service, and (as I’ve mentioned to you several times in the past few weeks) to encourage and foster more congregational singing.
A secondary reason for the changes is to update some of the language that we use for our prayers and creeds, in order to better reflect the language we actually use when we pray and when we talk to each other. Now, as a former high school English teacher who taught Shakespeare to teenagers for many years (and loved it!) I like Elizabethan English as much as the next guy.
But despite the popular belief, Jesus Christ spaketh not with thees and thous in King James English. What made the King James translation of the Bible so beautiful, so popular when it was first published in 1611, was that it used the language and idiom that was currently spoken by most English speaking peoples…in 1611. It’s finally time, I think, to move on…to sing a new song to the Lord.
For those in the early service, if you follow the words on the projection screen, you’ll be okay. And for those in the second service, we’ll be putting the Lord’s prayer and the Apostles Creed back in the bulletin again.
With all that said, now I’d like to get back to Psalm 40, and the implications this Psalm holds for each of us as individuals, who sometimes feel like we are stuck in a deep pit, sinking in the muck and mire of our overwhelming responsibilities, anxieties and heavy burdens.
When I read a Psalm like Psalm 40, the English major in me can’t help but notice the verbs. There’s a lot of action going on in this Psalm, and it falls into two categories. Things the Psalmist does, and things God does. The things the Psalmist does begin, naturally, with the pronoun “I.” I waited, I said, I delight, I have told, I have not restrained, I have not hidden, I have spoken, I have not concealed. That’s eight things “I” the psalmist have done (in case you were counting).
And in perfect, poetic balance, there are eight things that God does in this Psalm. At first, the Psalmist describes these things in the third person: He inclined, he heard my cry, he drew me up, he set my feet, he put a new song in my mouth. But then the Psalmist shifts from talking about God, to talking directly to God: You have multiplied, you have given me, you have not required. Also eight things.
By the way, that’s a great pattern that appears often in the psalms — we move, in our worship together, and in our personal devotional life, from speaking about God (telling others what God has done) to speaking directly to God in prayer and praise.
And God matches us step for step, measure for measure…or so it may seem. But look closer at Psalm 40. Look at the order in which all those I’s and he’s and you’s come. Because really, there’s only ONE thing the Psalmist does before God springs into action: I waited patiently for the Lord. And then the Lord inclined and heard my cry, he lifted me up out of the pit, he set my feet upon a rock, he made my steps secure, he put a new song in my mouth. And all I did was wait patiently on the Lord.
All the rest of things that “I” the psalmist did, are then simply thankful responses to what God has already done, including singing that new song that he already put in my mouth. I said, I delight, I have told, I have not restrained, I have not hidden, I have spoken, I have not concealed. How could I conceal your steadfast love when you have done so much for me?
The message of Psalm 40 is that our God loves us, watches over us, saves us, raises us up, and puts us on solid ground. In other words, God does the heavy lifting. What’s our job? To wait patiently for the Lord. And then, to be thankful all of our days; to sing a new song; to tell others of his faithfulness and steadfast love.