The Voice: Worship

Psalm 81 (NIV)

1 Sing for joy to God our strength;
shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
2 Begin the music, strike the timbrel,
play the melodious harp and lyre.

3 Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival;
4 this is a decree for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5 When God went out against Egypt,
he established it as a statute for Joseph.

I heard an unknown voice say:

6 “I removed the burden from their shoulders;
their hands were set free from the basket.
7 In your distress you called and I rescued you,
I answered you out of a thundercloud;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
8 Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—
if you would only listen to me, Israel!
9 You shall have no foreign god among you;
you shall not worship any god other than me.
10 I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.

11 “But my people would not listen to me;
Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts
to follow their own devices.

13 “If my people would only listen to me,
if Israel would only follow my ways,
14 how quickly I would subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes!
15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
and their punishment would last forever.
16 But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

This is one of those Psalms which has a sense of familiarity about it, a Psalm which calls Israel to a present practice by recalling past mistakes. This pattern is not limited to the Psalms; the entire Old Testament is shot through with this rhythm. This pattern is not limited to the Old Testament; our entire lives are shot through with this pattern.

The practice in view is the worship of God’s people. Psalm 81 encourages and examines the practice in three movements:

i. Verses 1-5b: a call to worship

ii. Verses 5c: a call from God

iii. Verses 6-16: a call to remember

The first movement is standard enough (vv. 1-5b). And safe enough.

Sing for joy to God our strength;
shout aloud to the God of Jacob! (v. 1)

That seems to translate simply enough for believers generation-to-generation and nation-to-nation. We respond to the call and draw near to worship God our strength and we make some noise about it. Mission accomplished.

But then the second movement; the whole Psalm turns on an obscure phrase which seems at best ambiguous.

I heard an unknown voice say …. (v. 5c)

Is this the voice of the Egyptian slave-masters’ during Israel’s captivity or the voice of God leading them out of captivity? I favour the latter given the context which follows. In any case, these few words alert the believer and worshipper that God has the habit of speaking. The problem, which is outlined soon, is that people have the habit of not listening. Yet, here it is; the second movement, in so very few words, yet alerting us to the Word of the Lord.

The third movement of Psalm 81 takes up nearly two-thirds of the Psalm. If there is one message contained in this section it is the lament of God that the people “would not listen.” The suggestion (and it is a strong one) is that things have not changed since the time of the Exodus. And so, these final ten or so verses have the sense of God holding out his hands, exasperated at the stubbornness and self-destruction of his people. He spoke so often and had so much to offer but they had other options and places to be. Tragic.

So, what if Psalm 81 was the way we worshipped Sunday-by-Sunday? What if Psalm 81 was the order of service (or run-sheet)? What if Psalm 81 was what we could expect when we joined together in worship? Well, it’s all there. The conventional call to worship (vv. 1-5b), the mystery of God speaking (v. 5c), and the engagement with the story of God grounded in time and space (vv. 6-16). Here is a vision for corporate worship albeit an unnerving one at times. One way of considering its importance is to dissect this vision and place each piece on display; to say, “This one aspect is how we now worship.” In doing so, we probably not only expose some of our preferences in worship but also our weaknesses.

If we just come to worship to “Sing for joy to God our strength” and stop at verse five; we reduce worship to formalism. Such worship is static and uniform. We are in control and no matter how beautiful our language there is that deep innate sense that somehow, we’re in charge.

To worship according to verses one to five only, is to reduce worship to formalism and it breeds prescription.

If we just come to worship to “hear an unknown Voice say …” and just reside in verse five; we reduce worship to sensationalism. Our worship is dynamic and unpredictable. Somehow, we buy into the lie that spontaneous always means spiritual. As we look around the people of God we misconstrue some of our number as spiritual heavyweights. We hope that one day “I” will be like them when I grow up.

To worship according to verse five only, we reduce worship to sensationalism and it breeds power.

If we just come to worship to hear our story in God and wander around verses six to sixteen; we reduce worship to judgementalism. Our worship is knowledgeable and selective. The storytellers among us become gatekeepers and commentators.

To worship according to verses six to sixteen only, we reduce worship to judgementalism and it breeds pride.

However, when all three movements are in concert; when all three are flowing with each other, grounded in each other, then we have a fully orbed engagement with each other and with God.

As we come together to “Sing for joy to God our strength”; expecting that to happen (vv. 1-5);

and are open to hear an unknown Voice (v. 5); desiring that to happen;

and are drawn into God’s telling of the story (vv. 6-16); as it happens . . .

. . . well I guess we begin to experience what Jesus describes as worshipping in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

And we sing for joy to the God of our strength and experience honey from the Rock of Ages (v. 16).

Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (Dunedin). He is a trainer for Langham Preaching in South Asia. He also leads Kiwimade Preaching. His doctoral research explored the impact of utilising Lectio Divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation when preparing sermons.