Worship Psalms

These beautiful and uplifting psalms describe the feelings of awe and joy experienced by those who traveled to the temple in Jerusalem in order to worship God and marvel at the city and temple at the heart of the Jewish religion.
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From the beginning of time God and man have always had a place where they met in order to carry on their relationship. For Adam and Eve it was the natural and informal setting of the Garden which reflected the open and free relationship that existed between themselves and their Creator. After they were expelled from this place because of sin, we see Adam's descendants approach God at the altar of sacrifice, still meeting with Him but never without a reminder that sin and death separated them.

Many centuries later Moses built the tabernacle in the desert according to God's instructions, and because of this God was now seen as dwelling among the people. The reminder of sin and death was still present but through the work of the priests who mediated sacrifices on behalf of the people, they did not have to search for Him, He was always among them. As the Israelites settled the Promised Land, they had a great desire to build a temple where a permanent meeting place between God and themselves could be established. King David first desired this and was intent on building a temple, but God prevented this plan because of his violent life (I Chronicles 22:6-9). It was given to Solomon, his son, to complete the task, and under his supervision the glorious Temple in Jerusalem was finally built (approximately 931 BC).

The Temple represented many things to the Jews:

  • The continual presence of God among the people.
  • The affirmation that they were a chosen people (because God dwelt among them).
  • A continual reminder that their sins were being dealt with by God.
  • A confirmation that the throne of the king was legitimate and eternal. David established Jerusalem not only as the place where the king of Israel dwelt, but also where the Temple would be located thus creating a dual significance for this city in the minds of the people. The Temple's presence validated the throne and the throne's location confirmed the divine link between the king of Israel and the God of the Jewish people.

The Jews had seven major feasts throughout the year and the Temple was the focal point for these observances. Before the establishment of synagogues, the Temple in Jerusalem was the main location for celebration, worship, gathering and meeting with God. These feasts drew thousands of Jews from Israel as well as pilgrims from all over the world. For some it was an annual visit (e.g. Joseph and Mary - Luke 2:41-52), for others it was a once in a life-time event (Queen of Sheba - I Kings 10:1-13). Either way, the pilgrimage to the holy city was an exciting event and, as a result, many psalms were written about the experience of traveling to, or worshipping at, Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.

Psalms that deal with this theme are called "worship psalms."

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 combines a wisdom and worship psalm together in one poem. Verses 1-6 are written in the "wisdom" style and detail the character of the one who worships by asking the question, "Who is worthy to go and worship God?"

1The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
2For He has founded it upon the seas
And established it upon the rivers.
- Psalms 24:1-2

David begins by establishing God's sovereignty and position as creator.

3Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?

Here, the main question is posed: "Who may go up to the city, and meet with God, and worship Him in the Holy place?" Ascend the hill/stand in the Holy Place (note the synonymous parallelism).

4He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
And has not sworn deceitfully.

The answer given is that one who is holy and sincere is worthy to do this: holy in his works (hands), holy in thoughts (heart), sincere towards God (not lifted up his soul to falsehood), sincere towards man (not sworn deceitfully).

5He shall receive a blessing from the Lord
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.

This person will be considered righteous before God, this will be his blessing from the God that saves him. This righteousness is what enables one to stand before or worship God (at the Temple).

6This is the generation of those who seek Him,
Who seek Your face—even Jacob. Selah.

These are the kinds of people that want to come and worship God. They are Jacob's sons (by implication true sons of Abraham and recipients of the promise given to him by God - Genesis 12:1-3).

The balance of this psalm (verses 7-10) is a worship psalm. It uses an antiphonal style (response type song) between singers who were positioned at the entrance of the city when David brought the Ark to rest in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:12-15).

7Lift up your heads, O gates,
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of glory may come in!

The first group approach the city gates and sing out to the sentries inside to open the gates and let the Lord (Ark) enter the city.

8aWho is the King of glory?

The response from inside asks the question, "Who is this king? Is it David?"

8bThe Lord strong and mighty,
The Lord mighty in battle.

The Lord is the king of glory, He is the one who provides strength in battle and victory.

9Lift up your heads, O gates,
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
That the King of glory may come in!

A repetition of the original question.

10aWho is this King of glory?


10bThe Lord of hosts,
He is the King of glory. Selah.

Confirmation that the Lord of Hosts (a divine title) is the King of glory who seeks to enter in.

The word "Selah" appears 71 times in the book of Psalms but its exact meaning is not known. Most scholars believe it is an instruction for the reader to pause and reflect on what has been written, others think it may be a musical instruction for the singers.

This psalm not only praises God but is descriptive of the type of activity surrounding worship in a historical setting. It was used for a special worship occasion (music especially designed for the occasion).

Psalm 84

Psalm 84 is considered a most excellent example of a worship psalm. There is a difference of opinion as to the occasion of its writing. Some say the author was prevented from going on a pilgrimage and is thus recalling a previous one with delight. Others say that the author is describing his joy and experience based on his current visit to the Temple. Despite the uncertainty concerning the circumstances in which it was written, this psalm succeeds in describing the particular joy this pilgrim feels as he visits and worships at the Temple in Jerusalem.

1How lovely are Your dwelling places,
O Lord of hosts!
2My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

The author longs to arrive and be at the place where he can worship God. His desire is not necessarily for the place itself, but for the experience of being in the presence of the Lord there.

3The bird also has found a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts,
My King and my God.
4How blessed are those who dwell in Your house!
They are ever praising You. Selah.

He contemplates the joy of those (great and small) who find safety in these surroundings. The birds make nests in the corners and cracks, the sinners make atonement for their misdeeds on the altars. Each finding a place and way to belong and be comforted.

5How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
6Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
7They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.

He thinks about the difficulties of the trip and considers them small in comparison to the joy of arriving and being in the presence of God. He mentions the valley of Baca (valley of weeping or tears) which was a dry stretch of land on the way where no water could be found. This and other obstacles on the journey simply helped him become stronger the closer he approached his destination.

Believers have a similar experience as they draw nearer to God. They find the strength to overcome difficulties that eventually seem insignificant when compared to the joy awaiting them in the presence of the Lord.

8O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
Give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.
9Behold our shield, O God,
And look upon the face of Your anointed.

The pilgrim now makes his prayer and petition. This is where the device of parallelism helps us to understand the true meaning intended by the author. In verse 9a he asks God to behold (meaning to bless or protect) the shield of the people. In verse 9b he asks God to look upon (meaning bless or protect) the face of the anointed one (the one that God has anointed). This is a reference to the king. He is the shield (protector) of the people, and the one anointed by God for this task. Verse 8 and 9 are both examples of synonymous parallelism: one repeating the address to God, and the other repeating the request of God.

Therefore, the pilgrim prays for blessing and protection of the king (the Lord's anointed) since it is through his agency that the pilgrim can travel the land and come safely to worship. The king (anointed one) is a shield (protector) for the people (i.e. I Timothy 2:1-2). There is also a parallel Messianic image here as well: Jesus, our Messiah (Anointed One) is both our king and our shield (protector).

10For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside.
I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
11For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
The Lord gives grace and glory;
No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.
12O Lord of hosts,
How blessed is the man who trusts in You!

The pilgrim finishes his psalm with praise for the One who is the occupant of the Temple, the reason why the pilgrimage is joyful, satisfying and possible. He praises God because: the Lord is a shield; the Lord is a sun and a light to his way; the Lord blesses the righteous; the man who trusts in the Lord is truly a happy man.

The author completes his psalm by reflecting on why he, himself, is full of joy: he is a man who trusts in God and is reaping the rewards of this trust.

Psalm 122

This is another pilgrim's song that describes the feeling one has as he comes to Jerusalem and the Temple.

1I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord."
2Our feet are standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem,

Here the writer describes both the feelings of anticipation and joy he feels when he prepares to travel to and when he finally arrives at the destination of his pilgrimage.

3Jerusalem, that is built
As a city that is compact together;
4To which the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord—
An ordinance for Israel—
To give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there thrones were set for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.

He marvels at the meaning, layout and history of the city. He contemplates the beauty of the Temple and the significance of the activity going on there (ministry of the priests offering sacrifices, etc.). His prayer gives thanks for the history and rulership that has come from this city beginning with David, and according to God's promise, will go on forever. For this man, Jerusalem is the eternal city of God and he is in awe of it when he finally arrives at the destination of his pilgrimage.

6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May they prosper who love you.
7"May peace be within your walls,
And prosperity within your palaces."
8For the sake of my brothers and my friends,
I will now say, "May peace be within you."
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

He came with the intention of praying and rejoicing before God but is now moved to offer a blessing upon the city itself. He prays that peace will be over Jerusalem, and a blessing will be given to those who love and prosper it. He also deepens his own commitment to serve it (and by extension a commitment to serve the Lord Himself).

Here is a man who comes to the Temple with a glad heart and is moved by the presence of God to rededicate himself (much like "coming forward" that many Christians have done during a worship service). One overall lesson that we can draw from this psalm is that the impulse to rededicate ourselves and our lives to God is one we should experience when we are in the presence of the Lord, and one that all believers have had throughout the years.

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