The Book of Psalms: “What is Worship?”

            This paper is an attempt to answer the question, “What is worship in the Psalms?”  I will examine two distinct aspects of thought that are the basis for worship in the Psalms. The first aspect is the worldview found in the Psalms, and the second is the mood in which worship in the Psalms is expressed.

The Worldview of the Psalmist

            When we read the psalms we are reading the beliefs, thoughts, and the emotional expressions of the psalmist.  It doesn’t take long to realize that the Psalms were born in the context of a  particular worldview. An example for instance is the underlying theology of Psalm 1 where there is a contrast between the righteous who delight in the law of God and the wicked who do not.  Here we can see that the worshiper in the psalms had a theology that included a distinction between these two groups.  It is safe to say that the rejection of this would be the opposite attitude from what we see in the psalms, and that those who deny this idea would have no desire to worship with the psalmist.  Clearly, from the very beginning of the psalms, we see a worldview emerging.  As we go on to read and contemplate the psalms, it becomes more evident that the authors had a worldview that put God at the very center of their individual and national lives; They believed He was orchestrating all things for His purposes.  The psalmist saw God’s influence reaching far and wide, even to the gentile nations and the universe itself. 

The role of scripture to the Psalmist

            The worshipper in the psalms believed that God had spoken through Moses and the prophets and that God had directly inspired their writings.  These writings were approached with reverence and submission.  The idea that God had spoken His word to them was central to their understanding of human existence. 

            Faith in the Psalms is a reliance on God as He revealed Himself in the earlier periods of the Old Testament.  The several Psalms which recount the history of Israel not only record Gods dealings with them in the past but also reveal His character and intentions for their future.  This points to how the writings of Moses were viewed as an inspired revelation of God (Examples of these are Ps.78, Ps.105, Ps.106, Ps.135, Ps.136).  This view of inspiration can also be seen in Exodus 6:2 that says, ”God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD’“; and in Jeremiah 1:5 ”I appointed you a prophet to the nations”; Also, Isaiah 6:8 states “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,’ Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me’”; and in Ezekiel 2, “He said to me: ‘O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you’”.

            This inspired word which came through their prophets was the source of answers to their deepest questions.  An example is in Psalm 73.  Here the psalmist is very perplexed about the prosperity of the wicked until in verse 17 when he comes to the house of the Lord where he says he perceived their (the wicked) end.  This perception that took place undoubtedly was a result of hearing and seeing the goings on in the sanctuary.  It was the reading of the written words and the acts of worship, as prescribed in the law, that brought the psalmist back into a right worldview and answered his questions. His belief in the inspiration of these writings was crucial to his faith in them.

            Psalm 119 is another clear picture of how confident the Psalmist’s were that God had revealed himself in his written word.  The terms “law”, “statutes”, “precepts”, “commandments”, “laws”, “decrees”, “word”, “promise,” which are in almost every verse, refer to the written word of God.  The idea in this psalm is the worship of a faithful God whose word is the surety by which they will be blessed, strengthened, corrected and given a happy future.

Theology in the Psalms

            We also see in the Psalms the theology of the psalmist.  Martin Luther in his preface to the psalms called it a “little bible” in that it contained “all that is to be found in the whole bible.” 

A well known pastor once said, “the deeper we go theologically the higher we will go in praise and worship.”  The book of Psalms verifies this thought in that the deepest moments of worship in the psalms are not expressed apart from the specific beliefs of the psalmist. 

            The psalms contain illustrations of every truth the Bible reveals. They reveal theology in the expression of the heart.  They are theology in it’s most vibrant form.  The psalmist’s theology revolves around the idea of a covenant relationship which to them meant God’s presence with them.  The great themes of the Bible are in the psalms, like God’s creation (Ps. 33:6-9) and God’s providence (Ps.104:10-29).  We see the reality of sin (Ps. 14, 143:2) along with God’s redemption (Ps.43).  Psalm 119 reveals God’s word and wisdom, while Psalm 1 gives us  promises and warnings.  The psalms show us forgiveness (Ps.51) and the trust of God (Ps.62:8).  The theology of the psalms encompasses the theology of the entire Old Testament.  The psalms in one sense are a sort of statement of faith or creed.  The psalms show us what the people believed concerning their God and his dealings with them.  The Psalms see and magnify God for precisely who he claims to be.  They are an expression of the knowledge about God and his ways which is rooted in the personal experience of a vital relationship with him. 

            Worship in the psalms comes from the heart of a human being who has a particular worldview concerning God.  This worldview is based on the idea that God has said and done specific things concerning Himself and the worshiper.  Worship is our appropriate response to knowing these things.  It is out of this heart and mindset that the psalmist pours forth his worship to God.  In the next section, we will look at all the different moods in which worship can be expressed.

Moods of Worship

            It is hard for us to think of worship without connecting it in our mind to some sort of outward act such as singing, kneeling, bowing, lifting hands or prayer.  All of these things are descriptive of outward acts of worship.  The psalms speak of all these and more, but these in themselves don’t define worship.  It is the light of God shining in our hearts and minds, then erupting in an outward expression within the context of our lives, that is the kind of worship that the psalms exemplify. 

            Worship in the Psalms is an honoring of God and expressing His worth with a clear mental picture of Him through His word accompanied with the appropriate emotions.  The Psalms show us that true worship involves a delighting in God which expresses itself in a longing for Him.  In Matt 15:8-9, Jesus quotes a rebuke of Isaiah to those who were performing outward acts of worship when he said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  Worship that doesn’t involve the truth of God expressed with appropriate heart feeling here is called vanity.   

            We don’t need to look very far into the psalms to see that there are some differences in them.  These differences are in the mood of the Psalms and help us place the Psalms in groups to facilitate the study of them.

Psalms of Praise or Hymns

            Psalms of praise or hymns extol the greatness of God.  Many of them begin with a call to worship (Ps. 103).  These psalms are full of joy and the giving of thanks with confidence.  Their content includes the giving of reasons for praising and thanking God (Ps. 8:3).  These can also end with a call to worship (Ps. 117).  Major themes of these psalms are “the redemption of Israel” Ps. 66:1-12, “the creation of the world” Ps. 104, and “praising the covenant-God who is ruler throughout history.”   Worship is a magnifying, praising and thanking God for who He is and what He has done.   The praise of God is never far from the lips of the psalmist even in times of distress which we will see as we look at the next type of psalm.

Psalms of Lament

            The lament is the psalmist’s cry when in great distress.  The mood of lamentation in the psalms is more evidence of how the psalms are an honest expression of the worship experience in human life.  There are more psalms of lament than any other type.  These psalms make it clear that we are not always experiencing times of joy.  They are more than complaints with sadness; they are calls for help in times of distress and express confidence in God’s delivering power.  They deal with the problem of feeling isolated from God.  Though they usually start with a complaint, they also express strong affirmations of trust in the Lord.   While the psalmist will cry out to God and ask for his help they sometimes end with a declaration of the certainty of God’s intervention followed by praise. As one Old Testament professor said, “Because they rejected every man-made, man-controlled instrument or institution as a ground for confidence, the psalmists were thrust back on the character and activity of God as the only sure ground of hope.” (Toombs 124)  Worship in the psalms of lament is a crying out to God  in one’s darkest hour (e.g.Ps.13).

Penitential Psalms

            Penitential Psalms refer to the confession of sins. They are especially important because the attitude they convey is essential to a relationship with God.  They recognize their offense to God and show the need for His grace (Ps. 51:4).  These psalms point to the extent of sin in mankind and the extent of the forgiveness of God.  They show that those who come to God and cry for mercy will be answered with God’s forgiveness (Ps.130:1-4).  Those of us familiar with the New Testament can especially relate to passages like Psalm 51:17 that says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  This idea shows a unity with the command to repent in the New Testament which is still essential to a relationship with God (Matt.3:2).  More examples of these psalms are (Ps 6, 32, 38, 102, 143)          

Wisdom Psalms

                   Wisdom Psalms take the general form and characteristics of a proverb.  The Old Testament has several books which emphasize wisdom such as Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This motif is carried into the psalms also.  A good example of this would be Psalm 37 which is concerned with the practical issues of life. Here the psalmist asked the question “why do the wicked prosper”.  The answer for the psalmist lies in looking to eternity and realizing that God is just and that he will have the last say.  These psalms make a clear distinction between the two ways which face us in life, righteousness and wickedness.    Worship in the psalms is an acknowledging of the wisdom that comes from God and cherishing the truth of it.

Imprecatory Psalms

            The Imprecatory psalms call out for God to bring justice to his enemies (Ps. 55,59,69,79,109,137).  These psalms can only be understood in the context of a covenant relationship.  Deuteronomy chapter 29 shows us that curses were central to the covenant relationship.  The psalms always asserted a distinction between the wicked and the righteous or those in covenant with God and those who are not.  In these psalms, the psalmist cries out for God to bring justice to his enemies.  This is not a personal vendetta for the psalmist, as seen in Psalm 5:10b which says, “for they have rebelled against you,” and Psalm 79:12 which says, “Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!” 

            This idea is also seen in the New Testament where Jesus in Matthew 25:31-33 talks of separating the sheep from the goats; the sheep are eternally blessed and the goats are eternally cursed.  Worship in the psalms magnifies the glory of God by acknowledging that the worth of his glory is upheld both by the blessing of the righteous and the damnation of the wicked.  

Three Interviews

            Here are the results of three interviews where I asked others the same question, “What is worship?”  The first two are from professing Christians, and the third from a non-religious person. 

            Christian #1 said, “I think worship is an intense adoration of God that springs forth from a heart that is softened by Him.”  This is right on target.  All of the moods of the Psalms I mentioned definitely had in common the adoration of God.  In this definition we see the idea of  “a heart that is softened by God.”  This says that this relationship is initiated by God.  The Psalms continually talk about God as the creator and the chooser of Israel.  This to me is in right in line with what I have said previously. 

            Christian #2 said, “Worship is giving full reverence to God and acknowledging His greatness and worth.  It comes from a response to what God has done for us in Christ and is both a delight and duty for the believer, expressed in song, prayer, and giving, and as a way of life.”        

            This definition of worship seems to also be right in line with the psalms.  It talks of God’s greatness and worth, it is based on what God has done for us, and it is a delight of the heart expressed in many different ways.        

            A non-religious person said, "extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem" such as worshipping the almighty dollar.  This is mostly a dictionary definition with the last phrase about money added by the interviewee.  There are many things in common with the worship of God and the worship of money.  Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  God and Money have many things in common, neither of them have any needs themselves that we could fill for them.  The idea that money has needs that we could fill by serving it to me is just as absurd as thinking we have something to give to God which He is in need of.  Serving money means situating yourself and your money in such a way so that you can benefit most from what money has to offer.  Worshipping God means submitting to Him and acknowledging all that He is for those who trust Him, and banking your future on Him, which is said in so many ways in the Psalms.  It is no wonder that Jesus used an example comparing God and Money, and it makes since that a person who does not believe in God would connect the idea of worship to that which he trusts for his happiness and future, namely money.

To answer someone who has no scriptural understanding of this issue.

            Christians are people who have found in Jesus Christ a treasure that to them is more valuable than anything else.  This treasure is a vital relationship with almighty God.  This relationship encompasses and changes every part of their life.  To a person who has experienced this, worship is as natural as breathing. It is not as if God wants to be praised so much for his own sake, but instead, He knows that the happiest and most content that we can be is when we are expressing our love for him.  This is similar to a newly wed couple whose love for each other isn’t complete and experienced to its fullest until it is expressed; therefore they continually tell each other of their love for one another, which heightens their enjoyment of it.  Worship in the Psalms is a natural way of life to those who are experiencing intimacy with God through Jesus Christ.  


            Worship in the psalms is an amalgam of a biblical/theological worldview and the deepest desires of the human heart that has been touched by God and delights in Him.  The Psalms uphold the importance of theology in worship.  They show us that strong desires toward God are a  vital part of the worship of God.  They also show us that this worldview is expressed  in the context of real life with every emotion that mankind experiences.  It could be said that worship in the psalms is a believing in biblical truth, and then expressing it with all the emotions of human existence.  Worship in the psalms seems to be a seeing of God’s involvement in this world, past, present and future, while at the same time expressing the deepest desires for Him to continue His involvement in every aspect of the worshipper’s life.  It has been said that truth without passion leads to lifeless religious rituals; and passion not grounded in truth is a breeding ground for error.  The Psalms clearly do not make either of these mistakes.  

Works Cited

Lawrence E. Toombs. “Worship in the Psalter” Religion in Life 1959-60 118-127.