Have you ever heard the psalms described as “the hymns of Christ”? In Chapter 6 of Sing a New Song, this phrase takes on a completely new meaning. Today in our ongoing study of this book we’re discussing an essay by Michael LeFebvre entitled “The Hymns of Christ: The Old Testament Formation of the New Testament Hymnal.”
MRK: Although I initially dreaded a boring historical lecture as I began Chapter 6, I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, by the time I had finished reading, this chapter had become my favorite so far! While LeFebvre does delve into the hymnological history of ancient Israel, his presentation is both convincing and relevant.
JDO: LeFebvre’s main thesis is that the book of Psalms was collected and compiled much later than we might expect. Even though it’s located in the middle of the Old Testament, it was probably one of the last books to be completed. To provide some context for this thesis, LeFebvre outlines the history of singing throughout the Old Testament.
He starts with the time of the Patriarchs in Genesis. We know that singing and music was an early development in the history of mankind (Genesis 4:20-22). However, nothing in Genesis explicitly links singing to worship. The Patriarchs’ worship focused on “sacrifice and prayer” (p. 93). It wasn’t until the time of Moses and worship in the Tabernacle that singing became an integral part of the Old Testament church’s worship.
MRK: It’s interesting that even early on in Israelite history, God commanded Moses to write a song for the people. This shows the importance of singing, and more specifically the importance of written songs as opposed to mere oral traditions. It also establishes an inspired songbook as a companion to the book of the law; LeFebvre points out that “Israel’s first ‘Bible’ and first ‘hymnal’ were published at the same time” (p. 94).
JDO: He focuses especially on the song of warning in Deuteronomy 32 and the song of blessing in Deuteronomy 33 as crucial entries in Israel’s songbook. Deuteronomy 31 makes it clear that these two songs were compiled into some sort of hymnal. The song of the Red Sea (Ex. 15) or the psalm of Moses (Ps. 90) may have been included in this collection as well; we don’t know. We do know that by the end of Moses’ ministry, singing was not only an important part of Israel’s religious identity, but also a crucial component of God’s regulations for worship.
LeFebvre then moves on to the pre-Davidic period, in which he notes references to several other songs. He mentions the mysterious “Book of the Wars of Yahweh” (referenced in Numbers 21) as probably a collection of battle songs, and “The Book of Yashar” (referenced in Joshua 10 and II Samuel 1) as a tabernacle hymnal. He offers quite a bit of evidence, and although it is admittedly speculative, this theory seems to hold ground as plausible evidence for a thriving practice of hymn-singing in early Israelite worship.
MRK: “It was with David’s rise to the throne that a major shift took place in Old Testament worship,” says LeFebvre (p. 97). This involved “the centralization of worship in Jerusalem and the production of a new line of hymnody” as a result of God’s new covenant with David. He makes the intriguing suggestion that David actually composed the psalms as part of his preparations for the Solomonic temple.
Now, I don’t know about you, Jim, but it’s always bugged me that the Psalter is often referred to as “the Psalms of David.” After all, David certainly didn’t write all the psalms; what about Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, and so on? But LeFebvre’s explanation was eye-opening: “Even though the psalms were not all personally written by David, they were all identified with his throne…because of the special covenant God had established with his throne as Israel’s eternal head” (pp. 99, 100).
JDO: Right. Rather, the title “the Psalms of David” conveys that David and his descendants compiled the Psalter, and that its contents are focused on that Davidic line. Additionally, LeFebvre makes the case that the Davidic kings led Israel not only in political and military capacities but as the song-leaders of Israel. “The royal office, in ancient Israel, was a sacral office as well as a political one.”
MRK: LeFebvre presents evidence that the temple hymn library was surprisingly extensive. Solomon composed 1,005 songs (I Kings 4:32), and an extra-biblical source attributes 4,050 songs to David.
JDO: Certainly there were many more than 150 psalms in use during the Old Testament. This just raises the question, “Why these?” Why do we have only 150, and why these specific 150? In the next section of his chapter, LeFebvre gives some excellent answers.
MRK: In the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC, “we can only imagine what might have happened to the law books, songbooks, and other texts kept in the temple library. Many texts may have been lost forever in the temple conflagration. Others must have been hastily stashed into caves ahead of the approaching Babylonian armies, and some were evidently carried away to Babylon” (p. 101). But fast forward a few decades: the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians, who permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. Enter Ezra.
JDO: In both Jewish and Christian tradition, Ezra is credited with re-collecting the psalms into their present form, though it might have been someone else working during his time period. We know that the psalms as we know them must have been collected during post-exilic times due to the inclusion of several exilic (Psalm 137) and even post-exilic (Psalm 126) songs.
MRK: This is where I started getting really excited about LeFebvre’s chapter—he goes on to investigate the amazing literary and historical patterns present within the Psalter.
JDO: Yes, this is where we get the payoff. If Ezra (or someone working for him) collected the psalms, why did he do it? And why these psalms? Believing in the providence of God as we do, we can’t simply assume that this is a random collection hastily thrown together.
MRK: LeFebvre points first to a relationship between the Ezran Psalter and the Pentateuch: both containing five books, both centered on the Law of God (cf. Psalm 1). This hearkens back to his earlier note about the close relationship between the Scriptures and the hymns of pre-Davidic Israel.
He presents the surprising statistic that “a conservative assessment identifies close to a third of the Psalter as royal psalms” (p. 103). It might seem odd that these royal psalms would be preserved in the post-exilic period without a king on the throne, but this makes sense once we understand Christ as the Singer of the psalms—but more on that later.
LeFebvre next considers the Psalter’s division into books, proposing that “the first three books of the Psalter are structured around Israel’s faith in the (now fallen) Davidic dynasty, and the last two books uphold hope in the restoration and future fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. It is fitting to conclude, therefore, that the post-exilic Psalter was a hymnal prepared for a coming heir to David’s throne” (p. 104). That coming heir was Christ.
JDO: Really, that point just blew my mind. Here at URC Psalmody, we always emphasize that Christ is the chief Singer of the psalms, or that all the psalms point to Christ. But LeFebvre goes further—he says that the psalms were collected with the coming of Christ explicitly in view. This was a carefully chosen, precisely organized hymnal put together with the sole purpose of preparing the way for Jesus, the coming heir to the Davidic throne. Ezra and company were waiting for the day when a new Davidic king would re-establish himself as the ruler of God’s people and their chief song-leader. So they got a songbook ready for him. That songbook is our Psalter, and that Davidic King is Christ.
The distinct thrust of each book within the Psalter can be seen by looking at what LeFebvre calls “seam psalms”—the first and last psalms within each book.
MRK: Yes. Never before had I noticed the connection between Psalm 2 at the beginning of the first book (Psalm 1 is often considered a “preface”) and Psalm 72 at the end of the second book. They’re completely complementary! In the third book I was struck by the balance of exilic psalms (79 and 80 for example) with songs of longing for Zion (e. g. 84, 87) and God’s promised faithfulness (e. g. 73, 76). This internal tension mounts throughout the book, culminating in the abysmal Psalm 88 and the heart-rending cry of Psalm 89 (which might be viewed as the climax of the whole Psalter):
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked,
and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
with which your enemies mock, O LORD,
with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.
–Psalm 89:49-51 (ESV)
JDO: LeFebvre points out that the fourth and fifth books “answer the crisis raised by books 1-3, anticipating the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant” (p. 106). Or, to use his vivid analogy:
Like one of those photomontages where numerous little pictures are arranged in a way that forms a bigger picture, the individual psalms and psalm groupings of Book 4 provide a picture of the inviolable reign of the heavenly King and remember His faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant, even long before the anointing of King David. On this basis, they lead us in repentance—with great expectation.
MRK: The fifth book contains the resolution of the entire Psalter, with “Diaspora [dispersion] saints joyously anticipating the victorious ingathering of God’s people from all corners of the earth in a new fulfillment of the Exodus-Sinai-Zion story.”
JDO: The whole book of Psalms, therefore, is pointed at one thing: the coming of a new Davidic heir. The Psalter moves “from promise through disaster to renewed promise and expectation” (p. 107).
LeFebvre wraps up this analysis with an immensely important point. If it’s true that the Davidic king was the song-leader of Israel, if it’s true that the book of Psalms was collected to prepare for the coming of Christ, then viewing the psalms as “Christ-centered” begins to mean so much more. The Psalms are not simply “about Jesus” in some nebulous way. Rather, they are a collection of divinely-inspired songs written and collected for use by the church of Christ.
MRK: How true. Personally, I was blown away by the realization that David as the singing king of Old Testament Israel was a picture of Christ, the singing King of kings. And if David spoke through the psalms, Christ infinitely more!
LeFebvre concludes his chapter, like the previous chapters in SaNS, with some practical implications of his study.
- Not surprisingly, “the Psalter should be sung in the church. It is not simply a book to be read in devotions or preached (though it is all that), but it is also a hymnal to be sung by the church in worship.…The Psalter is designed for the Israel of Christ, and the church should sing it” (p. 109).
- We need to oppose the mentality that the church sings as a choir performing for God. Instead, LeFebvre suggests that the congregation is a “backup ensemble” singing along with Christ, the Great Soloist.
- The point that struck me the most—the Psalter is not yet fulfilled. “We still look forward to the full ingathering of God’s people from all nations, the submission of kings and nations in reverence before Christ, the purging of sin from our communities, and the final consummation of all things held out in the Psalms, climaxing in the final joyous moment when ‘every thing that hath breath [will] praise the LORD’” (p. 110).
Amen! We look forward with longing to that glorious day.
Next time, we’ll turn to the difficult topic of imprecatory psalms as we consider Chapter 7 of Sing a New Song, by David P. Murray, entitled “Christian Cursing?”