Summary: Psalms 96


Last week a little friend woke me up outside my window on a normal drizzling morning in Hong Kong. I consider it a blessing and a bonus to my flat summer sermon, which reminds me of a story.

A saintly woman who had suffered for many months due to a serious illness said to her pastor, "I have such a lovely robin that sings outside my window. In the early morning as I lie there he serenades me." Then she added with a smile, "I like him, because he sings just the same when it rains. When the storm has silenced almost every other songbird, the robin sings on."

Singing and music have always been part and parcel of the Christian faith. Psalms is part singing, part music, part poetry, and part recitation. Singing and song made their debut in Exodus 15:1, where Moses and the children of Israel first sang the same words "I will sing unto the Lord" that are found in Psalms 96.

What has singing to do with worship? What, when and why do we sing? Who sings and who listens?

Praise the Creator

1 Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. 4 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

A Swedish proverb says, "Those who wish to sing always find a song."

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, asked a group of teenagers to perform three choral exercises and monitored their heart rhythms during each. They showed that singing has a dramatic effect on heart rate variability, which is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. "Song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these," says Dr Björn Vickhoff.

The Gothenburg researchers proved that with singing we can train our lungs to breathe better. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain. Ella Fitzgerald said, "The only thing better than singing -- is more singing".

Singing releases endorphins, a hormone that is associated with feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin, another hormone which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessons feelings of depression and loneliness.

Psalms is not the most accurate translation of the Hebrew word for "praise." The English title is from the Greek translation, £r£\£f£g£jί psalmoi, meaning "instrumental music" and, by extension, "the words accompanying the music, but the Book of Psalms is simply "Praises" (Hebrew: תְּהִלִּים or תהילים Tehillim meaning "Praises"). Over a third appears to be musical directions, addressed to the "leader" or "choirmaster," including such statements as "with stringed instruments" and "according to lilies." The theme of Psalms is not singing, melody, harmony, instruments, chant, but praising, worshipping, thanking and glorifying God.

Many psalms that exhort the congregation to sing to the Lord, such as "Sing unto God" (Ps 68:4, 32), "Sing unto him" (Ps 105:2), "Sing unto him a new song" (Ps 33:3) "I will sing unto the Lord" (Ps 104:33), "I will sing a new song" (Ps 144:9) and "Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song" (P s 149:1). Why is this psalm so different and distinct? The phrase "I will sing unto the Lord" is found as early as Psalm 13:6 and an excerpt from a song he penned before the temple was build (1 Chron 16:23), but this is the first psalm of which the same phrase is an imperative, in verse 1 and for the theme throughout. This is also the first psalm to begin with the verb "sing." An alert reader would question, "How about Psalm 89 -- "I will sing of the Lord's great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations." The Hebrew text for Psalm 89 surprisingly begins with "mercies of the Lord forever I will sing..."

The imperative "sing" is repeated three times, twice in verse 1 and once in verse 2. The imperative tone makes it stirring and strong instead of somber and subdued. The imperative to sing makes it a time to praise and persist, not ponder or pause. It does not mean getting rid of hymns, old choruses and folk hymns. Sing a new song suggests spontaneity, stability, steadfastness. It implies creativity, continuity and collectivity, not casual, contrived or crooning.

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