One defense of modern “Praise and Worship” music that I have heard from multiple sources refers to the fact that the book of Psalms is considered the “Hymnal” of the Old Testament people of Israel. It is true that, at a superficial level, the psalms have a certain resemblance to the “Praise” songs so prevalent in many congregations today. But there is a need to be careful with the “songs of praise” contained in the Psalms because the similarity with modern “praise” and “worship” music is only superficial at best (consider carefully the warning of 2 Corinthians 11:14 and note the context of the verse, especially 2 Corinthians 11:1-6).
The fact is that the Psalms in their character and essence as well as the context of their development and use have little in common with modern praise and worship music.
1) They were written by God’s prophets and are, themselves, “the word of God” for His people. Unlike modern compositions, they are not simply the product of man to glorify and give praise to God. The Psalms were inspired by God to put His praise on the lips of His people. To compare them to modern praise songs either denigrates their status as the inspired word of God, or elevates modern praise song composers to the status of inspired prophet (cxref Matthew 24:11).
2) They were used in a specific context and many of the specific words of those psalms have significant “weight” to them. For example, Psalm 100 says, “…Come into His presence with singing … Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!” This is more than the generic “presence of the Holy Spirit” that is boasted in contemporary music and by the enthusiastic charismatics. What is refered to in the psalms is the true, real, local presence of YHWH among His people – in the temple – seated on the throne in the Holy of Holies. When you went to the temple, you truly entered “God’s House” not in a representative or metaphorical manner. As you went to the temple – and “ascended the Holy mountain of Zion”, you were coming into the actual presence of God on earth.
When you consider that many (I would say “MOST,” but can’t prove the assertion with unassailable statistics and figures) churches that heavily use general “praise” music also deny the real presence of Christ in the sacrament (if they celebrate Holy Communion at all), the “praise” and “coming into His presence” denoted by these songs cannot at all be compared with those concepts as they occur in the Psalms.
3) Related to the context of their use (2 above) and the inspiration of the authors (1 above) is the fact that these inspired works are cultural productions (though much more than that, they are still cultural productions) of the specially chosen people of God who were called into being by God’s almighty work – enlivening the wombs of Sarah and Rebecca in order to fulfill the specific promise to bring about the salvation of mankind through the singular descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Psalms carry with them not only the freight of their use, but the entire freight of the history of this nation which God raised up for His purpose of bringing the Messiah into the world.
So, in brief answer to the question, “aren’t so many of the psalms simply songs of praise?” No, they are not “simply songs of praise.” They are the songs of the chosen people of God whom He raised up and saved through His wonderful working in history on their behalf. Their use affirmed all that God had done for them since Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees. It is not “praise” to a generic deity but a very specific personal God who revealed Himself through His wonderful deeds and actions in history.
This is the same God who has more fully revealed Himself to us in the person of His Son, Jesus – born in Bethlehem of the virgin Mary, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was pronounced “well pleasing” by His heavenly Father both at His baptism where He received the Holy Spirit and on the mount of transfiguration where He revealed His glory to the Apostles. Who redeemed us through His outstretched arms upon the cross and continues to love and preserve us – having ascended to the seat of power and authority (the right-hand) in the presence of God the Father. He continues to pour out His Holy Spirit to us in Word and Sacrament who works faith in us so that we may believe all that He has done to redeem us and so we would come to everlasting life.
We have contributed nothing to our salvation and have nothing to bring before God as a gift. If it weren’t for His work, we would be utterly destroyed if we attempted to come into His presence – even if we came with praise and thanksgiving. Yet a significant proportion of modern “praise” and “worship” songs used in the Church today both implicitly and explicitly assert that we have some inherent worth or inherent dignity to appear before God and offer to Him our praise and worship which is understood to be received and acceptable to Him apart from Christ who is the only way to the Father – for no man comes to the Father except through Him.
Without some connection to the basic truths of Christianity (more than merely singing “Jesus” or “God” in the lyrics), modern “praise” and “worship” songs neither “praise” Him for they do not speak of His wonderful deeds done for men, nor are they any form of PUBLIC “worship” because in most cases they are not publicly and clearly directed to the one true God. The private heart of the individual worshipper may be properly directed – and thus they can be profitably used for personal and private worship – but as a means of publicly proclaiming praise and giving glory to God they fall terribly short of the “best” we could be offering to God and have more in common with Cain’s sacrifice than Abel’s.
Are there GOOD songs written in a “contemporary style”? ABSOLUTELY, it often takes diligence to find them, but they DO exist. Such songs, when found, should be considered and where possible it should be incorporated into a congregation’s repertoire just like any good, solid music.
The question and concern is not the STYLE of the music, but the SUBSTANCE. The real problem in making this a debate over “musical styles” is that, in addition to the offense given by repudiating the past 100 or so generation of Christians who have been content to receive the faith of their forefathers and continue in it (Philippians 4:9) while offering their own contributions, a sufficient quantity of SUBSTANTIVE music that fits the STYLE of “Contemporary Christian Music” does not exist to make it reasonable to use exclusively.