Ancient Israelite worship centered around corporate gathering of God’s people for singing songs to and for God, retelling his redemptive acts, and sacred feasting on his provision. Psalm 81 contains each of these elements and provides an exemplary pattern for corporate worship for the church. I see four elements of our worship in the language of Psalm 81. Explicitly, we are called as God’s people to rejoice before him with songs of redemption in our worship, and to give careful ear to the speech of God’s mouth as he instructs us, calls us to repentance, and comforts us by his Word. Implicitly, we are to rehearse the drama of redemption by practicing the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in our gathering: recalling our deliverance from the flood of divine wrath in the waters of baptism, and participating mysteriously in the nourishment of Christ, as we anticipate the wedding feast of the Lamb by gathering at the Lord’s Table.
Element One: Singing
Corporate worship is to be characterized by corporate singing. We are to “sing aloud to God our strength, and shout for joy to the God of Jacob!” Our Lord enjoins his people to be a singing people because song reorients the affections of our hearts toward him. We do not offer him something excellent in our singing, even if we have the most finely-trained choir. In our singing, we receive goodness and grace as each of us sings with what Bonhoeffer calls the “hale and hearty” voices of “pardoned criminals.”
In the church where I was a member during college, we had the rare privilege of being a church who had both a thriving college ministry and a number of seasoned saints who were retired and in their 60’s and 70’s. One of the great joys of worshipping in that church was that one could see and hear on any given Sunday a row of young men, lately pardoned of their sins, singing with all the gusto of youth and new life. Right next to them, one could look and find a widow, singing hymns she has known for decades with her eyes closed and her hand on her heart. Corporate singing like this takes the sorrows of life and the petty temptations of sin and the devil and puts them in perspective. It binds up wounded hearts and gives expression to both pain and joy, in a way that directs the worshiper back to the promises of God in Christ. Sing, then, Christian, every Sunday with the Church. Raise a song to Jacob’s God and yours.
Element Two: Hearing the Word
The Lord calls his people in Psalm 81 to give careful attention to the divine speech. The great contrast between Yahweh and the gods of the nations in the Old Testament is this: the gods of the nations are seen, but are deaf and mute. Yahweh is not seen, but he speaks, and in speaking he acts. God’s speech calls his people into existence: prior to his call, Abram was a polytheistic gentile pagan. So also we, before hearing the divine speech in the proclamation of the gospel, were “dead in our sins and trespasses,” “brutish and ignorant,” and “were by nature children of wrath.” But God, in his mercy, called us by his speech into newness of life. Our corporate worship is incomplete, then, without careful attention to both the reading and the exposition of God’s Word.
Element Three: Baptism
In rehearsing the history of redemption, Psalm 81 recounts Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt, and their subsequent departure into the wilderness. The progression of events in vv. 5-7 narrates the whole movement in terse phrases. God goes out over Egypt to war against the Egyptian gods. One by one he demonstrates his dominant power over each of them, and he delivers his people from the power of Egypt and all its gods, relieving the bowed Israelite shoulders of their heavy burdens. They who were heavy laden came to Yahweh for rest, and followed him into the wilderness. But they were pursued by the Egyptian army. A decisive moment had to come when all the world would see for certain that Yahweh had delivered his people and broken the back of their oppressors. And so Israel, hounded by Egypt, fled into the waters of the Red Sea, and passed through them safely, while Egypt was crushed. So also, the Christian coming to the waters of baptism is hounded by his sins, and flees into the waters of baptism where symbolically he is buried into Christ’s death and raised with him into newness of life, while his sins are crushed. In the life of the church, the ongoing practice of baptism in our corporate worship serves not only to welcome new brothers and sisters into the company of those being redeemed, but reminds each of us of our own baptismal vows and of the reality of union with Christ.
Element Four: The Lord’s Supper
Finally, God’s promise to his people in their corporate worship is that as we come to him, hearing and giving heed to his Word, he will feed and satisfy us with good food. Psalm 81 is fragrant with allusions to the Song of Moses, from Deuteronomy 32. In that song, Yahweh is the rock who bears his people, who feeds and nourishes them in the desert. Paul picks up the image in 1 Corinthians 10, and ties it explicitly to Christ, the rock from whom Israel drank in the desert. We come to the Lord’s table in worship because at the table we acknowledge that we are fed by God. We remember that our place at the table was purchased by a broken body and shed blood of a new covenant, and we anticipate a future feast, when the worship of the church victorious shall be the worship of the church at rest.