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Singing Jesus’ Playlist

The following is a guest post from Dr. David Whitla, Professor of Church History at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Last summer, my daughter walked into the Apple Store in our local mall, and came out the proud owner of a new iPhone 12 Pro. In those first hours of set-up, one of her first priorities – as any teen will tell you – was to download the Spotify app and create a playlist! You can tell a lot about a person by what is on their playlist – the music that fills their lives, the lyrics that echo in their hearts. It’s common today for politicians and celebrities like Barack Obama, and even the Pope, to post their Spotify playlists on the web for fans to follow. But what if I were to tell you – and I say this reverently – that you could access Jesus’ playlist? What if I were to tell you that you could access and sing the very songs that Jesus sang, the songs that Jesus filled his life with, the songs that He turned to in the ups and downs of His life on earth?  His playlist has 150 tracks, and they are posted in the Book of Psalms.

We sing the Psalms because Jesus sang them

We find the Psalms in the life of Jesus. When you read the biographies of Christ in the four Gospels, you find that His earthly family were devout Jews. For example, Luke 2:41 tells us, “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.” So, from childhood, on that annual family road trip Jesus would have sung the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), and the Hallel Psalms (113-118) during the observance of the Feast. Luke 4:16 tells us, “Nazareth [was] where He was brought up, and as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath Day.” Every weekend of Jesus’ life as He went to worship, the psalms were the sole hymn book he used.

And of course, Jesus engaged with the psalms throughout His earthly ministry – parrying Satan’s misuse of them in the wilderness, defending His deity before the Pharisees, expressing the grief of betrayal by Judas, and even while enduring the anguish of the Cross, the psalms were constantly on his lips (Matt. 4:6; 22:44; Jn.13:18; Matt. 27:35, 46). Even when He was not singing or citing them, the Book of Psalms serve as the soundtrack to the Gospels, as the Gospel writers intersperse the drama with copious citations from their inspired lyrics. So we find the psalms in the life of Jesus: His perfect life was a Psalm-saturated life, and so should ours be!  But there is more.

We find the life of Jesus in the Psalms. Most obviously, the psalms prophesy about the contours of Jesus’ earthly life. We read in Luke 24:44-45, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” The most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament is the Psalms. And certainly, the most obviously messianic Psalms (Psalms 2, 22, 110, etc.) clearly meet their fulfillment in the events of our Lord’s life (which, strikingly, are written in the past tense – arguably better serving New Testament worship than that of the Old, as we look back on our Savior’s accomplishments).  

But the life of Jesus within the Psalms is found in much more than just mere historical predictions. The Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel prophesied that God was going to send His servant “David” to shepherd His flock (Ezekiel 33:23-24), and the very first verse of the New Testament begins, “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David...” (Matt. 1:1). Have you ever wondered what makes King David so special, that his particular life and trials and emotions and prayers and praises should have been chosen by the Holy Spirit to fill the Psalter as a model for the life, trials, emotions, prayers and praises of God’s people in all ages? The answer is that the psalms reveal to us the internal life of Jesus. The Gospels give us Jesus’ biography; the Psalter gives us His autobiography.

When we sing the inspired words of King David, we hear Jesus Himself singing. The sinless, inspired praises of the King of Israel were written pre-emptively as a window into the inner life of His Greater Son, Jesus. We hear the joy of His heart when fellow-worshippers said unto Him, “Let us go into the House of the Lord!” (Ps. 122:1). We hear the agony of His betrayal when His “familiar friend lifted up his heel” (Ps. 41:9). We hear Him groaning under the crushing burden of sins – though not His own, rather, the transferred guilt of our sins to the Sin-Bearer (Ps. 69:4). We hear His grief as He feels forsaken by His Father (Ps. 22:1). No wonder Augustine wrote, “the golden key of the Psalter lies in a pierced hand.”

We sing the Psalms because Jesus wants us to sing them too

Not only does Jesus have a clearly-defined playlist; He also shares it with His people. But not in the same way a U.S. President might share with his fellow-citizens a Spotify playlist for suggested listening! King Jesus bids His subjects to sing His songs back to Him as a matter of joyful obedient worship.

It is sad to witness the “worship wars” in churches today. People ask, “should we use contemporary or traditional worship songs?” In other words, “will we choose worship songs that fit ‘with the times’ (con-temporaneous) – or that fit our particular church’s traditions (traditional)?” Instead, we should be asking, “Are our worship songs Biblical? Are they the songs that please God most, or that please us most?” After all, God is the audience of our worship, not man! If we love God, we will want to please Him in His worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). That is, we must worship with the right spirit, and according to the Truth. We are called to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Reformed Presbyterians have always been compelled by the consideration that God is holy. His worship must therefore not just be a happy thing, it must be a holy thing. We have never considered ourselves at liberty to decide what we think God would like best to listen to in His worship; and that is why we have restricted ourselves to Jesus’ playlist, by which “the Word of Christ dwells in us richly” – the Spiritual psalms, hymns and songs of the Bible (Col. 3:16; Eph.5:19).

As I perused my daughter’s Spotify playlist on her shiny new phone, it soon became clear that we don’t always share the same musical tastes. Much as I am tempted to quietly “enrich” her new playlist by slipping in a few Mozart piano concertos or Sibelius symphonies, I don’t think she would be too pleased with my well-meant additions, and I doubt they’d stay on her playlist for very long! Nor could I probably persuade her that my preferences are what she in fact really enjoys – because that simply isn’t the case!

In a similar way, we are not at liberty to slip a few songs of our own composition onto Jesus’ perfect playlist; He knows what He delights to hear sung by His people – and that should be enough to satisfy us too. With the best will in the world, when we write our own hymns, we tell God what we think He is like, and often get it wrong. But when we sing Jesus’ playlist, we will tell Him what He has perfectly revealed Himself to be, our worship will be joyfully satisfying, and most important of all, God will be glorified.