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Psalm 97

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. 

Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory.

All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols – worship him, all you gods!

Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, Lord. For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked. 

Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.

In 2003 the worship wars where still being fought in the Christian Reformed Churches I was then familiar with (and had been for over 20 years). In case you are unfamiliar, “worship wars” is a term used to describe the hard-fought struggles in churches to discern how best to worship well in community. It was a “war” because there were casualties: people lost faith and churches lost members as organs were replaced with guitars and choirs with drums.

To be clear, changes in style and expressions of worship have always come and have always been hard for multigenerational churches. It was true in the 70’s when Bill Gaither wrote “Because He Lives”; “Shine Jesus Shine” divided congregations in 1987 when Graham Kendrick released it. 

To make this point more clearly, here is an excerpt from a letter to the editor in a newspaper from the US, rejecting so-called new church music: “There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it’s too new. Two, it’s often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.”[1]

The above was written in response to the work of Isaac Watts… in 1723. Again, Isaac Watts is the composer of such (now) traditional hymns as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World”.

To (ironically) paraphrase Jesus: “Worship wars you will always have with you.” 200 years before Isaac Watts the entire Protestant Reformation turned on the importance of worship: John Calvin writes, the whole substance of Christianity works out of two things: “a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is obtained.”[2] How is God “duly worshipped”? That is what motivated the reformers like Calvin. Prior even to that, when Gregorian Chant became the official music of the church it replaced the traditional Roman chant, and people complained; a few years (generations?) later (approximately at the 10th century AD) young boys – whose voice hadn’t changed and thus sung an octave or two higher – were added to the voices; and, you guessed it, many complained.

I don’t recapitulate this history only because I love church history nor as a lesson in the truth of the Teachers words, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9) – at least, not only to… but, because, as I said with my first words, in 2003 this war was still strong. And Brian Doerkson and Sandra Gage released the song “Today”. Its lyrics sung, “Today, I choose to follow you; Today, I choose to give my yes to you; today, I choose to hear your voice and live…” And to the ears of conservative reformed pastors and churches this sounded an awful lot like Arminianism and the teachings of the Remonstrance anathematized in the Canons of Dort after the Council of Dortrecht in 1618-19 and the teachings of Pelagius that St. Augustine addressed and contradicted already in the 4th century AD. I was a young university student at this time and only just discovering how to take responsibility for my faith – and I remember this battle clearly. We would sing the song at “Church in the Box” (Redeemer University’s monthly worship evening that would pack out the auditorium with young people from all around the region; not just with university students but youth groups and high school groups and other church groups…) And, as we walked back to our dorms, I remember debating the merits of the song and the finer points of human will, depravity, and the doctrine of salvation (synergism vs. monergism, election; and free will, compatibilism, and molinism).

To be candid, I strongly opposed the song with the vigor of youthful enthusiasm masking intellectual pride. Read the sentence again… (The irony of that sentence after the over 1000 words you've already read to get to this point is not lost on me). Now, to be sure, I know it was based on Joshua’s words in Joshua 24: 15 where he asks Israelites to “this day choose for yourselves whom you will serve…” and he adds, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And sure, if we are talking about the work of regeneration and justification, if we are talking about election, and the requirement of God’s Holy Spirit alone to quicken dead-in-sin hearts and grant them new life, then yes. I don’t choose God – he chooses me. I don’t draw near to God without his first drawing me near (cf. John 6:44 & James 4:8). 

But that isn’t what Joshua is suggesting nor is it the circumstance of his call for them to choose. God has already called the people as his own; he has already put his name on them (Gen. 12; Numbers 6:24-27); God tells them, “So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’ (Josh. 24:13) – in short, “I, the Lord, did it.”

Recognizing that, the people must choose.

Psalm 97 offers us the same choice. This is one of series of “enthronement psalms” – notice it starts with, “The Lord reigns”, another way of saying, “The Lord is king.” (Cf. Ps. 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, and 99). Opening with a dramatic picture of God and his power in the world (vs. 2-6) there is a climactic contrast: “All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols…” (vs. 7), will you worship and obey the one for whom mountains melt and the earth trembles or will you worship pictures and carvings of wood and stone (cf. Is. 37:19)? But even more than that, Psalm 97 gives the command, “Worship him, all you gods!” The Lord, YHWH, is such a King that even if these idols are just wood and stone – or if they represent demons or if there are concrete spiritual realities behind them – they too, all, must worship him; gods, or the ideas of gods, of the ideas that we make into gods, must be submitted to the one YHWH, the one Lord who reigns. And that, is a daily choice and act of the will. Such submission is an act of worship and devotion; this is what true faith looks like. Idolatry doesn’t have to only be about worshipping idols like golden calves (cf. Exodus 32 & 1 Kings 12:25f); idolatry is when you take any good thing and turn it into an ultimate thing. Jobs are good, but when you define your worth and self by your work – it has become an idol; intelligence is good, but when you attach your social significance to intellectual achievement or ability it has become an idol; likewise with beauty, athletic ability; musical skill; or mastery of any kind – when these become ultimate they are idols.

Instead, we must choose to see how God has given us these good things in order that our use of them, or that the thing itself, might be for the display of his glory. “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory.” (vs. 6) And so, every minute of every day, a choice must be made: will you choose to live in line with – and out of – the reign of the Lord? Or will you allow another to reign on the throne of your heart? “Let those who love the Lord hate evil…” (vs. 10) To love the King, we must also hate what is opposed to his glorious rule. We must choose the light. (vs. 11).

And so, yes, today – and every day – I choose to follow the Lord.

Lord, today I choose to follow you. I choose you over the idols in my life; I choose you because you are THE king. Let no other, lesser, glory distract my hearts affection from you. Let me praise your name for choosing me and let my lifesong sing in obedient response. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] Quoted in Kenny Lamm, “Worship Wars” for Renewing Worship, Posted Feb. 2011. Accessed online
[2] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 126.