The Psalms are a helpful Biblical pattern for contemporary worship in song. Colossians 3:16 instructs us to instruct and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God. And there is no better example in Scripture than the Psalms – which Christ explains contain much content about Him (e.g., Lk 24:44). While the Colossians reference isn’t necessarily speaking exclusively of the canonical Psalms (psalmois in Col 3:16 is not preceded by a definite article), we have no better example to consider when composing and assessing the quality of our own songs of praise.
Having a standard by which we may discern, let us consider for a moment the emphases on emotion versus knowledge in our contemporary songs. We have a tendency in the church today to focus on emotional aspects of our walk with the Lord, and many of our songs reflect an emphatically feeling-driven, desire-driven spirituality. But is that consistent with the pattern we see in the Psalms? Let’s take a look…
The NASB translates the word feel three times in the Psalms: 58:9 (this is the only instance the KJV renders the word feel), 102:14, and 115:7.
In Psalm 58:9, describing pots feeling the fire of thorns, the Hebrew biyyin is translated as feel by both the NASB and KJV, yet the term is most commonly used in the Hebrew Bible to reference understanding or discernment (e.g., Job 9:11, 26:13, Neh 13:7). It does not seem to have an emotional connotation at all.
The second occurrence is in Psalm 102:14, describing showing favor or having pity. The Hebrew term chanan seems to reflect the showing of grace or favor more than the feeling of it. In other words – not an emotional connotation.
The third instance is found in Psalm 115:7, and describes the incapacity of idols – they have hands, but they cannot feel – in contrast to God’s sovereignty (115:3) and trustworthiness (115:9). The Hebrew word most commonly translated as feel elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible is used here, and ironically enough, is transliterated mush (moosh). Of the three instances of feel in the Psalms, mush is only used in 115:7.
With only these few references in the Psalms, consider that the KJV uses the English word feel only six times in the entire Hebrew Bible (Gen 27:12, 27:21, Jdg 16:26, Job 20:20, and Ps 58:9). The NASB uses the term fifteen times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 27:12, 27:21, Ex 23:9, Jdg 16:26, 1 Sam 20:12, Ps 58:9, 102:14, 115:7, So 5:4, Is 16:11, 54:4, Jer 11:20, Eze 16:54, Am 6:1, Zeph 3:11). The ESV uses the term twelve times (Gen 27:12, 27:21, Dt 28:67, Jdg 16:26, Job 11:18, 14:22, Ps 7:11, 58:9, 115:7, Prov 23:35, Jer 10:18, Am 6:1). It is notable that more recent translations place greater emphasis on the concept of feeling, than do earlier translations, and than does the Masoretic Hebrew text.
Now let’s consider the instances in Psalms of the word know. The KJV translates know thirty-four times, the NASB fifty-four times, and the ESV fifty-four times. The Hebrew term yada is used in all fifty-four instances.
In the Psalms we discover fifty-four occurrences of the verb know, all represented by the same Hebrew word, and at most three instances of the verb feel, each represented by different Hebrew words. The overwhelming emphasis of the Psalms is on an intellectual understanding of who God is and what He has done. Of course our response to Him should include emotional aspects – there is nothing wrong with emotion. But that emotion ought to be governed by the knowledge of Him.
If our current songs of praise don’t reflect in their content the same emphasis of understanding over emotion that the Psalms reflect, then I wonder what we are copying. If we are not following the cue of Scripture, then what has captured our imaginations, our intellect, and our emotions that we might pursue an experiential path? The psalmists show us that intimacy with God is grounded not on our emotional response, but on the knowledge and certainty of who He is and what He has done.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You.
How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound!
O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance.
In Your name they rejoice all the day,
And by Your righteousness they are exalted.
– Psalm 89:14-16