The Bible is unique in that it comes complete with its own songbook—the Psalms. Not only are the Psalms songs that we can sing to God, but they also instruct us on what our worship should consist of and why we should do it in the first place. What we find frequently in the Psalms is that worship consists of praising the Lord for who he is and what he does. Let’s look at one example of this in Psalm 138.

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Why Worship?

Reasons We Worship

What will get us to show up for the public worship of God? There are many answers to this question. As Professor C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary points out, there are churches that present themselves as teaching centers where we come to learn. Everybody in attendance has an open Bible. There are also churches that present themselves as social centers, engaged in the crises of our time. These congregations are issue-oriented and pride themselves as being on the cutting edge. Then there are churches designed strictly for inspiration; they are sort of spiritual shopping centers for all our needs. Their pastors smile a lot and are upbeat, with how-to sermons. Other churches flourish ministering to the “rock” generation, with an informal, contemporary format in worship.

Some people show up at these churches to engage in worship out of a sense of history or tradition. In parts of the world, church attendance is still an expected ritual. Others worship publicly to assuage guilt or to satisfy family expectations. Some even go to church to gain favor with God, as if He is impressed with our attendance. Then there are those who attend because of a pastor’s pressure or for business contacts. Some even appear occasionally with a vague feeling that it is good for them. Others come out of desperation, sincerely looking for God. Then there are those who worship out of disciplined discipleship. They are present, not so much to get, as to give. They hunger to give themselves to God in praise and to give themselves to each other in love and ministry. But why should we engage in public worship, really?

God is Worthy of Praise because of His Word and His Work

Psalm 138 addresses the issue of motives in worship. For the psalmist, worship begins with the character of God. He is to be worshiped for who He is: for His covenant-love and His truth (v. 2). But how is this to be known? The answer is that God Himself speaks and acts when we call upon Him. God has “magnified” His words (v. 2) and answered prayer (v. 3). He has had regard for the lowly (v. 6), bringing revival (v. 7). He acts against the psalmist’s enemies (v. 7), saving him by the works of His hands (v. 8). In summary, God is to be worshiped because of His Word (He reveals Himself) and His work (He acts upon our behalf). These two facts should bring us to our knees in submission and to our feet in praise.

Commentators describe Psalm 138 as an individual psalm of thanksgiving. While tradition gives it to David as the author, its language seems at points to be close to Isaiah 40ff. The thought moves from a confession of personal praise (vv. 1–3) to a vision of universal praise (vv. 4–6) and ends with confidence in divine protection (vv. 7–8).

Personal Praise (vv. 1–3)

Confession and Praise

The psalmist begins verse 1 confessing that he will “praise” God, as he says, “with my whole heart.” This includes both his mental and emotional capacities. Thus he will fulfill the Great Commandment to love God with all that he is (see Deut. 6:4–5). He will sing praises to Yahweh “before the gods.” The “gods” (elo¯hîm) can best be understood as “heavenly beings.” The Septuagint rightly translates “angels.” They make up the divine court gathered around Yahweh who is King (see Ps. 103:20–21).

At the same time, the psalmist doesn’t simply worship toward heaven and the heavenly host; he also worships facing the Jerusalem temple, or in the temple facing the Most Holy Place, because there is where the presence and the name of God dwell on earth (v. 2; cf. Dan. 6:10). Thus God is to be worshiped as both the transcendent and the immanent King. We now know Him as the God who reigns in glory and who also comes to us in humility and in our humanity in His Son, the ultimate expression of His immanence.

Motivations in Worship

Having told us what he does in worship in verses 1–2a, the psalmist tells us his motives in verses 2b–3. He praises God for His “lovingkindness” (“covenant-love,” “mercy,” see Ps. 136), and His “truth” (“trustworthiness”). The psalmist continues: “For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.” He probably means by this that God’s present revelation surpasses that which we have known of Him in the past and therefore that which we have associated with His name. To put it colloquially, “You have outdone Yourself.”

This magnifying of His Word is seen in verse 3 in answered prayer: “In the day when I cried out, / You answered me, / And made me bold [“set me up”] with strength in my soul.” There is nothing which will expand our understanding of God and give us spiritual vitality like answered prayer. Why then do we not experience more answers? It is simple. Because we don’t pray. As James says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).

Universal Praise (vv. 4–6)

The psalmist shows us his eschatological vision. He sees the universal praise of God, from the greatest, “all the kings of the earth” (v. 4), to the least, “the lowly” (v. 6). The kings will “praise You, O LORD, / When they hear the words of Your mouth” (v. 4). As they submit to Yahweh and His words, so also their kingdoms will join in. As Isaiah says, all the nations will flow to Zion (Is. 2:2). Once God’s Son rules there, He will have the nations as His inheritance (Ps. 2:8). Their kings and judges are now exhorted: “Serve the Lord with fear, / And rejoice with trembling. / Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, / And you perish in the way” (Ps. 2:11–12).

Not only will the kings praise God for His Word, they will also “sing of the ways of the LORD” (v. 5). The reason for this is that the “glory of the LORD” is “great.” His glory, however, is not merely seen as kings worship Him. Although He is “on high,” at the same time, “He regards the lowly.” He incorporates them into His kingdom, because, in their brokenness, they are closer to Him than the “proud” who “He knows from afar” (v. 6), that is, to whom He is distant. Here is the universality of our God. He is great enough for kings and lowly enough for the poor and abased. He is the mighty Warrior who comes with His arm ruling for Him, but He is also the tender shepherd, carrying His little lambs in His bosom (Is. 40:10–11).

When God acts, all the nations and their peoples, from the greatest to the least, will join in the psalmist’s personal worship expounded in verses 1–3.

Divine Protection (vv. 7–8)

The psalmist moves from His worship of God for His Word (v. 2) to the worship of God for His works. First, God revives him, or makes him alive, “in the midst of trouble [“distress”].” Second, He stretches His “hand” out “against the wrath” of his “enemies,” and His “right hand” (His power and authority, see Ex. 15:6) saves or delivers him (v. 7). Third, God perfects or completes “that which concerns” him, as His “mercy [“covenant-love”; see v. 2] endures forever.” A final plea concludes the psalm: “Do not forsake the works of Your hands” (v. 8). This is probably a reference to Israel as God’s creation.

God is to be worshiped because He renews us and delivers us amid our troubles from our enemies. He also completes His work in us, because He is true to His covenant-love, which lasts for all eternity. What should draw us into public worship? Why should we praise God with our whole heart (v. 1) before His angels and in His temple? The answer is clear. God is God. He keeps His covenant. His Word is magnified as He answers our prayers. All the nations will worship Him. In the meantime, He works on our behalf. He delivers us from our enemies and completes His work in us. As Paul tells the Philippians: “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Here is answer enough to the question: “Why worship?”

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