Previous article in this series: January 15, 2012, p. 185.
Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? who can shew forth all his praise? Blessed are they that keep judgment, and he that doeth righteousness at all times. Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; That I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance.
In our last article we saw that public worship, which is the covenantal assembly meeting with God, is carried out as a dialogue between God and His people. We rooted this principle theologically in the covenant of grace itself, and then in the very nature of God. We then began to prove this principle from Scripture. In this article I will expound one final Old Testament text that is helpful for understanding this principle, and then in a general way show how the principle applies to a typical Protestant Reformed order of worship. The passage is Psalm 106.
The Psalmist Teaches the Dialogical Principle of Worship
Psalm 106 and Psalm 105 are closely connected to one another. The two Psalms were written late in Israel’s history and represent a reflection back on the faithfulness of God in their history in spite of the sin of His people. The psalmist recounts the history for this purpose: to call God’s people to respond to God’s mighty acts for His chosen in worship and praise.
In verse 2 the psalmist looks back and calls to Israel’s mind the mighty acts of God all throughout the history of the Old Testament when he says, Psalm 106:2, “Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? who can shew forth all his praise?” He then lists many of these mighty acts of God and the people’s response to them. One of these mighty acts is the deliverance from Egypt recorded in verses 9-11: “He rebuked the Red sea also, and it was dried up: so he led them through the depths, as through the wilderness. And he saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy. And the waters covered their enemies: there was not one of them left.”
How did God’s people respond to this deliverance? The psalmist points out that they responded dialogically in praise. Psalm 106:12: “Then believed they his words; they sang his praise.” You can read Exodus 15, where on the other side of the Red Sea they wrote a song and held a worship service with two million people singing in response to what God had done: “I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The psalmist is pointing out the dialogical principle in history.
However, as the psalmist continues to recount the history, things start to go downhill. And the point he is making is that they went downhill, not because God was unfaithful, but because His people forgot His mighty acts and stopped responding to them dialogically with praise. Verse 13 begins, “They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel.” The great contrast in the chapter is in how Israel responds to God. After verse 12 the Israelites are found responding in a wrong way. Instead of responding to God’s mighty acts with belief and song (12), they responded by lusting (14), envying (15), forgetting (21), despising (24), complaining (25), provoking (29), etc. Therefore the psalmist is compelled to cry out at the end of the Psalm, “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the heathen, to [in order to—CG] give thanks unto thy holy name, and to triumph inthy praise.” In other words, “Save us, O God, in order that we might carry out the dialogical principle again!”
Do you see what the psalmist is doing in Psalm 106? He is teaching the Israelites the dialogical principle of worship with both a positive and negative example. He records some of God’s mighty acts and the people of God responding in praise to those acts. Then he records times when they responded wrongly to His mighty acts, using these instances for a lesson.
Both Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 end their history of Israel with the command, “Praise the Lord!” That is the nub of the psalmist’s teaching here. He is saying, “Look, this is the pattern of how we are to worship. We hear God recount His mighty acts and His promises as He has revealed them in His Word, and then we praise Him in response. And now that I have recorded them in this history, praise Him in response to them as recorded! We failed at so many points in history to carry out the dialogical principle when the acts were actually happening, but now they are recorded for us, and when you hear about them in the Psalms, ‘Praise the Lord!’ in response.”
It is on the basis of these mighty acts of God now recorded in Scripture that the psalmist calls the people to worship in Psalm 106:1-2: “Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? who can shew forth all his praise?” Praise the Lord and keep praising in response to His mighty acts, every time you hear them, because that is worship, and because you will never exhaust the praise that is due to Him for them.
We Follow the Command of the Psalmist in Our Worship
We also come to worship and hear God’s mighty acts recorded in Scripture. Often we hear of the same mighty acts that the psalmist recounts in Psalm 105 andPsalm 106, and we are called to respond in the service the same way the Israelites were: “Praise the Lord!” But we have more to respond to than the Old Testament saints did. We have all the mighty acts recorded in the New Testament as well. We hear of His mighty acts in the cross and resurrection and ascension. We hear of His mighty act in sending His Holy Spirit. We hear of mighty acts that are happening right now in our lifetimes, and mighty acts that will be yet in the future. All throughout the service these mighty acts are recounted for us. We hear them in the reading of the law. We hear them especially in the reading and preaching of Scripture. We even hear them in the greeting and benedictions.
And we must (and how can we help ourselves?) respond to them in praise. These mighty acts are mighty acts for us! They are declared on our behalf. They are declared over us in the service. We are the recipients of the promises that are grounded in those acts. We are motivated then to sing the songs and pray the prayers in the service because of the mighty acts we hear recounted to us in the assembly.
The Dialogical Principle Embodied in Liturgy
The Reformed saw this dialogical principle in the covenant and more specifically in the worship of covenant history, and they sought to capture that dialogue in their orders of worship. And truly Reformed and Presbyterian churches carry this on today. A typical Protestant Reformed order of worship is governed by this principle. God speaks, and we respond.
There are two types of elements in the Reformed worship service—those that come from God’s side, and those that come from our side. And while there are certainly other ways to order the elements (the order is not inspired by any means), what we have in a typical Protestant Reformed order is for the most part the traditional Reformed order. When, the Lord willing, we go through each element I will expound this more, but for now let’s get the overview and see how the whole service is a dialogue between God and us.
God speaks first, calling us to worship. We respond in prayer and song. God speaks in the greeting. We respond with the votum: “Our help is in the name of Jehovah who made heaven and earth.”¹ God pronounces upon us His blessing in the benediction. Then we respond in song. God speaks to us in His law, and we respond in song and prayer. God speaks to us in His Word and its exposition. We respond in prayer and song. God dismisses us with His blessing. We respond in song of praise.
We Know God Dialogues with Us Because He Really Speaks in His Word
It is important to be conscious of the fact that Godspeaks to us in the service. His mighty acts are recorded in the inspired Word of God. Not only has He performed them in history, but He recounts them to us in the present when He meets with us in the covenantal assembly. It is God Himself in His Word speaking to us in the greeting and benediction, the reading of the law, and the reading and preaching of Scripture, not the minister. It is His voice that speaks to our hearts. And we respond to Him as He speaks His mighty acts and their implications to us personally. Therefore, when we respond to what we hear, we respond not to the minister, not first of all to each other, but to God Himself.
This is another reason why it is important that the Word of God be taken up in every point. Only if the greeting is God’s Word; only if the benediction is a benediction of Scripture; only if the word proclaimed is an exposition of His Word, are we confident that God is truly speaking to us, and we are truly dialoguing with Him. When the Word speaks, God speaks. Then we can be confident that it is not the minister’s words, nor a showman trying to manipulate us, but it is God in His word speaking to us. And therefore we respond back to Him.
An Exciting Reality
This dialogical principle ought to make worship appealing to us. We are coming actually to hear Him and respond to Him! We ought to have the desire to come and hear God Himself speak over us His acts and the salvation He has purchased for us. The psalmist certainly had this desire. In Psalm 106:4-5 the psalmist shows that he grasps this dialogical principle not only as a principle that must be carried out, but as a loving condescension of God to him personally in the church. He expresses that it is his personal desire to be in the worship of God’s name and to hear God speak to him. This dialogical principle has driven him to a personal, fervent love for the unique fellowship of corporate worship. Psalm 106:4-5: “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; That I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance.” The psalmist desires to hear God speak to him personally in the service, “O visit me with thy salvation!” That is, “Be present in the service with Thy people and speak to us, and we will know Thy salvation.” And he desires to respond with worship, “that I may rejoice,” and “that I may glory.” And he desires to rejoice and glory with the assembly. He adds, “That I may glory with thine inheritance.”
Do you say that as you come to the service? “God, visit me! Speak to me! Tell me I am Your beloved in the greeting. Tell me of Your mighty acts of salvation in the preaching of the Word. And with Thy inheritance I will respond to Thy glory.” Let’s come to worship in this frame of mind, brothers and sisters in Christ. Our God calls us to dialogue in the worship service. We are coming here before His face to hear Him speak of all His mighty acts, and we are coming to offer our praise and adoration and thanks to Him for all He has done, is doing, and promises to do. If we are aware of this and think about this as we come to the house of the Lord, it will make our worship much more meaningful and beautiful. God will meet with us and we will dialogue with Him in covenant love.