It’s hard to read the Psalms without encountering one of the 65 references to the Hebrew word “mishpat,” which is usually translated as “judgments” or “justice.”
The term appears 23 times in Psalm 119, in passages that worshipers have sung for centuries, such as: “I will praise you with righteousness of heart, when I hear of your righteous judgments. I will keep your statutes; Oh, don’t leave me completely!
But when Old Testament scholar Michael J. Rhodes delved into the top 25 worship songs listed by Christian Copyright Licensing International, he found symbolic tendencies in the lyrics. For starters, “justice” was mentioned once, in a song.
“The poor are completely absent from the top 25. In contrast, the Psalter uses varied language to describe the poor on almost every page,” he wrote in a Twitter thread. “The widow, the refugee, the underdog are totally absent from the top 25. …
“While ‘enemies’ are the third most common character in the Psalms, they rarely appear in the Top 25. When they do, they appear to be enemies only in a spiritual sense. Perhaps the most devastating. .not a SINGLE question is ever asked of God.The Top 25 never asks anything of God.Poke the psalter and it bleeds the cries of the oppressed begging God to act.
We are far from a Psalm of Vespers promising: “The Lord frees the prisoners; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over foreigners, he sustains the widow and the orphan; but he ruins the way of the wicked. …Praise the Lord.
When these issues surface on social media, they often escalate into debates about politics and social justice, noted Craig Greenfield, author of “The Urban Halo” and “Subversive Jesus.” A former dot-com entrepreneur, he leads the global youth ministry Alongsides International, based primarily in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The question, he said, is: why do so many worship songs focus only on personal experience and feelings? This has been true with new hymns for several generations.
“We in the West tend to be very individualistic. … The whole approach to worship music uses a metaphor of Jesus is my boyfriend,” Greenfield said, reached by phone.
“It can work for people in the United States, and as the United States goes, so does most of the West. … But God’s heart for the poor is at the center of the Gospel… There’s no way to miss that in the Psalms and the Gospels.
Rhodes’ observations about blind spots in worship music products offered by major publishing houses are crucial, Greenfield added. Thus, it would be helpful if more songwriters and church leaders took a holistic approach to their work. In an online essay titled “Worship Music Is Broken. Here is what we can do about it,” he urged:
• A stronger emphasis on corporate worship. “Worship can be a beautiful intimate moment of love between you and God. … But that’s not ALL it should be,” he said. After “awkwardly trying to worship on Zoom” during the coronavirus pandemic, “we all know there’s something powerful that happens when…we sing ‘We adore you’ instead of ‘I adore you'”.
• Embrace “adoration as lamentation” as well as celebration. Churches should be more than “a place where we go to get our usual dose, our weekly high (which has to get more and more intense to give the same satisfaction). … This is not a healthy or balanced way to live our lives with God. God calls us to mourn with those who mourn – and sometimes WE are the ones who mourn. Sometimes the world is all messed up. There are times to celebrate, he added, but” going to a party, when your best friend just died of cancer, it’s just awful.”
• Focus on participation more than professional-level performance. “We serve a God who was deeply encouraged by the pathetic offering of an impoverished old widow,” Greenfield noted. “We serve a God who loved the broken prayer of an outcast more than the confident eloquence of a Pharisee.” In other words, “God doesn’t care if our songs are fake. … Our desire for excellence can end up excluding those whom God calls us to place at the center.
Terry Mattingly directs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a principal investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.