The Reason for and Content of Worship (Psalm 102:19-22)

Zac HicksWorship Leading Tips, Worship Theology & Thought2 Comments

As one who not only leads worship but desires to teach my congregation and others about what worship is, I’m always on the lookout for ways to explain worship in a brief yet sweeping fashion, especially when the explanation is packaged in a nice, Scriptural summary. Isaiah 6:1-7 is my go-to passage to talk about Gospel-shaped worship. I use Psalm 95 when speaking of the balance in worship between celebration/joy and reverence/awe. And now Psalm 102 is in my tool bag.

The Content of Worship

[The LORD] looked down from his holy height;
From heaven the LORD looked at the earth 
To hear the groans of the prisoners,
To set free those who were doomed to die,
That they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,
And in Jerusalem his praise,
When peoples gather together,
And kingdoms, to worship the LORD.

(Psalm 102:19-22, ESV)

Martin Luther pointed this out to me:

A Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly, as Psalm 102 says, “When the kings and the people assemble to serve the Lord, they shall declare the name and the praise of God.”*

I had never seen the passage in this light (as a two-fold explication of the structure of worship). But it’s true. All of worship basically consists of prayer and preaching. We sing our prayers (and we pray in other ways, too), and we preach the Word (in readings, sermon, and sacrament).

The Reasons for Worship

But this Psalm, zooming out, goes even further in its theology of worship:

[The LORD] looked down from his holy height;
From heaven the LORD looked at the earth (v 19)

Not only do we have packed into this little nutshell the content of worship (prayer and Word), we have the principle reasons for worship. Many great summaries of the “why” of worship boil it down to two reasons: We worship in response to (1) Who God is, and (2) What God has done.  In other words, we worship because of God’s attributes and actions. This Psalm contains both. 

God “looked down from his holy height.”  Besides love, God’s holiness (1 John 4:8) is one of His most prominent and all-encompassing attributes. Knowing God’s holiness and recognizing that it demands our perfect response is indispensible to the Gospel. God’s holiness summarizes the “first word” of Scripture—the Law. God is wholly perfect, wholly other. His demands are stringent and His bar is unapproachably high. In worship, we respond to and reckon with that. Holiness, in many ways (again subordinate to love), is a kind of umbrella for all the other attributes of God. God’s holiness tells us that all His other communicable and incommunicable attributes are the unmatchable pinnacle of their kind. God is not only good; He is wholly and perfectly good. God is not only just; He is the definition of justice. And this wholeness and perfection is completely set apart, untouchable, and matchless. We worship in response to who God is.

And we worship in response to what God has done. He heard our groans and set us free when we were doomed to die. God is not just a be-er. He is a do-er. His attributes act, and His unapproachable essence has approached us in the flesh. He is not only love. His love has a Name—“And you shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, ESV). This summarizes God’s “second word” of Scripture—the Gospel. Our God is a promise-making, promise-keeping, saving God. He has skin in the game.  And our only fitting response is to “declare His name and praise.”

*Martin Luther, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship” (1523), in Luther’s Works, vol. 53 (Liturgy & Hymns), ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), 11.

2 Comments on “The Reason for and Content of Worship (Psalm 102:19-22)”

  1. Great thoughts on a great passage. I may have just found my Call to Worship for this or next week. If you include vs 18 it would fit very well as an encouragement for Sanctity of Life. "Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD…"

  2. Zac,

    There is much more to worship than simply prayer and preaching. A meal is not a cleverly disguised sermon, however much we Reformed people try to make it that way! Texts that illustrate the basic content and structure of worship much better than Isaiah 6 and Psalm 102 are Exodus 24, Leviticus 9, 2 Chronicles 5-7, and 2 Chronicles 29. Those texts are about the corporate worship of the people of God. Isaiah 6 is a text about a vision given to one man. It assumes the content and structure of temple worship and sacrificial liturgy but omits some crucial parts like the concluding meal (because, unlike those other texts, the purpose of the text is not primarily to teach or describe a corporate liturgical event). For good elaboration on the liturgical structure in Exodus 24, 2 Chron. 5-7, and the Book of Revelation, see the links to three sermons by Peter Wallace here:

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