In the last few years, various people have placed a greater emphasis on “praise songs” than traditional hymns. However, this description can be misleading. In fact, the root idea behind the word hymn is praise, and many traditional hymns focus on praising God. The “praise songs” most people refer to are not specifically emphasizing praise but are simply newer. Some do indeed repeatedly mention praise, though far too many lack significant substance in offering it. In fact, we should seek both, regardless of when the songs we sing were written. However, this requires that we become more discerning and thoughtful in our singing so that our praise offered to God carries with it a heart filled with awe at the greatness of God instead of just the appreciation for a pleasant melody.
The foundation for praising God comes from a recognition of what He has done and what He has made possible—two categories that we tend to consider in only the most generic fashion. But in Psalm 47, penned by the sons of Korah, the joy and excitement that led to praise grew out of real events and identifying fully with the LORD in response to His having identified with His people. The fifth verse provides a clue to this background, “God has gone up with a shout, The LORD with the sound of a trumpet” (Psa. 47:5), alluding to the moment when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:15). In this move, David acknowledged the supremacy of God, pointing the people to His leadership as the great King who would provide victories in the battlefield, deliverance from enemies, and an inheritance for His people (Psa. 47:1-4). In the midst of a great moment for David, this great king pointed to the greatness of God. Thus, taking the lead from his example, the psalm declares, “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!” (Psa. 47:6). However, rather than stating this as purely momentary emotional jubilation, the psalm grounds this praise in substance. “For God is the King of all the earth; Sing praises with understanding” (Psa. 47:7). Offering praise to God should reflect an understanding of the nature of His sovereignty, that He reigns in heaven over all the earth, over all nations, and rules with authority that must be respected and embraced (Psa. 47:8-9). “He is greatly exalted” (Psa. 47:9d).
Singing praise to God while ignoring His will is nothing but a noisy tribute to one’s own hypocrisy. Singing praise alone does not create a spiritual heart, but a godly heart that grows in understanding and appreciation for not only the power, knowledge, and presence of God but also for the beauty of every aspect of His will bows down humbly from a sense of awe at the realization of how great God is, how great God’s will is, how great God’s love is, and how great an opportunity it is to be His people and praise Him. As such, our understanding must begin with a submissive heart determined to do the will of our great God. From this foundation we have an understanding ready to praise Him. Without this depth, our songs are nothing but empty tunes, repeating a sentiment we do not even comprehend. The beauty of singing praise to God does not then come from the melody or the harmony but from a soul contemplating the majesty of God in a way that stirs the heart where God’s will already lives.