Back in the 90s, I recall a heightened interest in making sure that all church activities were corporate, and explicitly so. The Apostles’ Creed in some churches was modified from “I believe” to “we believe” and songs were judged poorly if they were not plural. That shibboleth only applied unevenly to new songs, since almost all of the safe favourite hymns were in the first person singular—Amazing Grace, I will sing the wondrous story, When I survey, Be thou my vision, Abide with me, And can it be?, How great thou art, It is well, Jesus paid it all. Even with these notable exceptions, “I, Me” and My” were out. “We, Us and Our” were ascendant. But over the last 20 years reality hit, and no one seems to care now. The Old Testament trajectory right from the beginning, and especially in the Psalms, conforms to this reality. The “I” is an essential part of corporate praise.
Israel’s First National Song of Praise Is “I” All Together
Having escaped the land of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea on drying-land, and witnessed Pharaoh’s cavalry divisions swept away in the torrent, the Hebrews sing. And they sing magnificently. It’s hard to picture the sheer scale of the scene. This is the Bible’s first recorded public hymn of praise.
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (Ex. 15:1-2)
Notice how they *together* sing “I” so unashamedly. The Lord is “my strength” and “my song” and now “my salvation”. The cacophony of their terrible groans under the Egyptian slavedriver, and disharmony of their whinging against Moses and God for leading them into a dead-end, is transformed into a tune, in unison, celebrating their real saviour, God himself. The exhausted octogenarian prophet and the better part of two million Hebrews can sing together of their own personal experience of God. What a moment to be savoured!
The first line, “I will sing”, contains an implicit promise of future and enduring praise to God. If only God had remained their song for their years wandering in the wilderness! Think how much grumbling would have been dispelled if they had just kept singing that same note. A later Psalm reflects on this.
“He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert …. Then they believed his words; they sang his praise. But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.” (Psa. 106:9,12-13)
The same is true for us. Jesus is not just “our song” on Sundays between 10 and 11:15am, and even then only for the three, four, or eight times we get up to vocalise it. The devil’s whispers and our tendency to grumble would be muted if that song was also taken outside of the church meeting (Psa. 8:2; and Phil. 2:5-15).
There are so many trajectories to follow with this first Israelite song. In many ways it lays the path for almost all subsequent theology of praise. But let’s reflect on a simple point. This first Israelite song makes abundantly clear that a group of us singing “my chains fell of, my heart was free” or standing affirming that “I believe in one God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” can at the same time be the most personal and corporate expression of our faith. They are not in opposition to each other. God himself becomes the song of the individual, and can (and I would add should) be expressed personally to God. This finds its resonant frequency when we are gathered to celebrate the common salvation we have all experienced. Charles Wesley put the individual and the group together magnificently in his longing hymn. “O for a thousand tongues to sing, *my* great redeemer’s praise”.
The “I” in the Psalms Becomes The Dominant Voice of Corporate Praise
Moving forward a few hundred years to the promised-land-settled events of David, Solomon’ temple and beyond, the book of Psalms continues the tradition of songs that are both deeply personal and at the same time corporate. What David said to God personally became part of the hymnbook. 2 Samuel 22 gives one of the rare occasions of showing how the Psalms were originally given.
And David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer …. “For this I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name. Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.” (2 Sam. 22:1-2, 50-51; which is also the heart of Psalm 18)
Like the Exodus generation, in this prayer, David calls the Lord his own three-fold personal deliver (my strength, my song, my salvation || my rock, my fortress, my redeemer) and makes his own promise to continue to sing to the Lord. David certainly kept that oath. This situationally-based and individual prayer, together with many others, formed the song book for the nation.
One simple observation about the book of Psalms is the sheer number of deeply personal “I/me/my/mine” songs. In my very quick scan through, I have categorised all 150. The first two groups represent almost two thirds of the songs. I do call on my brains-trust to question or fix any errors I’ve made.
First person singular only (I/me/my/mine): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 21, 32, 35, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 49, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 73, 77, 84, 86, 88, 89, 91, 92, 94, 101, 102, 104, 109, 110, 111, 116, 119, 120, 121, 122, 130, 131, 135, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146
First person singular & plural (I/me/my/mine & we/us/our/ours): 20, 34, 36, 60, 66, 68, 75, 78, 85, 103, 108, 118, 123, 129, 137
First person plural only (we/us/our/ours): 12, 21, 33, 46, 47, 48, 65, 67, 74, 79, 80, 90, 95, 99, 100, 106, 115, 124, 126, 132*
Neither (most are calls to God’s people to praise him, some are talking about God): 1, 2, 10, 14, 15, 24, 29, 50**, 53, 58, 72, 76, 81**, 82**, 83, 87**, 93, 96, 97, 98, 105**, 107, 112, 113, 114, 117, 125, 127, 128, 133, 134, 136, 147, 148, 149, 150 (** these contains first person “I” but only in the words of God)
Some interesting Psalms are in the second group. For example, Psalms 34 and 36 sound like the voice of a single person, appealing to God to save the collective, “us”. Others like Psalm 66 recount the corporate testing of the nation, and have a singular voice declaring what he will sacrifice and pray, even if no-one else joins him. He, of course, wants them with him. That is the point of the song.
However, if we dig down into the Davidic psalms, there is an even greater imbalance towards the personal, since his prayers were made corporate. Isn’t it astonishing that his prayers of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba became the songs of repentance of the people? I’ve heard David being called “the Elvis of his day”. Imagine the influence that modern Elvis would have had if he also really was the king? David’s songs give shape to the Psalter; and their preference for the “I” gives the nation a very personal songbook.
Davidic – First person singular only (I/me/my/mine): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 66, 69, 70, 86, 101, 108, 109, 110, 122, 131, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145
Davidic – First person singular & plural (I/me/my/mine & we/us/our/ours): 20, 34, 36, 60, 68, 103, 108
Davidic – First person plural only (we/us/our/ours): 12, 21, 65, 124
Davidic Neither (most are calls to God’s people to praise him, some are talking about God): 14, 15, 24, 29, 53, 58, 133
The trajectory from the Old Testament to the New Testament is not the way we may think
I have to be careful here. We don’t have a psalm-book of the New Testament. However, it is striking, that in the Revelation, every song recorded in the heavenly throngs of worship is either a general summons/proclamation about God, or a praise cast in the corporate “we/us”. There are no “I” songs recorded in around the throne of the lamb. The most famous example is representative of the whole book.
“Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.” (Rev. 19:1)
Even the end-time crystal-sea crossing reprise of Moses’ song doesn’t have the same personal tone as Exodus 15.
“And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways,O King of the nations! (Rev. 15:3)
We mustn’t read too much into this since Revelation is a fairly unique book, but it does buck against the assumption that the Old Testament emphasised the corporate interaction with God, while the New is all about individual salvation. The Psalms and songs in Revelation are almost the reverse.
Here on earth, in the overlap of the ages, our New Covenant songs are perhaps best thought of as being modelled on the Psalms and fuelled by the songs around God’s throne in heaven, directed to the God and the lamb on the throne. In the most famous practical summons for Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, Father glorifying living, the church is called to
“be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20).
Songs are directed to God, and the words to our neighbours. Perhaps this is just a development of a theme already seen in in the Israelites on the far shore of the Red Sea and David in the psalter. “*My soul makes its boast* in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. *Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!*” (Ps. 34:2-3)
The “I” in the Psalms shows us the voice of the Messiah for generations to come
There is one deeper significance of the “I”s in the Psalms, particularly in the songs of David. They give us insight into the heart of the prototype messiah, and ultimately the mind of the Christ.
The New Testament sees many of the Psalms as Jesus speaking. They belonged to him before they belong to us. When we sing them, we sing from his hymnbook. Psalm 40, used by Hebrews, is clear. “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5). Jesus’ resurrection is seen as the fulfilment of all the prayers that David offered. Jesus is David perfected. While David asked and received in part, Jesus prayed and was answered in full. He was saved, rescued, not abandoned completely in the resurrection. Psalm 16:10 is quoted as being fulfilled by Jesus in Acts 2:27-31 and 13:35-38. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” Psalm 22 and 69 are quoted and alluded to countless times, about his suffering and resurrection, as if Jesus himself were the pray-er of the original song. As a result of his post-cross glorification, Jesus “is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Heb. 2:11-12 quoting Psalm 22:22)
The Psalm I first referenced shows us the connection of the Messiah to his people. His rescue becomes their rescue. And by implication his song becomes theirs. “Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.” (Ps. 18:50, also recorded in 2 Sam. 22:51) We are Christ’s people, his offspring (Isa. 9:6; 53:10; Heb. 2:13-14)
There are enough reminders in the Davidic Psalms to show us that while ultimately they point to the King of Kings, they were first written as the personal songs of a sinning, fallen version of the Christ (Psa. 32, 51, even 69:5). We sing in David’s shoes as the sinner and in Christ’s clothes as the saved one now righteous before God.
The “I”s of the Psalms still proclaim that we individually and corporately come to Christ because he is the Messiah. The many were saved by the one. And if all the Psalms were “we” and “us” we wouldn’t have access into his mind. Therefore the “I”s of these Psalms are glorious as they show us Christ.
Let’s get personal about collective music
Our churches stand in the face of rampant individualism. We want our lyrics to be different and proclaim that God is central, and not us. The problem with many modern songs is not the subject, but the object of the song.. At their worst, they are less about God’s character and Christ’s works and more about my emotions, in its most aberrant forms the subject can become the object. Our simplistic reaction to the word “I” and “me”, however, misdiagnoses this real problem.
I’m not calling us to abandon the corporate language and move to exclusively individual language. But let me suggest that it is no accident that the majority of corporate music in the Old Testament as well as in the contemporary church is “I”. It is in fact particularly Hebrew, copying their pattern of salvation from Exodus 15, and in a deep way profoundly Christian, since our Christ came to fulfil and share his songs with us. The Psalms are his first and foremost. And in union with him, what is his, becomes ours. Along with other songs, we are particularly called to keep the Psalms on our lips. A Spirit-filled person will speak them to each other (Eph. 5:19). Someone controlled by Christ’s word will sing them to God (Eph. 5:19).
This personal faith, hope and love, expressed as a group to our Saviour and Lord, in word and music, separates us from the ravings of Baal worship to awaken God, the endlessly repetitive drones of Buddhist chants, and the anti-music, anti-joy, anti-personal Quranic recitation of Sunni Moslems.
It’s often joked that Christians just borrow popular music, take away the word “baby” and add “Jesus” in its place. That might be true of some of the worst Christian contemporary songs, unfortunately.
But I wonder, whether in a bigger sense, our Western world, itself historically raised on the Bible and Psalms, has borrowed from its own background. Have they adopted the personal individual, yet corporate song, as mainstream, and made it their own, replacing the true God with the some other substitute saviour and elusive source of fulfilment?