A Sabbath Song
Text: Psalm 92
There are 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 92 is the only one with the nickname, “a song for the Sabbath.” This Sabbath song was sung long before Jesus was born, long before the first church was organized and long, long before the first cathedral was built. Early in the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, the genius of Geneva and our theological forebear, said of Psalm 92, “The Psalmist . . . would teach us that the right observance of the Sabbath does not consist in idleness, as some absurdly imagine, but in the celebration of the Divine name.”
By and large, Calvin's Sabbath was the one celebrated in my childhood. My Sabbath had plenty of silly Sabbath rules about what we could or could not do, but the rules were rarely onerous. My childhood Sabbath began with Sunday School and church -- attendance not optional. I was not a big fan of the Sunday church outfits I had to wear, but most of my neighborhood friends were undergoing similar toment, so I felt a certain Sunday morning solidarity.
After spending the morning at church and enjoying a huge noonday meal cooked by my Methodist grandmother who got home from her worship service long before we did, our family would often head off to visit friends in other parts of the city. In early evening, I was off to youth group, as were most of my neighborhood friends. Again, attendance not optional. No “idleness” for our family.
That was Christian Sabbath life in 1950s America. Psalm 92, though, bears little resemblance to Sabbath life then or even in Calvin’s day. It bears far more resemblance to Sabbath life in 2023. Most likely, Psalm 92 was first sung on foreign soil, sung by Jews who had been uprooted from their homes and were being taunted by their Babylonian conquerors. These displaced children of God were trying to hold onto the very notion of a Sabbath in an alien culture, trying to hold onto their embattled faith in God when so many people around them thought that their faith was impotent or ludicrous. They were trying to hold onto enough faith to sing a Sabbath song.
Sabbath 2023, when it is celebrated at all, is done so in a thoroughly secular society where God is an afterthought for most, hardly “a very present help in times of danger.” So, Psalm 92 could well be the perfect song for all believing children of God in the 21st century. It is hardly a timid, light and airy Sabbath song; it is a fierce and fiery song, an honest song to sing when we are tempted to believe that God is gone and the wicked have prevailed.
It has a chorus written to be sung in the darkest times and on the most fear laden days. The chorus sings: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.”
It is not hard to a sing “for joy” in the safe confines of the Jerusalem Temple or in the religious order of Geneva or, for that matter, in the beautiful simplicity of the Cove sanctuary. And while Psalm 92 deserves to be sung in idyllic times and in beautiful spaces like ours, it is most genuinely sung in trying times and in rough spaces.
Psalm 92 is a song well-suited for the people of God to sing today, in a society with only a thin veneer of the religious. I encounter more and more people today of every age who tell me how spiritual they are but that does not include gathering with a group of God’s people to worship on Sunday. In fact, they often tell me how much more spiritual they can be outside the church, without the petty rigors of keeping a Sabbath schedule.
I meet even more people today who tell me that they have exited the spiritual life altogether. They tell me that they once believed in God, worshiped and sang God’s praise, but too many closed minded and hard-hearted Christians sent them packing. Long ago, I learned that there are far more people sipping a latte at Starbucks on any Sunday morning than singing a Laudate in worship. The tough truth in 2023 is that you and I live in a world where people’s address may say Charlottesville or Covesville, Crozet or Nellysford, North Garden or Schulyer but, in reality, our true address is Babylon.
Wherever we live, I commend learning Psalm 92. Singing this song will do at least two things that no believer can live without. It will prevent us from sucking the joy out of keeping the Sabbath – a temptation that Jews and Christians have given in to for centuries – by making the Sabbath some sort of obligatory day of rules and regulations that you would need a professional scorekeeper to manage.
Singing the Psalm 92 Sabbath song will also keep us from being seduced by the sirens of secularity; keep us from being too careful about living a Christian life lest we look too religious in a society that is largely not. Singing this Sabbath song might also be a gift to those who hear us, inviting them not to give up on God, even when God seems painfully absent.
I have lots of minister friends who talk a great deal about keeping the Sabbath and debate how to do so themselves when they often spend so many hours working each Sunday. I have academic religious friends who look forward to a periodic Sabbatical, a time to step away from their teaching to devote to their scholarship.
Important as both of these Sabbath concerns may be, neither of these concerns is the subject of the Sabbath song of Psalm 92. This Sabbath song is not finally about making sure we take a day off or get our rightful Sabbatical. This Sabbath song is a daily reminder that life is not finally about us; it never has been; it never will be. Life is about living in joyful praise to the God who made us, who shapes us, who delights in us, who will establish justice through us and sometimes despite us, and who never tires in hearing us sing a Sabbath song.
Psalm 92 teaches us to sing a Sabbath song in the public square, even when society is convinced that people of faith have nothing of import to say. I would teach you this Sabbath song but I am quite sure that you already know it. You know it by heart. So, instead of teaching you this song, I invite you to sing it in Babylon, no, excuse me, in Charlottesville or Crozet, or wherever you travel, wherever God’s leads you. Sing it when there is a chorus around you anxious to sing and sing it when you are the only one singing.
I promise you that this Sabbath song is far more satisfying that sipping the best latte that Starbucks has ever served. It is a simple song that will guide your steps, warm your hearts, remind you whose you are, and be the one song you can never get out of your head.
n his marvelous “Mass,” Leonard Bernstein captures the invitation to sing from Psalm 92 with these words:
Sing God a simple song: Lauda, Laudē Make it up as you go along: Lauda, Laudē Sing like you like to sing. “Sing like you like to sing” – that is the marvelous invitation from the Sabbath Song of Psalm 92.
So, friends, “sing like you like to sing.”
[soloist sing “A Song Song” from Bernstein’s, Mass]