The New Testament offers little liturgical help for conducting the Lord’s Supper. This is especially true regarding hymnology. No account of the Lord’s Supper, except the Last Supper itself, connects music and the Supper (Matthew 28:30). Other than the fact that the Jerusalem community praised God as they ate—and presumably this included songs as well as prayers or some mixtue of the two as in chants (Acts 2:46-47), there is no other explicit linkage between the Lord’s Supper and the ministry of music.
However, we are not left without guidance if we take seriously the redemptive-historical trajectory of Israel’s festivals and the future Messianic banquet. We have significant information about the relationship between these meals and the music that surrounded them in the context of both Israel’s table and the future table. This post will look at the musical dimensions of the Passover at the time of Jesus, and my next post will focus on the future table through the lens of the Apocalypse and the Messianic banquet.
The use of the Psalms has a long history in Christian worship. More specifically, the use of Psalms in connection with the Lord’s Supper is quite prominent. However, my interest is specifically the Psalms that were used in the context of the Passover as a window into the nature of the redemptive celebration that should accompany the Lord’s Supper. As a fulfillment of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper is directly linked to the liturgical assemblies of Israel and thus we should ask the question: What did Israel sing at the Passover?
Psalms 113-118 constitute the Hallel (Praise) of the Jewish festivals. It appears that during the Jewish Passover meal of the first century, Psalms 113-114 were sung before the final meal blessing and Psalms 115-118 were sung after the final blessing. These were most probably the hymns that Jesus and his disciples sang in the context of their Passover (cf. Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). The theology of these songs is directly related to the theology of both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
Psalms 113-118 are all thanksgiving songs. Israel sang them as thanksgiving for God’s redemptive deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. They remembered and rejoiced over the Exodus. Israel also sang them in anticipation of the Messiah. Every Passover anticipated the Messianic banquet and thus was filled with hope and expectation for the final deliverance of God’s people.
In Psalm 113 Israel is the barren woman whom God has delivered from Egyptian bondage and given fruitfulness in a new land. God’s redemptive work transforms fallen circumstances. God breaks into the hurt and pain of life with new life. He redeems what is lost. The Psalm opens and ends with a “Hallelujah.”
Psalm 114 rehearses God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt. God acted in history to redeem his people. God came near to redeem. Israel is reminded that their situation is the direct result of God’s gracious work, and they are part of God’s story with the whole earth. The earth is awed by what God is doing in Israel, and Israel is overwhelmed with praise.
Psalm 115 reminds Israel that among the nations only they serve the true God while the nations serve idols. Unlike the idols, God reigns over the earth. God is the help and shield of the people of God. God has remembered his people, so Israel remembers and praises Yahweh. Israel remembers that God has always remembered his people and thus they are confident in their relationship with him.
Psalm 116 gives thanks for God’s redemption whereby he saves his people from death. As one Psalmist remembers God’s work for him in his individual life, the congregation of Israel remembers how God saved them from the bondage of slavery. Through the festivals, Israel makes this individual thanksgiving a communal one. At the Passover, then, Israel lifted the cup of salvation and rejoiced in God’s gift of life. Israel ate the “thanksgiving” offering as it sat at table with God and communed with God. This “thanksgiving” Psalm is offered in the context of a thanksgiving sacrifice. The cup and meal are blessed in the context of a communal communion with God.
Psalm 117 invites all nations to share in the praise of God at the meal. It is a universal table—open to all ethnic groups, all nations. The work of God is universal. The nations learn who God is from his faithful love to Israel and Israel invites the nations to seek God at his temple (cf. aliens at Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30:25). The temple of God is a house of prayer for all nations (cf. Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17).
Psalm 118 gives thanks for God’s deliverance. He saved his people from disaster and their king from death. God has made a new day. He has delivered his people because of his steadfast love. Since God has brought deliverance (it is the day he made), the people engage in self-exhortation: “let us rejoice in it.”
Psalms 113-118 inform the theological meaning and mood of the Lord’s Supper. As the new Passover, the Lord’s Supper remembers God’s redemptive work in Christ, celebrates our liberation from sin and death, and praises Jesus who though rejected by some was redeemed by God. Sunday is the day the Lord has made. It is the day of redemption, thanksgiving and celebration. The table needs hymns that rejoice, remember and give thanks for the new day that God has made. The Psalms reflect the mood of thanksgiving, joy and communion that characterize the theology of the Lord’s Supper. In this way, the Passover hymns provide a guide for the church’s own communion hymns and the mood of its table.