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The Tradition of Singing Songs of Repentance

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series

"Out of the Depths"

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We are coming to the end of our study of Psalm 130. Last week we saw that when you’re living in a state of unconfessed sin, or you are taking the grace and forgiveness of God for granted, a song of repentance may be just what you need to shake you out of your lethargy.

Or even better than that, regularly participating in repentance through singing in corporate worship week after week after week will help shape you into someone who lives a life of regular repentance. Before we can get to praise in corporate worship, we must corporately repent. We must acknowledge our unworthiness to be in His presence and the fact that we are only there as those forgiven by the blood of Christ.

You see, this is why a song like Psalm 130 was one of the Psalms of Ascent; repentance through singing was a regular part of the corporate worship life of ancient Israel. As the people made their way toward the Temple in Jerusalem, as they approached the presence of a holy and just God, they would sing these Psalms of Ascent, several of which are songs of repentance and trust in God’s steadfast love. This shaped the people’s hearts so that when they arrived at the Temple, they fully acknowledged their unworthiness to be there and the fact that it is only by God’s grace and mercy that they are able to draw near to the presence of God. And by doing this regularly as part of corporate worship, it created a rhythm of repentance for life.

This kind of practice continued for the early church as well. Early Christian worship always included a song of repentance—Kyrie eleison, a cry for God’s help that appears several times in the Greek New Testament and that finds its roots throughout the Old Testament, including here in Psalm 130. Kyrie eleison: “Lord, have mercy.”

Singing Kyrie eleison continued all through the Middle Ages, even when other parts of the service transitioned to Latin. And it continued on into the Reformation as well.

For example, John Calvin wanted each worship service to begin with corporate repentance. He said, “Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? . . . In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all.” Calvin regularly began his services with a reading of the Ten Commandments, and after each commandment, the congregational would sing, Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy. He believed that in repenting each week through reading the Ten Commandments and singing a prayer of repentance, the people in his congregation would be formed into people who lived lives of repentance.

Martin Luther also kept this song of repentance in his services. He insisted that the worship service be in the language of the people, but he still kept the Greek Kyrie.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.