Sunday, September 7, 2008

On Breathing and Praising

On Breathing and Praising
Fourth in a Series of Sermons on the Psalms

Copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: September 7, 2008

Psalm 150

We once counted the words up in a Bible study I led, and found that the word “praise” is used 12 to 13 times in Psalm 150, depending on the translation we read. Apart from the beginning and ending exclamations of praise, there are ten phrases that begin with the word “praise.” Possibly there are that number of sentences beginning with that word to serve as a sort of memory device. A youngster could learn about praising God by counting off the ten praises on ten fingers. We could try it:

Where should we praise the Lord?
[1] Praise God in his sanctuary;
[2] praise him in his mighty firmament!
Why should we praise God?
[3] Praise him for his mighty deeds;
[4] praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
How should we praise God?
[5] Praise him with trumpet sound;
[6] praise him with lute and harp!
[7] Praise him with tambourine and dance;
[8] praise him with strings and pipe!
[9] Praise him with clanging cymbals;
[10] praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Then, of course, there is the little addendum letting us know who is invited to the praise party: “everything that breathes,” which, at last count, was just about everyone, “praise the Lord.” And did you notice that the “where” question was answered with two phrases, the “why” question with two phrases? The “how” question, though, was answered with six phrases referring to eight different musical instruments and the earliest-known version of the Jitterbug. Throughout the Old Testament, dance is associated with joy and celebration, and probably played a big part in worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The psalmist was pretty excited about music as a means of praise, and the description of musical instruments for worship here is extravagant.

Some folks once declared — and some still believe — that we ought not have keyboard instruments in church, since they aren’t mentioned in the Bible. What a humorless reading of the intention of this psalm that is! The psalm doesn’t refer to pianos and pipe organs — along with saxophones, English horns, bells, piccolos, zithers, harmonicas and electric bass guitars — only because they hadn’t been invented yet. The list of instruments in the psalm is certainly not meant to be exhaustive but suggestive. We are meant to see that real praise involves a lot of music on the widest possible array of music-makers. Picturing this psalm being sung in the Jerusalem Temple, I have in mind an enthusiastic celebration, plenty of volume, and lots of shouting, singing and dancing.

In my English translation, I count only 71 words altogether in the whole psalm. There are even fewer in Hebrew, only 34 words, since in Hebrew you can say a lot with a single word. And you already know the Hebrew word for praise, did you realize that? That’s right, it is the word “hallelu,” as in “hallelujah!” The other part of hallelujah in Hebrew simply means, “the Lord.” So if you knew the word “hallelujah,” you already knew a complete Hebrew sentence, maybe without even realizing it. Out of 34 Hebrew words which make up this psalm, 13 have the word “hallelu” or “praise” built into them. 12 of the sentences actually begin with that word. It seems clear to me that if we have any intention of getting the most out of Psalm 150, we’re going to have to know about praising!

Perhaps, like most one-syllable words, we think we know what “praise” is when we hear it, but do we really? Did you know that the original meaning of the English word “praise” is “to set a price on”? That’s right, it is a form of the word “appraise,” as in “appraisal,” which anyone who owns a house in this state already knows plenty about. So, for a long time, the word “praise” required other modifiers to make its meaning clear in context. If it meant “price,” then words had to be attached to let us know if our “appraisal” should be high or low. So we hear about “high praise,” “faint praise,” and so on. Knowing the root of our English word, at least we know our word for “hallelu” has to do with value. But the Hebrew word is much richer.

Terms associated with “hallelu” in the Hebrew Bible are such words as “glorify,” “magnify,” “extol,” “bless,” and “rejoice.”

Every believer has to answer the reporters’ questions in regard to our own praises of God. But before we get to asking about where or how, probably we need to have some sense of why. Why praise? Why God? Why me? Psalm 150 dismisses the question with two short phrases: praise God because of his deeds and because of who God is. That may seem less than satisfying, but remember, Psalm 150 follows 149 other psalms with lots of other reasons given for praising God: because, according to previous psalms, by God’s word heavens and earth were created,1 by God’s action, Israel was freed from Egypt,2 because God’s nature is to seek justice for the oppressed and give food to the hungry,3 God turns grieving to dancing and clothes people with joy,4 he grants forgiveness,5 he made known his law to Moses to help guide our lives.6

Why praise God? “Tell me why you love me,” we ask of those who claim to love us. And when they start their list, if it is really love, the explanation soon sounds ridiculous. Explain why there is air, why honey tastes sweet, why the laugh of a baby is so pleasant, why a burst of sunshine after a rainy cool winter day is so refreshing. Eventually all our whys move toward praise because simple thank-yous for specific things just don’t seem to be enough. Words don’t seem enough either, so when we feel praise coming on — whether at a football game or because of a loving kiss — we feel moved toward music and our feet want to dance. When it comes to praise, the arts — music, poetry, and dance — have it all over logic and rhetoric. So where the psalter begins with a celebration of the law in Psalm 1, it ends in Psalm 150 with an adoring celebration of the One who gave the law.

The very first Psalm. Do you remember how it goes? “Blessed are those...whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” The law is about obedience, and before we can do very much about loving God, we first have to know what it means to be obedient — even if the main thing we learn from that is how very disobedient we’ve been. That is what the law is for. But obedience is not the end toward which God is moving us, not ultimately. God is not like the wife of Rumpole of the Bailey, not some fanatical tin pot dictator who requires nothing so much as that she be obeyed. The psalms have moved from the opening in obedience to this closing in praise, because God seeks to move people toward adoration, toward celebration, toward the happy realization that we have a great God who loves us beyond our capacity to absorb it or understand it.

When a young man says he worships the ground his girl walks on, it is pretty obvious that his feelings toward that girl are strong, captivating, that he is overcome by her. Contrast that with our own experiences sometimes when we say we have been in worship. Same word, very different meaning. Rather than strong feelings, we may have failed to feel anything at all; far from being captivated by our love of God, we may only be aware of having been distracted; instead of being overcome, we may have been casual and half-hearted in our worship. Someone once said that, on the whole, the topic of God’s love for us is a great deal safer than the topic of our love for God.

Yet even in our callous, half-hearted distraction, God never fails to love us. Every now and then, the truth of that comes home to us in all its stunning reality, and we sit down and write hymns with titles like “Amazing Grace,” “On Our Way Rejoicing,” “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” We find ourselves in that one certain worship service where worship was, finally, the right word. Every now and then, our praise of God truly sets us free, we really feel it, and we know what it is to sing and to dance and to give heartfelt thanks to God.

A psalm of praise, like Psalm 150, doesn’t express the only mood appropriate to the Christian life. After all, there are many other psalms, psalms of lament, psalms of hope, psalms of supplication and intercession. Yet when all is said and done, the One to whom we have addressed all our laments, hopes, supplications and intercessions is worthy of our praise.

Today is a good day to praise the Lord. And I hope that all our worship together can be characterized by praise. The psalm says that everything that breathes should be caught up in the praise of God. It’s the least we can offer to a Lord as great as ours.

Copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Psalm 33:6-7.
2 Psalm 66:6.
3 Psalm 146:7.
4 Psalm 30:11.
5 Psalm 32:5.
6 Psalm 103:7.