Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord! – Psalm 150:1-6
What a wonderful and appropriate close to the Book of Psalms! In Hebrew, Psalm 150 is the last of the Hallel (הלל) Psalms (146-150). Hallel means “Praise the Lord” or “Praise God” (this is where we get Hallelujah (הַלְלוּיָהּ), which means “Let us praise the Lord”).
Allow me to go linguistic for a moment.
Hallel has its roots in a pre-sinaitic word (a hieroglyph really) that was pronounced hillul and meant “jubilation”. Why is that important? Because it tells us that the characteristic of praising the Lord is intrinsically tied up with jubilation – a great joy; an exultation.
Now, if we say “Praise” in today’s Christian world, we immediately think of lots of people gathered together with their hands up in the air, eyes closed, faces upturned, tears, shouting, hopping up and down, in some cases dancing and all sorts of exuberant behaviour. Then we mentally throw in some kind of “worship band” replete with drums, keyboard, bass and the indispensible “worship leader” pouring his/her heart and voice into a microphone, strumming a guitar and accompanied by backup singers. We’ve all been there.
But note this: The Psalms were written between the 15th and 5th centuries BC. They didn’t have microphones back then.
What I mean is that, as it happens so often, we tend to miss the forest for all the trees (in fact, sometimes we miss the trees for all the squirrels on them and the squirrels for all the lice in their fur): Biblical praise is very different to what we associate praise with today.
Notice verse 2 of the above Psalm and let’s dissect it for a moment.
Praise Him for His mighty acts
We have no idea of who wrote the Hallel Psalms. It’s tempting to think of David, but we don’t really have any traditional and scholarly evidence to prove that. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is what the Psalmist points out in this last song of praise: Namely, that praising God requires knowledge of God’s acts in the past, present and, we can say, in the future.
That means that it is impossible to truly praise God if we have no knowledge or experience of His works.
God wants us to praise Him for what He has done, what He does now and what He promises He will do.
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness
Secondly, the psalmist tells us that praising God also requires knowledge of God’s character, of who He is, has been and will always be (cf. James 1:17). That means that it is impossible to truly praise God if we have no knowledge or experience of Him.
God wants us to praise Him for who He reveals Himself to be.
And thus we come to the question: How can we live full lives of praise? How can we continuously obey the Hallel commands of the Psalms?
Answer: By growing in our knowledge of God.
I’m sure you’re unimpressed. We are so used to cliches that phrases like these ricochet off our heads without even making a dent. So let me ask the question differently: If God had not revealed Himself to us, how could we possibly know anything about Him?
Now, notice this: We say and affirm that God has revealed Himself to us through Creation (Rom. 1:20) and, more clearly, through His Word (2 Tim. 3:16). And among those who experience these two forms of revelation, there have always been those who see God and those who refuse to see God. But what we don’t realise is how immense this grace is. God doesn’t owe us anything. He doesn’t owe us attention. He doesn’t owe us love, grace, mercy – and He certainly doesn’t owe us self-disclosure. After the sin of Adam and Eve, after the Fall, God could have turned His back on the human race, condemned us all to eternal Hell and left us to live our days on Earth in utter confusion as to whether or not He exists, who He is or what he wants from us. In fact, there are multitudes of people today who, through willing or unwilling ignorance, live exactly like that and are headed exactly to an eternity of that.
Let’s dive a little deeper before we re-surface.
One of God’s characteristics (His attributes) is that He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And another attribute of His is that He cannot deny Himself (Num. 23:19; 2 Tim. 2:13; Titus 1:2), which means He never goes against Himself (mostly, I think, because He doesn’t have to, not so much because He can’t). If He is something, then He always acts in accordance to that.
So here’s another question: Had God abandoned us blind to Him, would He be acting in accordance to His “Love” attribute? Obviously not – although we wouldn’t know about it since we would have no revelation of God. But that wouldn’t make His “Love” attribute untrue, would it? He would still be “Love” whether He told us or not.
Therefore, is it not fair to say that it would be impossible for God to leave us without a revelation of Himself? To say that – putting it in a very simple way – He had to reveal Himself to us because of who He is?
I hope you see where this is going. Let’s come out for a breath.
We said above that our increasing praise grows on an increasing knowledge of who God is and what He has done (these two go together). And, as Christians, we understand that to know more about God, we need to delve deeper and deeper into the riches of His own written revelation to us, the Word; the Scripture; the Bible.
But I hope that that little theological exercise can cast a new light onto our Bible study. The fact that we can know anything true about God is abundant grace. Why do I emphasise that? Because it is so easy for us today to become trivial about this precious spiritual discipline. The world not only “lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19), who wants nothing more than to “deactivate” Christians, but it also vies for our undivided attention with millions of little distractions other than “the kingdom of God” (cf. Mat. 6:33). And as our “Bible literacy” decreases, so does our intimacy with God – and so does our praise of God.
I can’t help but think of the late Ephesian church – not as is found in Paul’s letter, but as we sadly see it in Christ’s letter in Revelation 2:1-7. In verse 4, the Lord Himself, after commending their labour, holiness, endurance and spiritual discernment, warns the Ephesians that they had lost their first love. How often don’t we identify with that? Our walk with the Lord becomes wearisome, cold, tiring and a chore – gone is the passion and the enthusiasm of our first days, when we wouldn’t miss a prayer meeting and we couldn’t stop telling people about Christ. We look back instead of reaching forward (cf. Phil. 3:13) and wonder “what happened?” And, more often than not, the answer is simply that, for whatever reasons, our knowledge of God has decreased to a standstill. Back then, everything was new. Back then, everything wasfresh. Back then, everything was recent. Back then, the contrast with our old, sinful life was still black-and-white stark. Back then, everything we discovered about God made an impact on our starved souls.
But after a few years of “feeding”, our souls are stuffed. Symptoms: Sermons sound the same; we know what a preacher/author/blogger is going to say before we even get past the title. We open our Bibles (maybe with less frequency) and instead of reading we recite verses in our heads. We struggle to find something new and fresh to stir us up.
It’s a spiritual disease as common as the common cold. And like the cold, we’ve all experienced it at some point. And like the cold, we try all sorts of remedies and old-wife recipes to recover. We invest time and money in conferences, books, tapes/CDs/mp3s etc in our desperation to “quicken” our slumbering souls. We become preacher- and sermon- “connoisseurs”, digging, looking, searching and in the end growing tragically apathetic – and even cynical. Praise the Lord? Well… sure – but only because I know I have to.
But if we learn anything from the Ephesian church, it’s that the Lord expects us to maintain that first love and passion – and that it’s a sin of devastating consequence not to. And if He expects us to do something, we know that we have all the resources available to do it (cf. 1 John 5:3).
So how can we come back to that first love? How can we maintain our passion and our praise for God?
Take a look at Hebrews 1:1-3. Again, we learn that God, in the past periods of redemptive history, revealed Himself at various times and in various ways. There is much we can draw from this passage, but let’s just remember that God has revealed everything we need to know about Him this side of eternity by both speech (spoken and written) and by actions (miracles and signs). We call this latter type “performative speech”. And it is all immeasurable grace.
But now, the writer tells us, in these “last days” (the latest part of redemptive history), God spoke to us through His Son. In verse 3 of the same chapter we are told that God’s Son is “the brightness of [God’s] glory and the express image of [God’s] person”.
Allow me to go linguistic one more time.
The word translated “express image” is χαρακτήρ (character). In extrabiblical literature we see this term used for an engraved image on wood or metal, or even a stamp on a coin. The idea is likeness.
The word translated “person” is υπόστασις (hupostasis), and refers to essence, the very substance of something. Not necessarily the form of something, but its essence.
So what do we learn here? Quite simply, what Jesus Himself affirmed: He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9). In other words, in Jesus Christ we see everything we can know about God the Father. Everything Jesus did and was reflects PERFECTLY what God does and who He is. That’s why Paul wrote: He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) and: for in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9).
Jump now to John 1:1, as he introduces Jesus to us: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Last scholarly note (promise!): In Greek philosophy, “Word” (Λόγος [Logos]) referred to an impersonal creative force – something like Divine Wisdom/Power. But John ties up this understanding of Logos with the Old Testament, where God created the cosmos through the Word (cf. Gen 1:3). John is saying that Jesus Christ is, among other attributes, the very same force that put the world into existence (in fact, he says it clearly in verse 3); the Supreme Wisdom; the Ultimate Knowledge.
Conclusion: God PERFECTLY (no flaws) and COMPLETELY (nothing missing) reveals who He is and what He does in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
What, then, can we take from all this? Our lives are to be lives of exuberant praising the Lord – of Hallel. But the quality of our praise reflects our knowledge of God and His works. Through His grace we have God’s revelation to us, primarily in His written Word. However, because God’s Word is a person, Jesus Christ, we must approach our study of the Word not academically, not as a subject, but as a person – as the foundation of our relationship to Christ.
I’ll stop here, and leave you with the prayer of a known psalmist:
Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law – Psalm 119:18
Ultimately, praising the Lord begins and ends with Him.