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On Praising God

 

Psalm 150

 

I: — There are two kinds of people who have to be told endlessly how great they are: the pathetically insecure, and the insufferably arrogant. The insecure must be told how great they are lest they collapse. The arrogant must be told lest they turn nasty.

Is God like either of these? Is God either pathetically insecure or insufferably arrogant? After all, God insists that he be praised. As a mater of fact the command to praise God is the most frequently repeated command in all of scripture. Our more effusive Christian friends frequently interject, “Praise the Lord!”, and interject it often enough to embarrass us, but not so often as to embarrass God, apparently.

In the psalms we overhear the psalmist praising God again and again. The psalmist urges us to praise God. Indeed, the psalmist is so stuck on praising God that he urges whales and cattle to praise God. How can a cow praise God, when a cow doesn’t even know she’s a cow? If this weren’t enough, the psalmist appears to approach the ridiculous when he urges “fire and hail, snow and frost” to praise God. Can any sense be made of this?

If we are to make any sense of it we have to begin with the matter of enjoyment or delight. Let’s think for a minute about our attitude to anything we enjoy, anything at all. Someone asks,
“How do you like your new car?”
    “It’s the best car I have ever owned.”
“Have you seen Timothy Findley’s new book?”
    “It’s the profoundest novel I have ever read.”
“What do you think of Mats Sundin?”
    “He’s a wizard with the puck within 30 feet of the net.”

You get the picture: anything we enjoy we praise. Enjoyment overflows spontaneously into praise. Our delight in anyone or anything overflows naturally into praise.

What’s more, whatever we praise we praise not simply because we happen to like it; whatever we praise we praise believing that praise is fitting. We praise the work of Shakespeare or Mozart or Rembrandt just because we know that our praise is not misplaced; we aren’t mistakenly praising something that actually merits our rejection. We are convinced that praise is a fitting response, an appropriate response, the only correct response. We praise what we admire, and our admiration isn’t wasted, isn’t evidence of tastelessness or insensitivity.

Another aspect of praise: you must have noticed that the people who are unhappy, cranky, miserable, sour-puss spoilsports are invariably those who praise least. They find so little enjoyment in life, so little that delights them, so little they admire that they can’t praise, since praise is the natural spillover of enjoyment and delight and admiration. And so they grope and grumble, chronically sour and sarcastic. On the other hand. those who praise most are always large-hearted people, profoundly contented, generous in their appreciation. In fact large-hearted, generous people can find something genuinely worthy of praise anywhere. The beefsteak was as tough and stringy as a tennis racket? Ah, but meat like this always has the best flavour! The movie was boring? But wasn’t it heartwarming to see the elderly couple in front of us who held hands all through it as though they were courting? The Blue Jays lost 5 – 0? Yes, but what a performance by the Baltimore pitcher! Those who praise most (because they find most to praise) are invariably the most delighted and delightful people. Ready praise is always a sign of someone’s inner good health.

Another aspect of praise. What we praise ourselves we implicitly recommend; we urge others to taste, know, cherish — and therein come to praise themselves. When I tell you enthusiastically that Glenn Gould is the finest pianist I have heard I am urging you to listen to Gould and discover his musical genius yourself. You see, I just know that any person with an ounce of musicality will find Gould praiseworthy too. What is IMPOSSIBLE is to say to someone, “I read the most marvelous book last night and I trust that you will find it dreadful.” We cannot praise something ourselves without urging others to find it worthy too.

Now let’s add up all that we have said and think once more about the psalmist. The psalmist invites us to praise God inasmuch as the psalmist has first, himself, found such delight in God that his delight overflows spontaneously into praise; and inasmuch as the psalmist has come upon riches in God he expects us to find the same riches in God ourselves. What is impossible is for the psalmist to have found his life enlarged and his heart inflamed by that fire which breathes into us passion and purity and peace, to have found his mouth pouring forth praise for this — only to add that there is nothing here for us. Impossible! The command of God, the invitation of God, is, “0 taste and see that the Lord is good”. Impossible for the psalmist to say, “I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and you will surely find him as vile as battery acid”. Whatever we praise we commend to others.

To praise the work of Timothy Findley is to be literarily attuned. (Not terribly important.) To praise the stickhandling of Mats Sundin is to be athletically alert. (Even less important.) TO PRAISE GOD IS TO BE SPIRITUALLY AWAKE. Exceedingly important. To praise God is to indicate that we are awake. (You see, people who are awake know the difference between waking and sleeping, while sleepers don’t know the difference.) To praise God means that we have not forfeited the good which God presses upon us in his Son; indeed, so far from forfeiting God’s priceless gift we have seen our name on it and now cherish it and want to thank him for it.

There is one more aspect of praise, any sort of praise, that we should look at today. Someone else’s praise of what we have come to enjoy COMPLETES OUR ENJOYMENT. Remember, what we delight in and cherish we praise spontaneously. Next, what we praise we commend to others as worthy of praise. Lastly, when others find it worthy of praise themselves our delight in it is magnified. My delight in Itzhak Perlman’s violin is so much greater if someone sits with me and by evening’s end has discovered the Perlman treasure for herself.

For this reason the New Testament tells us of the results of apostolic endeavours. It doesn’t tell us simply that the gospel was preached here or there. It tells us as well that those who heard it and came to faith WERE ADDED TO THE NUMBER OF BELIEVERS. We are told not simply that the gospel was announced in Thessalonica, but that it was received there with conviction and joy. The Christian missioners who had come to praise God for what the New Testament calls the gospel’s “unsearchable riches”; their joy was made complete by hearers who now praised God for the selfsame riches.

If we have grasped anything of the logic of praise then we understand profoundly why the psalmist tirelessly urges us, invites us, to praise God.

II: – In the time that remains this afternoon I want us to look briefly at Psalm 150. In the Bible the psalms are arranged in five hooks. Each of the five books concludes with a psalm of praise. The last book concludes with the 150th psalm, and it is surely the most unrestrained exclamation in all of scripture.

We are going to look at Psalm 150 under four headings: the “where” of praise, the “why” of praise, the “how” of praise, the “who” of praise.

WHERE: “Praise God in his sanctuary, praise him in his mighty firmament.” The sanctuary is the temple in Jerusalem. We are to praise God in our place of public worship. To be sure, a few psalms are written for private use, but most psalms characteristically urge congregations to praise God. It is the gathered people of God that most fittingly offers up praise; the liturgy designed for common use is the vehicle of praise. Israel always knew that God wants a people, and the public praise of God demonstrates that God has a people.

Yet the psalmist does more than summon us to praise God, “us” being we earth-bound creatures. He insists as well that God be praised in the firmament; that is, in heaven. In other words, those whose earthly struggles are over praise God eternally. We in assorted Protestant churches of modernity have almost no grasp of a truth which mediaeval and early-day Christians had in their bloodstream; namely, the church consists not only of those who trust Jesus Christ for righteousness and wisdom now, but also of all who have died in the faith and are eternally alive before God. As of this moment the church consists of you and me and all fellow-believers, plus Martin Luther, an unnamed Chinese peasant, Thomas Aquinas, a Roman soldier from the army that occupied Britain, Mother Teresa, as well as the anonymous Japanese Christians who came to faith through the Jesuit missions and martyrdoms in the 17th century. The church consists of all these people now simply because all of these people are alive before God now. While we still see through a glass darkly, the departed don’t, and therefore their praise must be richer even than ours. It is these latter people who praise God in the firmament. Sanctuary plus firmament means that all God’s people, ancient, mediaeval and modern; those alive now and those alive eternally; all God’s people praise God together. So much for the “where” of praise.

WHY: We are to praise God because of his mighty deeds. His mighty deeds are what he has done and what he continues to do. Anyone who is familiar at all with the Christian story can recite God’s mighty deeds: the creation which came forth through his word, the deliverance of his people from the degradation of slavery, the raising up of prophets who call the people to that love and loyalty and life which they are always losing sight of, the provision of God’s own Son as a remedy for our depravity and disgrace, the bestowal of that Spirit who is nothing less than the life-giving breath of God himself, the calling and equipping of Christian leaders of any era who have smiled in the face of suffering, opposition, even death.

God’s mighty deeds are startling. As we recall them our minds are taken beyond God’s deeds to God himself. At this point we resonate with the psalmist who cries, “Praise God according to his exceeding greatness.” The exceeding greatness of God is who God is in himself, not merely what he has done.

It is as we know ourselves included in what God has done that we praise him, and then praise him still more ardently as we adore God himself. This is why we praise.

HOW: “Praise him with trumpet. lute and harp, timbrel and dance, strings and pipe, cymbals of assorted shapes and sounds.” Plainly we are to employ any and all means in our praise of God. The list of musical instruments mentioned in the text is by no means exhaustive. Still, it is helpful to look at those that are mentioned.

**The trumpet was sounded to prepare God’s people for conflict. (Didn’t Jesus say that the whole world is gripped by that evil one whom we must resist?)

**The lute supplied bass notes, the foundational throb of praise, as regular as the throb of a heartbeat.

**The harp — made famous by Israel’s best-loved king — the harp spoke peace to troubled hearts.

**The tambourine supplied the rhythm for dancing and always meant celebration and rejoicing.

**The pipe was used at funerals. (If we can’t praise God in the midst of death then we are ignorant of the mightiest of his mighty deeds.)

**Cymbals were used in Israel to express ecstasy.

How is God to be praised? By every means, in every mood, on every occasion.

WHO: Who is to praise God? Everyone is to praise God. Everyone should. Only those will, of course, who are awake, whose delight in God and gratitude to God pulsate and spill over into praise. Still, everyone should, and everyone may.

It is John, living in unspeakable hardship in exile on the island of Patmos, who cries, “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein saying, ‘To

him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.'”

Victor Shepherd          

May 2000