The ABC's of Praise
The ABC's of Praise
This is a Psalm that begins with a commitment that on the surface seems rather simple: "I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever." "I am going to praise you, God" is the Psalmist's promise. What could be easier than that?
But when we examine his language more closely, we discover a clue that the art of praise may involve more than we thought. In the first two verses alone, the Psalm writer uses three different verbs to describe this act of praising God. To praise God is to exalt him—to lift him up. To praise God is to bless him—to praise him from the heart. To praise God is to "laud" him—to extol his name. Apparently there more to blessing God than simply saying "bless you." Here is an entire vocabulary devoted this subject.
Another feature of this Psalm is that it is cast in an acrostic form. Although it's not something that can be seen in our English translations, every verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first verse begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; the second verse begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and so on until all the letters but one are used. So in a way, I suppose it could be said that what we have here are the ABC's of praise. The Psalmist outlines some of the fundamentals of praise, instructing us to praise God in a way that is most fitting.
The art of praise is learned.
We learn how to praise God by listening to others. In particular, the Psalmist says that the art of praise is intergenerational: "One generation will commend your works to another …."
Frankly, I don't think this is how we view worship today. We live in an age where church ministries are specialized and the generations are segregated. Our corporate worship is embroiled in controversies and disputes that revolve around questions of personal taste. Over and against this, we have the testimony of the Psalmist. One generation teaches another generation the fundamental vocabulary of worship. We shouldn't be surprised, really: that is, after all, how we learn most fundamentals in life. It is how we learned to speak when we were infants. It is how we learned the alphabet. And it is how we learn to worship God.
The language of praise, like all languages, is learned first by listening to others. One generation commends the work of God to another. We ought to ask ourselves if there isn't a certain direction implied in this statement. If we look at the Psalmist's words from a temporal perspective, it seems natural to assume that the movement is from the older generation to the younger generation. One generation will commend your work to another; the generation whose sun is now setting will commend your work to the generation whose sun is just beginning to rise.
Unfortunately, we are living in a culture where our interest in previous generations is largely confined to the selling price of items displayed on Antiques Roadshow. We live in a culture that has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to ignore what has gone before. I am almost reluctant to point this out, partly because it is my generation that is largely responsible for such a mindset. But mostly I am reluctant because I am afraid that all some of us will hear in the Psalmist words is a justification for our preferred style of worship. "See," some of us will be tempted to say, "the younger generation needs to learn to worship like the older generation. We need to teach these youngsters some hymns." Well, we might be right about that. I won't deny that the church's vocabulary of praise, musically speaking, is far more vast and complex than the practice of some churches suggests. Nor will I deny that there is a vast storehouse of hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs that will be lost to the next generation, if the church does not begin to take its stewardship in this area more seriously.
But if those of us who are part of that older generation only hear in the Psalmist's words a justification for the style of music we personally prefer, then we have missed his point altogether. The Psalmist's emphasis is on what is said and to whom, more than it on how it is said. In verse 4, it is God's acts that are in view. This is the testimony of our experience of God—what God has done. In verse 5, God's majesty and his miracles are highlighted: "They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty," the Psalmist says, "and I will meditate on your wonderful works." The splendor spoken of here is kingly splendor. There is an exalted quality to it. So much so that the Psalmist piles up descriptives to give us a sense of how truly exalted this God.
It seems likely the "wonderful works" the Psalmist has in view are the miracles God performed when he brought his people out of Egypt. In Exodus 14:14, the Lord promised Moses, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." The Psalm writer's reference to the "glorious splendor" of God's majesty would have reminded any who knew Israel's history of the Shekinah—the cloud of glory—that filled the Holy of Holies and before whose presence no man could stand. "They will tell of the power of your awesome works," he says in verse 6, "and I will proclaim your great deeds."
Here is another element that is starkly absent from much of today's evangelical worship: a sense of awe, a sense of reverence. The mighty acts of God inspired awe and even fear in those who experienced them. Contrast this with the perspective that shapes the worship experience in so many churches today. We are more concerned with comfort and familiarity. We want to sing songs that we like and hear an interesting sermon.
Illus. Some years ago when I had a job working in the mailroom for one a major auto company, I came across a magazine that focused on the city of Dallas, Texas. As I thumbed through it, I was amazed to find that one of the regular features of that magazine was a review of area churches. It was just like the review you might read of a play or a local restaurant, only it focused on the church service. It rated the music, the sermon, and the general feel of the church. This is the mentality that Skye Jethani writes about in his recent book The Divine Commodity. Jethani argues that churches today have turned God into a commodity—that they are marketing experiences and producing consumers instead of worshipers. Jethani describes the thinking this way: "If our worship gatherings are energetic, stimulating, and exciting enough then people will attend, receive what's being communicated, and be spiritually transformed." "The justification for this approach is simple," Jethani explains, "people won't come to a church that's boring. And what qualifies as boring is defined by our consumer/experience economy." So the Disneyworld becomes the standard of comparison for Sunday school. And Conan Obrien becomes our role model for preaching. "In Consumer Christianity," Jethani writes, "the shepherd becomes showman."
But the most damaging affect of this consumer philosophy has been to isolate the generations—isolate, and polarize. Instead of one generation commending God's work to another, each retreats to his own bubble of preferred styles—separate classes, separate worship services, separate music, separate lives. The picture the Psalmist paints is radically different. His portrait of worship is antiphonal, like a great choir where one voice calls and another responds. Or like an orchestra does where one instrument begins a theme and a different instrument picks up that same theme with a different voice. Each generation declares the majesty of God's work to the other. Each generation marvels at God's miraculous deeds. Each generation's testimony conveys to the other a sense of awe and reverence—a sense of God.
Notice that while there is a kind of give and take in the Psalmist's description—for example, one speaks, another meditates—no one is passive and no one, in the end, is silent. Please do not misunderstand me: I do not mean to minimize the very real and substantial differences that separate people in the matter of worship. But contrast the bickering and self-centeredness that so often mark our worship experience with verse 7: "They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness." What church is there today that can read these words without feeling at least some measure of guilt? We ought to fall to our knees and plead with God to rescue us from ourselves, because implied in the Psalmist's words is a fundamental truth: Whether or not we like one another's preferred style of music, we need one another to learn how to praise God the way he deserves to be praised.
The language of praise is an acquired language. It does not come to us naturally, and it is learned first by listening to others. But clearly it cannot stop there, because as important as the testimony of others may be to my vocabulary of praise, it is still second hand knowledge. Sooner or later we must learn it for ourselves.
The art of praise is theological.
Praise is grounded in the nature of God. In particular, the Psalm writer emphasizes three attributes that inform our practice of praise: God's grace, God's power, and God's goodness.
God's grace is mentioned in verse 8: "The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love." God's grace and compassion are often linked in the Old Testament. Both point to God's disposition toward us. He is gracious, inclined to show us favor even though we don't deserve it. The next two descriptions flow out of the first two and have to do with the way God responds to us. Because God is disposed to show grace, He is "slow to anger." Because he feels deep compassion for us, he deals with us in lovingkindness.
One of the most famous sermons ever preached was the sermon by Jonathan Edwards entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It is a remarkable sermon, designed to stir a complacent congregation. In it Edwards warns his audience that they are in danger of being cast into Hell at any moment. "Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell," Edwards says, "and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock." The picture Edwards paints is not a pretty one. "Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it …."
So why doesn't God just let us go? What is stopping us from this terrible descent? The Psalmist tells us: Though God's wrath is real, it is not quickly stirred. He is "slow to wrath." But more than that, the Psalmist says God is "rich in love." This is the committed love of God that compels him to keep his promises even when we do not keep ours. It is faithful love that is often expressed in the form of a covenant. And amazingly, it is an attribute of God's faithfulness that is often emphasized in contexts where God's people have been unfaithful.
In Exodus 33, after Israel has committed the great sin of worshiping the golden calf, Moses asks God to show him his glory. The Lord says to Moses, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." The Lord hid Moses in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand. Then, according to Exodus 34:6-7, as the Lord passed in front of Moses, he proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
Like Moses, we, too, come to see God's glory—not directly but indirectly. We see his grace in sharp contrast to our sin. We see his patience displayed in stark relief over and against our impatience. We see his compassion in contrast to our self-centeredness and narcissism. We awake in the morning feeling a sense of cold indifference toward him, yet he demonstrates his unfailing love in unexpected and undeserved ways all day long. It is not a pretty lesson, at least in what it reveals to us about ourselves. But it is a necessary one.
Why do we praise God today? Because he has not dealt with us as our sins deserved. Verse 9 says: "The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made."
Of course, God's disposition to show love would mean nothing at all without a corresponding power to do something about it. And that is something the Psalmist points to in verses 10-13. The important term that the Psalmist uses in these verses is "kingdom." Verses 10-11 read: "All you have made will praise you, O Lord; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom." That the Psalmist is thinking of something beyond Israel's political structure is clear from the way he connects the idea of "kingdom" to God's "might" and his "mighty acts." Kingdom in this sense is God's power to act.
Consequently, verse 13 implies that God is at work in the world today: "Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations." The idea of "God's kingdom" is one we find in the New Testament as well. And I think it is important that we recognize that it has both a narrow and a broad sense. We wait for the kingdom in the narrow sense as we wait for Jesus Christ to come back and reign from Jerusalem. We are waiting for a literal kingdom that can only be ushered in by the return of Jesus Christ. But there is also a kingdom in a broader sense. That is the sense we mean whenever we pray the words of the Lord's Prayer: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
In the waning days of the Nazi terror, as allied bombs rained down on the shattered city of Stuttgart, Lutheran pastor Helmut Thielicke preached a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord's Prayer. One of his most powerful—his sermon on the petition "Thy Kingdom come"—was interrupted by an air raid. After the bombs had fallen, Thielicke had to finish the sermon at a nearby school because his own church lay in ruins. In that sermon Thielicke describes a moment of discouragement, when all he had done for God seemed to have gone to pieces. His flock was scattered, and he was utterly desolate. As he looked down into the concrete pit of a cellar in which fifty young people had been killed by a bomb blast, a woman approached him. "My husband died down there," she said. "His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap. We were there the last time you preached in that cathedral church. And here before this pit, I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity."
"In this world of death," Thielicke says in his sermon, "in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields, we pray: 'Thy Kingdom come!' We pray it more than ever."
And so do we. Am I waiting for Jesus Christ to come again and reign from Jerusalem? Yes, I am. But today, right now, I am looking for him to manifest his power in the "empire of ruins" that is my heart. Am I waiting for the day when Jesus Christ will rule the nations with a rod of iron? Yes, I am. But today, right now, I am looking for him to establish his dominion in the "shell torn fields" that make up the landscape of my life.
Because of this, I expect God to deal with me in a certain way. I expect him to show me his goodness. This is the promise of the second half of verse 13 which gives the summary statement: "The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made." Then verses 14-20 show me what that looks like. For example, verse 14 says that he sustains the weary: "The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down." Verse 15 says that he feeds the hungry, "The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time." Verse 16 tells us that he satisfies our longing: "You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing."
All of these things lead the Psalmist to draw three important conclusions about God in verses 17-20: He is a God who is near, not a God who is far away. He is a God who listens, not a God who turns a deaf ear. He is a God who watches, not a God who is closes his eyes to what is going on around him. In short, I can expect God to act in a way that is consistent with his nature. I can expect him to keep his promises. I can expect god to hold me up when I stumble; I can expect him to give me what I need when I need it. I can expect him to be open handed with me and sensitive to my desires. I can expect him to do the right thing, to deal with me in love, to be near to me when I cry. I can expect God to save me. And God, for his part, can expect something from me in return. He can expect praise.
As I think of these three dimensions of God's nature—his grace, his power, and his goodness—I can't help noticing how they are all embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose for our justification. On this side of the Cross, the most appropriate way to give praise to God is to bow the knee to Christ. For the Psalmist the most obvious way to respond to the grace, power, and goodness of God is through speech. Verse 21 says: "My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever." But for us, this side of the Cross, the only way to praise his holy name is to praise the name of Jesus.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.