Psalms Week 13
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
We noted in the very first installment of this Lectio on the Psalms that the final psalm, Psalm 150, ended on a note of praise and functioned as a final title to the whole Psalter. Likewise, the psalms leading up to this crescendo also accent in a variety of ways the glorious activity of praising God. One of these psalms, Psalm 145, has David in the title; the others are untitled. Given the nature of the Psalter, it is all but a given that praise should get the last word, so to speak.
Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic psalm — each verse begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet — with the anomaly that the verse beginning with the Hebrew letter nun appears as the third and fourth line of Verse 13 (which begins with the letter mem) in a single Hebrew manuscript. As the psalm starts out, there is a wonderful progression. First of all, the psalmist extols the deity as “my God and King” and blesses (i.e., praises) God’s name in perpetuity (145:1). This sentiment is straightforward; it serves as a sort of secondary title to the psalm. Then this idea is immediately repeated — the psalmist will praise God’s name “for ever and ever” (145:2). The repetition seems to be for good measure. So far the praise has been personal —five first-person pronouns occur in the first two lines.
A transition occurs in 145:3 when the psalmist declares simply not only that the Lord is great and therefore greatly to be praised, but that God’s greatness is unsearchable. This provides the basis for moving from personal to general praise. God’s greatness leads one generation to laud God’s work to the next generation (145:4). God’s greatness requires more than personal praise. As the progression unfolds, there is another combination of personal and collective praise. “I will meditate” on the splendor of God’s majesty and wondrous works (145:5) combines with “they” will proclaim the power of your awesome acts (145:6). These two lines then return to the personal emphasis: “I will declare your greatness.” Finally, the litany returns to “they.” “They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” The praise moves back and forth antiphonally from the individual to the collective.
A praise dimension is still present in the remainder of Psalm 145, but in a slightly different way. Almost midpoint in the psalm there are a couple of declarations about God. Four different expressions accent the Lord’s infinite patience: graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and plenteous covenant commitment (145:8). Moreover, the Lord is good to all, and divine compassion is over all that God has made (145:9). This is not praise, but provides reasons why praising God should be forthcoming. This is a praiseworthy deity.
In a most interesting turn, after these declarations about the nature of God the psalmist asserts that God’s own works praise God. Presumably, this refers to creation. But it may suggest not only creation, but everything God has done. Parallel to these works’ praising God, all the saints praise God as well. It is as though the saints are among God’s best works (145:10). “They” — perhaps indicating the works and saints of the previous verse — speak of God’s glory and power (145:11). The purpose for such a stunning declaration is to make all humanity know of God’s terrific deeds and the glory of God’s kingdom (145:12). Speaking of which, notes the psalmist, this kingdom is an everlasting dominion that endures for generations on end (145:13).
Honing in on God’s character we hear that the Lord is faithful to everything God says and gracious in all which God does (145:13). Again, there is no doubt why this deity deserves praise.
As though to challenge any conception that God is remote, the psalmist takes care to point out — as part of God’s faithfulness and grace — that God upholds those who are falling while raising up those who have been bowed (145:14). Continuing in this vein, the psalmist notes that the eyes of all are fixed on this God who provides food and opens the divine hand to satisfy the desires of every living being (145:16). Equally, God is just and kind in all the divine deeds and near to everyone who calls on God (145:17–18). God fulfills desires, hears people cry, saves, and preserves all who love God; only the wicked are in trouble (145:19–20). In a final expression the psalmist returns to a personal declaration, but combines this with a communal one. Even as “my mouth” speaks a word of praise to God, the psalmist calls on “all flesh” to praise God’s holy name forever (145:21).
Psalms 146, 147, 148, and 149 all begin and end the same way (as does Psalm 150): “Praise the Lord” (Hallelujah!) (146:1, 10; 147:1, 20; 148:1, 14; 149:1, 9). All of them are variations of the same theme. Psalm 146 starts out being intensely personal, with the psalmist issuing a self-command: “Praise the Lord, O my soul” (146:1); this is after the initial Hallelujah. Verse 2 emphasizes that the psalmist will praise as long as life allows. Regardless of the varied moods and outlooks brought about by life’s circumstances, this psalmist insists on perpetually praising God.
As effusive and almost unrealistic as this posture seems, the psalmist provides a context. Trusting in human endeavor is ultimately frustrating, for it eventually fails (146:3–4). People can do only so much. When it comes to God, it’s a different story. The Lord is a God who provides help and therefore induces hope. Reliance on this deity will promote blessedness (146:5). After all, this God created all that exists and is constantly faithful (146:6), and sees to it that the oppressed receive justice and the hungry have food (146:7). This God frees the prisoner (146:7), makes the blind see, lifts up those who have been brought low, loves the righteous (146:8), attends to sojourners, upholds the fatherless and widows, and judges the wicked (146:9). This God reigns forever (146:10).
One might protest that these conditions do not obtain, thus making the claims hollow. But these actions on God’s part — which are designed to prompt praise — are about the ultimate rule of God, which is always in the process of being implemented but which has not quite been realized completely. Such a psalm speaks to the kingdom of God, which God is in the process of completing. Along the way we praise God for those parts of God’s kingdom that are manifest, even if they are only partially manifest. Praise is still appropriate.
Psalm 147 picks up where Psalm 146 concluded. Again, the first verse establishes why it is good to sing praises to a gracious God. Simply put, “a song of praise is fitting.” Then the psalm proceeds with a litany enumerating the many reasons why praise should be forthcoming. It is an impressive list. The Lord builds Jerusalem so that Israel’s outcasts might be gathered (147:2). God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (147:3). Don’t for a minute think that such things are beyond the Lord’s power. After all, God determines and names the stars; clearly, God’s power is beyond comprehension (147:4–5). Thus, God has no trouble elevating the downtrodden and bringing judgment on the wicked (147:6).
Almost as a sort of interlude, the psalmist interrupts the list to admonish people to sing thanksgiving songs to the Lord (147:7). That said, the psalmist returns to the recitation of God’s praiseworthy actions. God sees to it that rain makes vegetation flourish (147:8). Of course, this allows beasts and birds to be fed (147:9). Also, the psalmist insists that God’s power cannot be compared to conventional power. Neither the powers of strong animals nor human beings impress God; rather, God takes pleasure in those who fear God and hope in God’s covenant love (146:10–11). Another interlude encourages Jerusalem/Zion to praise the Lord (147:12).
The psalmist returns to the litany in the very next verse. God strengthens Jerusalem’s defenses and blesses her children (147:13). God makes Israel’s borders peaceful and supplies the finest wheat (147:14). God also makes God’s commands known to all the earth (147:15). The weather God sends has a decisive impact on peoples everywhere (147:16–18). Here the God of creation is being celebrated. Finally, the psalmist revisits Israel proper, noting that God has provided a revelatory word in a unique manner (147:19–20). The gamut covered, the concluding “Praise the Lord” is sounded (147:20).
Psalm 148 makes sure that everyone and everything that can praise the Lord does praise the Lord. Nothing is left to chance. Starting at the top, so to speak, the Lord is to be praised from the heavens/heights by all the heavenly beings, including angels and hosts (148:1–2). As well, the cosmos — sun, moon, and stars — is admonished to praise. This includes all the elements: the highest heavens and the waters above the heavens (148:3–4).
And why not? These celestial objects were created and operated by the very deity they are now being commanded to praise (148:5–6). Next, the sea monsters, the deep oceans, fire, hail, snow, frost, and stormy winds are to get into the act (148:7–8). Whether an object is animate or inanimate seems to make no difference. It is as though every aspect of the created order is geared to praise the God who is responsible for all existence. Mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars, beasts of all kind — even cows, creeping things, and birds are to do their part in praising the Lord. This is the most spectacular choir ever conceived!
Also, the mighty and the lowly are called upon to praise the Lord: kings, princes, rulers, young men and women, old men and children, in short, all peoples (148:11–12). All these entities are to praise the Lord’s exalted name and acknowledge that God’s glory transcends heaven and earth (148:13). After all, God has raised up a horn, a symbol of strength, for God’s people, the saints — namely, Israel, the elect. Does that not in and of itself require praise? The answer comes in the psalm’s amen: “Praise the Lord” (148:14).
This penultimate praise psalm (we dealt with Psalm 150 on week one of this series) concentrates on the praise offered up by Israel, God’s own people. In the “assembly of the faithful” there is supposed to be sung a “new song” (149:1). This “new song” is, as one would expect by now, a praise song. Israel makes up this choir, for they are to be glad in their Maker and rejoice in their king (149:2).
Maker and king say it all. The first term calls to mind God as creator, whereas the second alludes to God’s sovereign rule. There are multiple expressions of praise: dancing along with the tambourine and the lyre (149:3). The praise is to be directed at God’s name. Presumably, the Lord enjoys praise regardless of its source, but in this psalm God’s taking pleasure in God’s people is brought into keen focus (149:4).
Earlier in the psalm we have already witnessed three jussives: (1) “let Israel be glad” (149:2); (2) “let the children of Zion rejoice” (149:2); (3) “let them praise” (149:3). After noting the Lord’s pleasure (149:4), the psalmist provides three more. The first one is, “Let the faithful exult in glory” (149:5). Two terms are worth mentioning in this case. The word faithful is used of God to describe God’s amazing gracious commitment to God’s people (RSV’s steadfast love) and used of people to describe deeply devoted saints. This business of praise gets to the very core of the nature of God and God’s people. The other term is glory, which sometimes is an adjective, used of the deity and sometimes an epithet for God (i.e., the Glory of Israel). In this instance it either suggests the state of those who are exulting (i.e., gloriously) or has a dual purpose — namely, to evoke God’s essential being and describe the exultation itself.
The second of this second series of jussives is, “let them sing for joy on their couches” (149:5). Though the NRSV uses couch, the word more typically connotes bed. In one sense, the precise meaning does not seem to make much of a difference. But in another sense, it does. Singing for joy while sitting on a couch is a little odd; somehow, standing or dancing appears to be the more appropriate posture. Still, there’s no reason one cannot praise God while sitting down.
However, singing for joy while in bed is almost bizarre. But that may be the point. That is, the sort of praise, exultation, and singing being advocated here is such that normal venues do not apply. One thinks of the phrase often used in Deuteronomy of reciting God’s ways when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:7). That is to say, there is no time and no place when rehearsing God’s ways is not appropriate. This same sentiment may be indicated by this phrase about singing for joy “in their beds.”
The final jussive in the second series is not straightforward. It has two parts, the second of which is explained by a series of infinitives. The first part uses a strange idiom: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats” (Psalm 149:6). Still, strange or not, the sense is clear. The people are to offer a full-throated expression of praise. But the second part changes gears completely: “let … two-edged swords be in their hands” (149:6). This is scarcely a metaphor for praise. The question is: Why the sword? The answer comes in the infinitives: (1) to avenge the nations; (2) to chastise the peoples; (3) to bind kings with chains and nobles with fetters; (4) to execute [God’s] judgment on all of these groups (149:7–9). These actions are the glory of God’s faithful (see the same terms in 149:5).
At this point the psalm is making a claim about the very essence of praising God. Praising God is not primarily an emotion or expression of superficial happiness. When an individual or a community praises God properly, this religious and liturgical action gets to the heart of God’s very essence. Far from a fleeting emotion, praising God comes from a deep apprehension of the nature of God and God’s ways. This includes all of God’s ways, even those that require divine judgment and the use of God’s people as an instrument of that judgment.
We know from the biblical story that God’s people have often been under divine judgment, often at the hands of others. At other times God’s people have been the instrument of judgment. All this divine activity is integral. God’s mercy and love do not preclude God’s judgment and wrath. God’s judgment and wrath do not preclude God’s mercy and love. God is God. The latter part of this penultimate psalm does not shrink from this truth. Plus, nothing about this truth deters the psalmist from the final imperative of the whole Psalter (combined with Psalm 150): Praise the Lord.
Questions for Further Reflection
- We have reached the end of our journey through the Psalms. What surprised you about this book? What was most encouraging? Most challenging? In what ways do you hope to continue to engage with the Psalms as you move forward in life and faith?
- Psalm 145:1-2 notes a desire to praise God “forever and ever” throughout every day. On a practical level, what does it mean to praise God in such a continuous manner? Phrased differently, what does it look like to live a life filled with worship?
- Psalm 146 shows a contrast between trusting in humans versus trusting with God. What are the starkest differences, and how might these motivate your pursuit of relationship with God?
- Psalms 147 and 148 are filled with picturesque images of praise. Re-read these two chapters. Which verse or phrase stands out to you and why?
- At the conclusion of the Lectio Dr. Spina notes, “Praising God is not primarily an emotion or expression of superficial happiness… Far from a fleeting emotion, praising God comes from a deep apprehension of nature of God and God’s ways.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not? How might Dr. Spina’s assertion inform your day to day life of discipleship?
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