Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 28, 2014
Psalm 148 Commentary
Psalm 148 is a stirring call to praise that’s strikingly reminiscent of Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.” It’s an invitation to “all creatures of our God and King” to lift up their “voices and with us sing, alleluia, alleluia.” In fact, Psalm 148 doesn’t just, with so many other psalms, open and close with calls to “praise the Lord.” The poet is also relentless in his call for representatives of God’s whole creation to praise the Lord.
The Revised Common Lectionary appoints this psalm for the first Sunday after Christmas. However, this Sunday is also the last Sunday of the year. So those who preach and teach it might ask worshipers to dig into Psalm 148 by asking them why this psalm might be fitting during our final worship services of the year. Services near the end of the year often look back on the past year. How, then, might this relentless call to praise the Lord fit into such reflection? Might, for example, the Spirit use it to prompt reflection on worshipers’ many reasons for praise during the past year?
The poet fills this psalm with verbs in the imperative form. So she isn’t just inviting the whole creation to praise the Lord. The psalmist is, in fact, commanding the whole cosmos to join in praising our God and King. Yet she isn’t even just commanding the general creation to praise the Lord. The poet also calls for all members of its various species and groups to offer that praise. Note, after all, the rhythmic use of the word “all” throughout the psalm.
Psalm 148 anticipates, in some ways, the very final phrase of the whole psalter: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (150:6). Yet Psalm 148 even suggests that having “breath” isn’t somehow a requirement for praising our God and King. After all, this psalm essentially invites not just every living creature but also every created thing to praise the Lord. In fact, the psalmist extends Psalm 96 and 98’s calls to the whole earth to praise the Lord to the whole creation.
Clinton Mc Cann notes that this invitation to the whole cosmos to join in praise to the Lord recalls God’s covenant in Genesis 9:8-17. There, after all, God doesn’t just covenant with flawed Noah and his troubled descendants. God also draws “every living creature” under the protective umbrella of God’s gracious care. God even includes “the earth” itself in that loving covenant.
Psalm 148 intersperses reasons for praising the Lord with its relentless calls to such praise. Yet the poet spends most of his time commanding praise rather than explaining why that praise is so appropriate. In fact, the calls to praise seem disproportionate in number to the reasons for that praise. Humans naturally want to know why we should praise the Lord. While not entirely ignoring that question, the psalmist largely simply calls us to praise the Lord. It might be worth exploring the implications of that “imbalance” in the course of any message or lesson on Psalm 148.
We can almost neatly divide Psalm 148 into two halves: the first (verses 1-6) praises the Lord from the “heavens” (1b); the second (verses 7-14) praises the Lord from “the earth” (7). We recognize how some parts of that chorus offer their praise to our God and King. We can understand how, for example, angels and heavenly hosts, as well as rulers and various other people can praise the Lord. The angels and heavenly hosts, after all, praise God in celebration of Jesus’ birth. Some of us also just heard lots of young men and maidens, old men and children joyfully sing Christmas carols.
However, it’s harder to know how other parts of God’s creation join in that cosmic choir of praise. How, for example, can the sun, moon, stars and waters that have neither tongues nor vocal cords praise the Lord? Some scholars suggest things like the sea creatures, lightning and hail, wild animals and small creatures praise our God and King by simply doing what God created them to do. This, of course, challenges our natural concept of praise. It suggests that bullfrogs, for example, praise the Lord not when they show perfect pitch, but when they simply burp out their communications.
Some of the psalmist’s pairings of choristers are particularly instructive. By linking the sun that praises God during the daytime with the moon that offers its praise at night, she reminds us that God’s praise is never silenced. By combining the highest heavens and waters above the sky with what’s under the earth’s its waters, the poet reminds us that God’s creation from top to bottom praises the Lord. By pairing the mountains and hills with creatures and flying birds, the poet reminds us that both the noticeable and scarcely noticeable offer their praises to our God and King.
The psalmist’s call to the whole creation to join in praise to the Lord has ecological implications. She reminds us that the sun, moon, stars, waters and various creatures are fellow members of the universal chorus of praise to God. So each time we render a sea creature or wild animal extinct, we silence its “alto” or “tenor voice.” In fact, it’s sobering to think that each time even just one creature dies, praise to God is muted, if even just slightly. This lays a special responsibility on people whom God has created in God’s image. After all, as Mc Cann also notes, among the unique things about humans is our ability to respect and protect creation so that it may join us in praise to the Lord.
After directing all the rest of the creation’s sopranos, altos, tenors and basses to offer their praise, the psalmist turns, finally, to humanity. Humans are, in fact, the last to enter Psalm 148’s cosmic chorus. Perhaps, Mc Cann posits, that reflects Genesis 1’s account of humanity as the final piece of God’s masterpiece that is creation. However, the psalm’s call to mighty people as well as young and old, men and women to join the chorus is also a reminder that people are just “one section” of creation’s chorus.
Of course, as Walter Brueggemann points out, human praise is fundamentally different than, for example, the sun or cattle’s. Human praise takes the form of what he calls “lyrical self-abandonment” in its yielding of one’s self and desires to God and God’s loving purposes. We praise the Lord not just by singing Christmas carols or “All Creatures of our God and King,” but also by responding to God’s grace with our obedient faith. Such praise is, after all, a most appropriate response to God’s loving and sovereign care for everything God makes, including the members of Psalm 148’s cosmic chorus.
Verse 14’s reference to “the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to” God’s heart is a bit puzzling. It may be linked to Israel’s praise to God for God’s raising up a “horn” that refers perhaps to Israel’s king. However, Terrence Fretheim suggests that it may also be linked to how we praise God. Creatures praise God by being what they are as God’s creatures. In a similar way, Israel has been made what it is by God. So she offers her praise by being who God created her to be, God’s redeemed sons and daughters.
As noted, the psalmist spends comparatively little time elucidating reasons for the cosmos to join in praising our God and King. At the heart of those reasons, however, lies God’s “name,” (5, 13), in other words, God’s character. Psalm 148 especially focuses on God’s creative nature. Verses 5-6 speak of how God “commanded and they were created.” They reflect Genesis 1:1-2:4’s teaching of God as the universe’s creator. David Migliore says that that creation reveals that God’s nature is essentially love. God, after all, not only lovingly created all things that were created, but also lovingly cares for what God creates. So it’s most appropriate for that whole creation to respond in praise.
A 2012 edition of USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2012/12/04/cosmic-radio-waves/1746729/ reported on we might think of as a new addition to the cosmic chorus of praise to the Lord. It noted that twin spacecraft have captured sounds that mimic the chirping of birds from earth’s radiation belts.
The crafts collected measurements of radio waves. Those waves can produce an energy boost to radiation belt particles. However, those waves also operate in ways that can be heard with the human ear.
As University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing played a recording of those high-pitched radio waves, he noted that you can’t just hear what sound like “chirps.” You can also hear what he calls “that sort of cricket-like thing in the backgrounds.” Even radio waves are, it seems, part of creation’s chorus that praises the Lord.
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