Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2016
Psalm 150 Commentary
Well, Easter is over. The long build up of Lent is a distant memory. The blast of the trumpets, the glad songs of the thronging worshipers, and the scent of the lilies have all faded away. Easter is over. Sigh! Not so fast, says the Revised Common Lectionary. Let’s keep our focus on Easter for a while. Indeed, for seven Sundays in a row the Lectionary helps us focus on the impact of Easter. Christ arose. So what? What should we do now?
Our reading from the Psalms on this second Sunday of the Easter season says that the first thing we must do post-Easter is to praise, to “Praise the Lord,” to “hallelu yah” in the Hebrew. We translate that opening word of Psalm 150, “Hallelujah.” Every Christmas and many Easters in my last church, the choir invited the entire congregation to join them in singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” It always sent chills up my spine and filled my eyes with tears as 200 voices filled the sanctuary with Handel’s triumphant celebration of Christ’s victory. My favorite part of that piece is that moment at the end, where the choir pauses and a holy silence fills the sanctuary. Then one more time with full organ, the choir with all their might and main fairly shouts, “Hal-le-lu-jah!!!!”
That’s what we have in Psalm 150, the final Hallelujah. We’ve heard it many times throughout the Psalter, particularly at the end of each of the previous four books of the Psalms (41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, and 106:48). Now as the fifth book of the Psalter comes to an end, there are 5 Hallel Psalms including Psalm 150. Here the liturgical cry we’ve heard so often becomes a Psalm itself. Indeed, the Hallelu is heard 10 times in this Psalm. It’s hard to believe that number isn’t intentional. Ten is a number of completion and fullness; think of the Ten Commandments. Or is this a memory device for God’s children, corresponding to our ten little fingers? It feels as though the Psalm was specifically designed to end the Psalter. After all the poetic and powerful explorations of the Israel’s experience with their covenant God in the previous 149 Psalms, the only fitting conclusion is “Hallelujah.”
No wonder the Lectionary chose Psalm 150 for this second Sunday of the Easter season. What better response could we make to the climactic work of Yahweh for our salvation? The question is, how can we turn this one word into a sermon? It would make good worship sense to take this word as the theme of an entire service and spend the time just singing. But how can we preach a whole sermon on one word? That’s a pretty thin vein to mine.
Let’s dig deeper and see what we can find. The first nugget we discover is the fact that those 10 hallelu’s are all in the imperative. Some scholars claim the Psalm 150 gives us no motivations for praise (but see verse 2, on which I’ll comment later). No reasons are offered for this insistent call to praise the Lord. That’s because all the reasons have been given in Psalms 1-149. Instead of motivation, the Psalmist simply summons, commands, orders God’s people to give God all the praise. As the popular praise song puts it, there are “ten thousand reasons” to give God the praise. Now, just do it. It’s time to stop talking, stop thinking, stop complaining, stop weeping, stop praying, and just praise the Lord.
That can sound abrupt and cold, but not if we have deeply explored all the dimensions of our experience with God as the rest of the Psalter does. Then, out of the depths we should simply give God all the praise. It is our duty. And it is our privilege and our blessing. How very different the book of Psalms would have been if it had ended with a moaning and depressing lament. The book is filled with lament, and for that we should thank God. But we should also thank God that lament isn’t the only or the last word in the life of faith. There will finally be praise. Psalm 150 calls us to anticipate that last word in our worship, even in our lament.
So Psalm 150 commands us to praise without giving us a reason (say some), but it does give us some helpful directions. It begins and ends with this liturgical call to praise, and in between it moves in stages from the place we should offer our praise (verse 1) to the themes of our praise (verse 2) to the orchestra that will accompany our praise (verses 3-5) to the choir that will voice our praise (verse 6).
Or we can read these verses in a slightly different way. They tell us who is to be praised. It is the Lord, the supreme sovereign whose sanctuary in Jerusalem is an earthly copy of the great sanctuary that is far above the vault of the heavens. We are to praise him in that earthly sanctuary, but we must always be aware that he is not confined to that place or these people. He is high and lifted up, and he is praised by the heavenly hosts as well.
Second, verse 2 tells us why God should be praised. Here we encounter a bit of scholarly debate. The prepositions before “acts of power” and “his surpassing greatness” are open to different interpretations. The NIV has chosen “for,” suggesting that we praise God because of the mighty things he has done for his people, such as creating everything out of nothing and bringing life out of death and victory out of defeat. Those mighty acts are the clearest indication we have of his surpassing greatness. As Calvin said again and again, we know God through his works. Other scholars, however, translate those prepositions as “according to,” suggesting that we should praise God in a way that takes into account his greatness. His greatness should be the measure of our praise. Perhaps this is splitting hairs. God in his greatness deserves our praise.
Third, verses 3-5 show us how Yahweh should be praised, that is, with everything we have available. These verses call for the entire orchestra to lead in praise—strings, winds, and percussion. And all that orchestral music should move our bodies to give praise. While up-tight senior citizens of the Northern European tribes (like me) might struggle with this particular dimension of praise, the Psalmist calls us to dance our praise. The music of praise should move us not only in our souls, but also in our bodies.
What form our dancing takes will undoubtedly vary from person to person, but the chief point in these verses is that our praise must take the form of music. We can speak our praise. We can enact our praise. We can “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is our spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) But finally, God would be praised with our music, because nothing expresses the heart or moves the heart quite like music. “When in our music God is glorified….”
Fourth, verse 6 tells who is to praise God. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” It’s not just Israel; it’s all the nations. It’s not just humans; it’s all of creation. It’s not just earth’s inhabitants; it’s the hosts of heaven. It is God who has given breath to all creatures (Gen. 1 and Psalm 104), and the highest use of our breath is to praise the God who gave it. Under the influence of sin, many of God’s creatures do not praise the living God, but one day “every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:11) Psalm 150 calls all of God’s people to anticipate that great eschatological moment by joining their breath together and singing the great Hallelujah in the sanctuary.
Apparently there is more here than we might have seen at first. And consider this thought from James Luther Mays. Looking at the entire Psalter, he observes an important pattern. “The book that began with a commendation of the Torah of the Lord as the way of life ends here with an invitation to praise the Lord as the use of life.” Psalm 1 “asserts in a decisive way that life under Torah is the pre-condition of all the Psalms. Psalm 150 states the outcome of such a life under Torah.” Torah-keeping does arrive at obedience, yet obedience is not the goal of Torah-keeping. “Finally, such a life arrives at unencumbered praise. As Israel (and the world) is obedient to Torah, it becomes free to praise, which is its proper vocation, destiny and purpose. In this light, the expectation of the Old Testament is not finally obedience, but adoration.”
We can put this in a particularly Christian way by citing the beginning of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That, of course, is an echo of Paul’s long doxological introduction to Ephesians, where he says that all of our spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms have been given to us in Christ “to/for the praise of his glorious grace.” (That phrase occurs 3 times in 1:3-14) The Psalter end with a stunning call to praise, and history will end with such praise, and the new creation will be full of this praise, because that praise has been God’s ultimate goal from the beginning. The praise to which Psalm 150 calls us is the reason for our existence. When we praise God this way, we fulfill our destiny and become all that God means us to be.
But until we attain our highest calling, there are many low down moments in life when it seems almost impossible to praise God. This Psalm is simple, but our performance of it is not. The rest of the Psalms know that; indeed, they give us voice for those times of lament and anger and doubt that stifle our praise. Walter Brueggeman has given us a schema with which to interpret the entire Psalter—orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. There are Psalms that express the fundamental orientation of God’s people—faith, obedience, Torah, God’s promises and mighty acts. But there are also Psalms that capture those times in life when we get disoriented, because God seems to have forsaken us, obedience doesn’t seem to work, the promises seem unfulfilled, and we wonder if it’s all true. But there are also Psalms of re-orientation, where things come back together and we have a new, more mature, more nuanced, more stable view of God and the life of obedient faith.
Reading the Psalter in the light of such an understanding will help us read and obey Psalm 150 in a more mature and balanced way. Against the backdrop of lament and suffering and sin, Psalm 150 is a call to a deep faith that can praise the Lord in every circumstance. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection, we can believe that God makes all things for work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. That perspective will keep us from turning Psalm 150 into the kind of chirpy “praise the Lord” song that fill the airwaves of popular radio. This is not Pharell Williams’, “The Happy Song,” or Bobby McFerrins’, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This is a full choir, full organ, full voice, full sanctuary, full hearted “Hallelujah Chorus.”
I’ll end with a moving quote from Brent A. Strawn. Referring to John Calvin’s oft repeated, “the world is the theater of God’s glory,” Strawn writes: “The world is therefore both the theater of God’s glory—that is, where God’s glory is manifested—and that which gives God glory. The actors have one major part, one major line, even though it is refracted and told in millions of ways. That line closes Psalm 150 even as it closes the entire Psalter. It echoes across time and space, down the ages and throughout the far reaches of the universe. It is simply this: ‘Praise the Lord!’”
A colleague of mine just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. She told of visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and seeing Muslim women standing (or sitting) guard around the Dome of the Rock. Whenever Jewish women would approach in order to antagonize (?) these Muslim women, the Muslims would shout as loudly as they could, “Allahu Akbar,” “God is greater” or “God is (the) greatest.” It was as though they were staking claim to the whole sacred place with their traditional confession of faith. This place does not belong to you. It belongs to Allah.
That story made me wonder if there is some of that territorial business going on is Psalm 150. Is the Psalmist staking claim to Jerusalem and the Promised Land? Or is the Psalmist simply praising the God who is already the supreme sovereign over not only a little piece of real estate, but also the entire cosmos. “Praise the Lord” is not a hostile challenge; it is an invitation to “everything that has breath” to join the choir.
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