Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2016
Psalm 148 Commentary
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue our exploration of the impact of Christ’s resurrection. After a lovely look at Easter comfort in Psalm 23 last Sunday, our reading from Psalm 148 brings us back to the theme of celebration. In Psalm 148 we move from the intimate comfort of “The Lord is my Shepherd” to the universal praise of that Lord. It is a marvelous and much needed reminder that salvation isn’t just about “me and Jesus.” It is about everything in heaven and on earth. Easter has meaning for the entire universe.
Psalm 148 calls for universal praise in some of the loveliest poetry in the entire Psalter, indeed, in all of the world’s literature. Composed of two equal stanzas (verses 1-6 calling everything in the heavens to praise the Lord and verses 7-12 issuing the same summons to everything on the earth) and a two verse conclusion addressed to everything and everyone, especially Israel, Psalm 148 is a masterpiece of balance. It uses the parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry, and it augments that parallelism with the use of pairings that are designed to include everything bordered by the pairs: angels/heavenly hosts, sun and moon/shining stars, highest heavens/waters above the skies, sea monsters/ocean depths, lightning/hail, small creatures/flying birds, old men and children, etc.
Without listing every single thing in creation, the poet masterfully calls all of creation to praise the Lord. While the great Hallelujah chorus of Psalm 150:6 calls “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord, Psalm 148 expands the call even to that which does not breath. It’s not just humans and animals and angels; it’s weather and planets and the elements on the periodic scale. It’s not just mighty male kings in all their power; it’s also maidens and children and old men. Even a casual reader will hear echoes of Genesis 1:1-2:4 throughout this Psalm. In the beginning God created everything. Now in this Easter season, we celebrate the beginning of the new creation brought into existence by Christ’s victory over sin and death, so God’s entire creation is called to give God all the praise.
It is interesting and important that the Psalm is bracketed by the quintessential Jewish call to praise, “hallelu Yah.” Yahweh, of course, is the name of God that points directly to God’s exclusive covenant with Israel. Verse 14 picks up on the special relationship between Yahweh and Israel when it concludes this Psalm with the announcement that he “has raised up for his people a horn….”
I’ll say more about that announcement later, but it is important to remember how universalistic Israel’s faith was at its inception and at its core. Yes, they had been elected to be God’s covenant people, but the purpose of that election was so that they could be a blessing to the nations. (Gen. 12:3) Yes, Israel belongs to God in a special way, but this Psalm reminded them (and us) that the entire universe belongs to Yahweh. He is not a tribal deity, or a national deity, or a geographical deity, or even the deity of planet Earth. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. Every square inch of the universe belongs to him. It was the privilege and calling of Israel and the New Israel (Gal. 6:16) to bring the world to Yahweh and to lead the universe in praise of Yahweh.
Note that the reasons for that praise seem to differ in the two stanzas of this poem. The heavens and everything in them are to praise the Lord for the fact that God has created them and given them a set place in his creation. “Let them praise the name of Yahweh for he commanded and they were created. He set them in place forever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.” Verse 6 probably refers to the boundaries or limits God placed on all creation, so that each part has its place. As Genesis 1 puts it, chaos has been replaced by order, making the world predictable. As a result, life is manageable and science is possible. Imagine what it would be like if there were no day or night, if the seas simply ran over the land, if angels and demons could invade human life willy-nilly (the stuff horror movies are made of), if the planets and the stars didn’t have fixed orbits. Psalm 148 calls the heavenly dimension of creation to praise God simply because God created the skies above as good and orderly. We should join the heavens in that praise.
But the second stanza of Psalm 148 gives us and the rest of the earth a different reason to praise Yahweh—not creation, but redemption. This is not obvious at first. Indeed, at the end of the call to all earthly creation to praise God, we might anticipate a reference to creation again, but we don’t. Instead, the Psalmist points to the sheer majesty of God: “for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.” (verse 13) Praise Yahweh not because of what he has done in creating all things, but because of who God is in himself.
That seems to be the sense, until we come to the climax of the Psalm in verse 14. There the emphasis is on what Yahweh has done. His name alone is exalted and his splendor is above the earth and the heavens, because of what he has done. What has he done? “He has raised up for his people a horn….” That image of a horn is used throughout Scripture as a reference to power and vigor, like the horns of an ox or a ram or the Dragon of Revelation 12. Some scholars read verse 14 as a reference to Israel. After a time of weakness, such as the exile, God has once again raised them to power and vigor and dignity. Others see this as a reference to a new King, a regal Savior, like David.
Whichever interpretation of verse 14 we favor, it is easy to read that verse as a prophecy pointing to Jesus Christ, if we read this Psalm in its setting in the liturgical year. The church reads this Psalm at Christmas and at Easter (as it does this year). In the birth and resurrection of the Christ, God has raised up a horn of salvation. In keeping with that Davidic theme, it is possible to read Psalm 148 as a Psalm of enthronement. In Jesus resurrection, God has raised up a new King and placed him on the throne at the center of the universe, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given….” (Ephesians 1:21) I doubt that the Psalmist had all this in mind, but it surely fits what the New Testament says about the Resurrection of Jesus.
If we take that tack on the Psalm, then it reminds us that the resurrection was an event of universal significance. It was not just a little one off miracle that happened in a dusty corner of this third rock from the sun at a forgotten moment in human history. The resurrection of Jesus was the event that all of heaven and earth had been awaiting. So, when he finally rose, all of heaven and earth is summoned to join in praise. His resurrection impacts everything, as Paul so mysteriously put it in I Corinthians 15:20-28. God has raised up a horn. Christ has risen. The King has come. Praise the Lord.
St. Francis of Assisi was undoubtedly inspired by this Psalm when he penned the beloved hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” And he gave it a distinctively Christian interpretation when he identified the Creator of all things as the Triune God. “Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, and praise the Spirit, Three in One….” Some preachers might, legitimately, point out that this Psalm presents all of creation as a unified choir, of which humans are only a part. That insight has some ecological implications. But an emphasis on God as the sovereign Creator and as the Risen Savior will keep us from a merely horizontal, “Earth Day” reading of Psalm 148. St. Francis of Assisi called the animals “brothers and sisters,” not because they are the equals of human beings, but because they are part of God’s good creation and of Christ’s gracious redemption.
When I hear Psalm 148 call the heavens to praise the Lord, I hear the familiar hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” Note how verse one begins. “This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” Those last words, “the music of the spheres,” is a reference to an ancient philosophical concept that regarded the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—sun, moon, and planets—as a form of music. That music was not audible; it was mathematical concept.
But Maria Doria Russell gives that concept a whole new take in her two chilling science fiction novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. A group of scientists are sent on an exploration of outer space by the Jesuit order, in order “to know God’s other children.” What they find is both terrible and wonderful. One of the wonderful things is a planet inhabited by various beings, several of whom join together to produce a kind of music that entrances all who hear it. It is, Russell suggests, “the music of the spheres.” Could that be a possible reading of “all his heavenly hosts?”
Speaking of fiction, the enlistment of all kinds of earthly creatures in praising God reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Not only do the animals speak, but they also have a role to play in the battle with evil. And they all adore Aslan, who rises from the dead to defeat the power of evil that has ruined Narnia. Adults might find that sort of thing childish, but the writer of Psalm 148 called “all creatures great and small” to join the Hallelujah Chorus.
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