Digging Into the Text:
Psalm 146 marks the beginning of the last “Book” in the Psalms, four psalms that close the Psalter with a rising chorus of praise. Each one begins and ends with the word Hallellu Jah, “Praise the Lord [Jahweh].”
Since the Psalms constantly admonish us to praise the Lord, it may seem as though God covets our praise like some needy entertainer. Actually, praise is a common and wonderful human attitude and activity. We love to be in the middle of a cheering throng when the hometown basketball wins the game, or when a rock band stirs an overflowing stadium.
The call to praise the Lord focuses that thrilling activity on the one being who truly deserves it. Philosopher James K. A. Smith reminds us how the church’s liturgy functions in relation to what he calls the secular liturgies of our world– the liturgies of the world of sports, entertainment, shopping, and politics. Praising the Lord with all our might, we remind ourselves and the world of the incomparable greatness of God, and we guard ourselves against the idolatries always ready to claim our allegiance.
It is striking that the three Hallelujah psalms that follow are pure songs of praise from beginning to end. In comparison Psalm 146 begins with an initial call to praise but is followed by some instruction about the focus of our praise.
First, it singles out one unworthy object of our praise,
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
In the ancient world, it was commonplace for monarchs to build their power by soliciting the praise of the people over which they ruled. They were often regarded as demi-gods or as human representatives of the gods themselves. Recall that at a later time Roman emperors would engrave “son of God” under the image on a coin.
While no ruler today would likely get away with such a divine designation, they do not hesitate to gain trust, or votes, by stoking the fear in their followers and then asserting that only they can deliver their people from danger or guarantee their prosperity. In recent days the American president has traveled the country with rallies packed with “huge” cheering crowds, claiming to be the only one who can save the country from the disasters he predicts.
The Psalmist specifically warns against such adulation because “There is no help” in them. Earthly rulers cannot provide the help we all need most. They are only human, subject to the same weaknesses, temptations, and self-centeredness as the rest of us. Moreover, they are mortal. They die like we all will, and in the vacuum of their absence, all their plans perish with them.
It’s important to note that the Psalm is not claiming that rulers and governments have no role in human life and welfare. The Psalmist directs his warning against the false promises, overweening power grabs, and god-like claims that earthly rulers are tempted to make. Honor the rulers, but have no illusions about their power to save.
Only God is praiseworthy, and only God is worthy of our absolute confidence and trust.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever.
True happiness and wellbeing comes from the God of Jacob. He is the creator of all things, and therefore has the skill and insight to provide what is best for his creatures. But, even more than that, God is faithful. The foundation of the whole biblical story is God’s deep covenantal relationship with his creation. God will not forsake, God will not let go of the world he made.
Earthly rulers cannot and do not have the same commitment. Their aims are at least tainted, if not motivated by, self-interest. God is all in for the world. Despite its sin and rebellion, God is wholly committed to the welfare and salvation of his creation.
Psalm 146 follows up on this thought with a list of commitments God has made to the world. Only God is totally committed to justice. Only God is truly righteous, Only God is fully on the side of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Only God can be counted on to deliver us from the clutches of evil in this world.
This impressive list of God’s commitments is particularly ironic because it points toward commitments that are typically missing from the world’s potentates. While they tend to lavish concern on and advocate for the rich, the powerful, and those on the top rungs of society, God looks out for those on the bottom.
It also informs us of what we should look for in genuinely godly earthly rulers. The task of government according to God’s standards will echo the kind of concerns of the world’s true King.
Psalm 82 expresses this even more direct by depicting an assembly of the “gods” (typically understood as earthly rulers) before the throne of the God in which he takes them to task for their failure to act as they should.
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
And then the Lord pronounced judgement on them for the very reason Psalm 146 gives not to trust in them.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
The Psalm closes with another call to praise the eternal God, the only one who can save.
Preaching the Text:
1). In his delightful and helpful book, “Reflections on the Psalms,” C. S. Lewis writes about how he long struggled to understand why the Psalms constantly called us to praise God as though God somehow depended on our approval until he noticed how much we delight to offer praise.
The Psalmists, in telling everyone to praise God, are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value….
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
At its best, Christian worship offers us this delight in the praise of God. Singing our Hallelujahs together, we can experience a joy and ecstasy that is a harbinger of heaven’s raucous cheers.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon
thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the
living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
2). When Psalm 146 invites us to offer out praise to God and, by implication, not to earthly rulers, it is helpful to remember how various despots throughout history have used mass adulation to strengthen their hold on power. One only need watch Leni Riefenstahl’s chilling classic film, “The Triumph of the Will” depicting the Reich Party Congress of 1935 in Germany. The power of praise can be harnessed for evil as well as for good.
3). We tend to restrict our praise of God to the worship of the church. Indeed, many of us have discovered how it’s much easier to intercede than to offer our Hallelujahs in our daily prayers. One reason, I think, is because praise is best experienced in a crowd. It seems to demand a chorus, the delight increases with the participation.
But there’s another reason for the paucity of our personal praise of God–it’s hard to find the words. “I just want to praise you, O God” doesn’t have the same kick as “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” That’s a good reason to take the Bible or a Prayer book into our personal prayers. Praying the Psalms of praise, or lifting up the words of a prayer book that has given breathtakingly beautiful words to express our adoration for generations, joins us to a praising community that stretches through the centuries.
4). Psalm 46, one of the greatest Psalms of praise was fashioned into a hymn by Martin Luther, and became one of the standards of the Reformation: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 4, 2018
Psalm 146 Commentary