Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 22, 2019
Psalm 113 Commentary
In Robert Duvall’s film, The Apostle, we see a vignette of what could be described as a very “in your face” style of praise. The revival worship services of a certain stripe of Deep South fundamentalism are high-decibel, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, gizzard-piercing spectacles that are most decidedly not for the faint of heart!
And yet, in their own way, the urgency of such services, the imperative-like demand that people participate with everything they’ve got, make this style of worship an heir to the Old Testament tradition of the psalms. Many of the psalms were designed to get in your face. The psalms often order you to join the cosmic chorus of praise to the one true God. Psalm 113 is a good example. More than that, however, this brief psalm is an eloquent statement on not just the urgency of praise but also on one of the chief reasons God deserves to be praised. So this morning let’s reflect on the 113th psalm.
Like many psalms so also the opening and closing words of Psalm 113 have now been translated, “Praise the LORD.” In the original Hebrew, however, this is the phrase hallelu yah, which we often translate literally as “hallelujah,” as in Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” These days, when we sing the word “hallelujah,” we think it means something like, “I am praising you now, O God.” “Hallelujah” is to us a personal statement of worship, the equivalent of our saying, “Way to go, dear God! I thank you for what you’ve done!”
Or we interject it as a generic statement of relief. “I thought I had burned the apple pie but it’s fine!” your spouse might say to you. “Well, hallelujah” you might reply. Actually, however, both the more pious and the more generic use of this word are rather different from how the word gets used in the Old Testament.
Because in the original Hebrew the phrase hallelu yah is in the imperative mood–this is a command. Thus, when you read the words “Praise the LORD” at the beginning and conclusion of Psalm 113, you should picture the psalmist as pointing his finger at you and saying, “You there! Yes, you! Get up on your feet, open your mouth, and start singing to God–that’s an order!” There is a holy urgency to the psalms. The poets who composed these ancient songs were desperate to get as many voices into the choir as they could.
But why? Why should this order be issued with such intensity and why should anyone follow this command? In his book on the psalms, C.S. Lewis admits that before he became a Christian, he found the Bible’s incessant demand that we praise God highly offensive. Why is God forever asking to be praised? Isn’t that a bit conceited? After all, if you work with someone who is forever talking about himself or who is always asking you to compliment his work, sooner or later you grow weary of this self-centered narcissist.
So if the Bible is God’s own book, then isn’t it odd that he is forever soliciting our praise? Doesn’t that make God out to be, well, a bit vain? Taken in isolation you could read Psalm 113 that way, but seen in the context of a fallen world, this is not so odd after all. Because seen the right way, God’s request that we praise him is wholly appropriate.
In all of life we take note of and celebrate good things. When you hear an excellent concert, you applaud–a virtuoso performance may even lead you to start a standing ovation. Any other response strikes us as unfitting. If you enjoy an excellent meal well prepared and presented, you praise the host. Goodness pulls us in–we’re drawn to good things like iron filings to a magnet. And we are also drawn to express our praise.
Indeed, sometimes we even try to widen the circle of praise by inviting others to join in on our appreciation. When a critic writes a glowing review of an outstanding film, she’s widening the circle of appreciation. When an author writes a pre-publication comment to be printed onto the back cover of another author’s new book, he does so to express his own praise for the book in the hope that his words will encourage others to buy and savor the book, too. When we see excellent or lovely things, we naturally express praise for them.
The problem with us in this sinful world, however, is that we are routinely blind to the goodness of God. If only we could see things clearly, then we would day and night find reasons to give God praise. So if God’s inspired Bible regularly asks us to give God glory, it’s not out of arrogance but desperation–the Bible is trying to open our eyes.
The message of the psalms and of the Bible generally is that if only we could see and understand God better, we would be naturally led to praise him. Unhappily, we don’t see so well, and so the psalmists need to order us to do what should come naturally.
But, of course, writers like the poet of Psalm 113 don’t leave the reasons for this praise in the abstract. In this case the psalmist mentions two specific things for which to give praise: one has to do with the sheer splendor of God, the other has to do with the attention God pays to us in the mundane details of our lives. Why praise God? Because he is exalted–he made everything there is. Not only that, however, this God’s real splendor is that he takes care of the poor and is deeply concerned for the plight of childless women.
But it is precisely here that some of us feel like Psalm 113 trips us up. Because in rather absolute terms this psalm says that God enriches the poor and brings babies to those struggling to get pregnant. Alas, we know full well this does not always happen. And the poor? They don’t typically always see their fortunes reversed, either.
So if this is supposed to be our motivation for praising God, we may question the wisdom of this psalmist’s choosing these particular items. But maybe getting hung up on this point (important though it is to bear in mind pastorally when preaching) makes us miss the psalm’s main point.
For one thing, Psalm 113 does not promise that this will always happen. Instead it may well be that these words reflect the experience of this particular poet. Maybe he had experienced these blessings in his own life and, if so, then of course it is appropriate that he list them as reasons to give God praise. But for the rest of us this may be one of many psalms that you need to read as part of a larger collection of psalms. Because there are plenty of other psalms, some of which we’ve looked at this summer, which admit and lament the fact that things don’t always work out so sunny.
So perhaps we need to take the concluding words of Psalm 113 as this psalmist’s experience. This was his particular way of illustrating the larger truth that God takes loving note of our earthly lives. You see, God stunned the imagination of the ancient Israelites not just because of his awesome power but even more so because of his tender care.
That’s perhaps another reason why this psalmist picked out the poor and the childless–in ancient Israel you could not get much more marginalized than to fall into one of these two categories. A woman unable to have children was considered a social cipher in the ancient world. And the poor were likewise overlooked–as is still too often the case today, the desperately poor exist at best on the fringes of our awareness. Because they lack power, glitz, influence, and social standing, the poor just don’t capture our imaginations the way the rich and powerful do.
In other words, these two groups of people were the invisible members of society. Especially in ancient Israel the poor and the barren were the lowest of the low, the ones so puny in stature that they were overlooked by almost everyone. And yet these are precisely the ones whom God notices and cares about.
And somehow this facet of God’s character was more striking to the Israelites than even his heavenly powers. Nearly all ancient societies believed in gods who were full of light and power and splendor. But most of those gods were also reputed to be aloof, to be so soaringly above it all as to treat human beings as at best pawns. In King Lear Shakespeare has a line that well summarizes many ancient attitudes: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport.”
But not so the one true God as he revealed himself to Israel: this was a God who could spin quasars with one hand and lift up some nameless poor person with the other. This was a God who could make mountains smoke and who could at the same time tenderly smile on a childless woman. This is, in other words, a God who notices us in all our smallness. God is not so lofty that he can barely even see us on this earth. God is, as a matter of fact, more attentive to this world than we are! He sees and is distressed about people whom even we overlook in our focus on the powerful and the successful. In other words, the God who is more powerful than anyone is less interested in power than we are!
In Jewish circles Psalms 113-118 are known as the “Hallel Psalms.” These are the psalms that get read at the start of Judaism’s highest festivals of celebration, chief among which is Passover. Thus, it is very likely that Psalm 113 was the first psalm recited by Jesus in that upper room on the night he was betrayed.
And what a stellar new meaning these words gain when we hear them on the incarnate, flesh-and-blood lips of God’s Son! How much more particular, how much more specific, how much more earthy and utterly mundane can God get than taking to himself a body of skin!? If Jesus is who we Christians have always said he is, then we can know for sure that the basic idea of Psalm 113 is true: namely, that the true wonder of God is his ability to transcend his own transcendence, to get out of himself and into us!
My Old Testament Professor John Stek once used this analogy: suppose a widowed young mother works her whole life to give her son, Charlie, the best possible life. Suppose she toils in some sweat-shop during the day and scrubs toilets in an office building by night just to scrape together enough money to give her son decent clothing, education, food, and shelter. But suppose Charlie is an ignorant clod who little notices his mother’s efforts and who even squanders a good bit of what his mother gives him. Suppose that instead of fulfilling any of his mother’s hopes for him, he spends his time with unsavory denizens of cheap bars and tawdry brothels.
So suppose one day, after having her son once again tell his old lady to get lost, suppose this mother finally says, “Son, I deserve better than this from you! I deserve more gratitude than you’ve ever given to me–in fact, out of sheer respect you should try a lot harder to live a decent life.”
Now, would you conclude this woman was arrogant and vain, looking for praise out of a conceited desire to ratchet up her ego a few clicks? Hardly. It would be only fitting if such a son were to thank his mother.
Anything less would be rude.
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