Whether it’s a Broadway play like Les Miserables or a classic movie like The Sound of Music, most people enjoy a good musical. But have you ever wondered what it is about such productions that appeals to us? After all, musicals are decidedly unlike real life. In The Sound of Music people burst into song constantly–during dinner, while delivering telegrams. That’s just how it goes in musicals–people sing at the oddest moments.
But if you were standing in line at McDonald’s and a woman suddenly started crooning a ballad to her children, you’d take a step back. Or if you were on an airplane flying to Pittsburgh and the man behind you suddenly started to sing, Frank Sinatra-like, “Come Fly with Me,” you would no doubt panic at being seated so close to someone who seems just left of center!
Life is definitely not like a musical! In our society singing is a relatively rare event, restricted largely to church. If you’ve ever been at a funeral attended by mostly non-churchgoing folks, then you know how dismal the singing can be. The simple fact is that outside church people just don’t get much practice in group singing anymore.
Nevertheless, there is something deep down inside most folks that wants to sing. This is what fuels the phenomenon of Karaoke (that and a deep-seated, though not always accurate, belief many people have that they are also good singers!). How often haven’t you glanced in your rearview mirror while waiting for a red light only to see the person behind you singing along with the radio with great gusto! At outdoor concerts there are usually lots of folks singing along with the performer up on the stage. Indeed, when I attended a Paul McCartney a few years back, the most moving moment for a Beatles fan like me was near the end when Paul—and the other 10,000 of us—all sang “Hey, Jude” together. Every person there fancied he or she was personally singing a duet with Paul! (Well, at least I did. And I do sing well. Really.)
Music touches us on a level that ordinary speech does not reach. Music can soothe, comfort, enliven, and lift our hearts. Why is it, for instance, that at a funeral we can recite something like the Apostles’ Creed without batting an eye and yet fall apart when it’s time to sing “By the Sea of Crystal”? Why is it that sometimes you can hear the merest snatch of a certain tune and suddenly tears leap to your eyes as you are transported back to a time when your children were young or when you and your spouse got engaged?
Or, in terms of a worship service, why is it that when a teenager wants to rebel, singing is often the first thing he or she refuses to do? Few postures of defiance bother me more than when I spy someone, young or old, who stands in the midst of the congregation, arms folded across his chest, lips clamped tightly shut while everyone around him is singing praises to God. Perhaps such people don’t sing because they refuse to let themselves become as caught up in worship as music inevitably forces a person to be.
Because as Psalm 150 makes clear, music is a defining force in Christian worship. Psalm 150 is perhaps the Bible’s single grandest statement of praise. It is also the grand finalé to the Book of Psalms. Like that final cascading shower of fireworks and rapid-fire booms, bangs, bursts, and blooms on the Fourth of July so also Psalm 150’s grand finalé stuns you with its swift succession of images and staccato flurry of praise commands.
But you must read this psalm the right way to appreciate how much wallop it packs. In the original Hebrew the phrase hallelu yah is in the imperative mood. Literally translated it means “Praise Yahweh.” But you are supposed to read those words while also picturing a finger wagging in your face or maybe thumping you in the chest. This represents the psalmist “getting in your face.” Here the poetic bard is going nose-to-nose with the reader, getting so close you can smell the garlic on his breath as he shouts, “You there! Yes, you! Grab an instrument, open your mouth, and get going! Praise Yahweh! I mean it! Move! Sing! Dance! Show some respect!”
This is the praise imperative.
This is the psalmist as army drill sergeant, barking to the world his order to worship. Actually, the structure of Psalm 150 at first keeps you in suspense as to just who is being addressed. From verses 1-5 we receive a rapid-fire string of eleven imperative commands. But only in verse 6, at the end, are we told who is being commanded. And guess what? It’s everybody! It’s everything that has breath, which includes not only every person on the planet but also hippos and red-eyed vireos.
Because if you’ve got breath in your lungs, you have received the gift of life from God himself. If you breathe, you show by that very action that you’ve come from the workshop of a Master Craftsman–the one who snorted oxygen into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning and who has now done the same for you. According to Psalm 150 the first thing you should do with that breath is exhale it back to God in praise!
But today, as when this psalm was first penned, this universal call to praise the God of Israel is a scandal and offense to most folks. People don’t like to be told what to do, particularly in the area of religion. Religion is a private matter. It’s nobody else’s business. You believe what you want to believe and I’ll do the same. What’s true for you does not need to be true for me. So let’s just leave one another alone on the subject.
There is an inherent scandal in Psalm 150’s strident calls to praise Yahweh. This is not going to be well-received by everyone who has breath. Yet if we believe in this God, if we perceive the power and greatness and grandeur of which Psalm 150 speaks, and if we believe that this very God is the beginning and end of all creatures, then we must find ways to obey and so issue this praise imperative ourselves. What Psalm 150 enjoins us to do is to sing and worship and praise God in such a unified and joyful way as to attract others. When we properly follow the praise imperative ourselves, we become a window to God–one through which others will indeed see God.
Because as Psalm 150 makes clear, worship is not about us, it’s about God. It’s about the God who gave us the very breath we use to praise him in the first place. It’s about the God whose grandeur exceeds our finest musical efforts to bring it to speech. It’s about the God who created not only the variety of instruments listed in this psalm but who created the whole warp and woof of this creation’s diversity. Indeed, just two psalms earlier, in Psalm 148, the psalmist made clear that God is just as surely praised by the crashing of waves on the shore as he is by a human larynx singing a hymn; God is as pleased by the breath exhaled in a liquid run of notes from the Wood Thrush’s little lungs as he is by the glorious sounds exhaling from a pipe organ’s massive bellows.
We’re not alone in the cosmic chorus to the Creator. And even as it would be foolish for the soprano section of a choir to disdain the altos, so any given group of Christians would be wrong to look down on the worship of other believers, even if the music or the style were radically different from what one person may be accustomed to. But where Psalm 150-style worship really happens, where God truly is given the glory by people in love with his grace and stunned by his grandeur, then that is something for which all believers must be grateful!
Nobody likes to get ordered around. A finger thumping you in the chest is always a tad off-putting. But given what is at stake in Psalm 150, we can be glad not only to receive the praise imperative but to have regular opportunity to obey it, and most certainly our praise continues this week after Easter, after the grandest victory of God ever!
As referenced above . . . and note in this video: nobody had to issue a single imperative to get this mass of folks to join in on the song. They wanted to. Music is like that. This must happen in the church too and spreading out from there to the whole world!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2022
Psalm 150 Commentary