|Psalm 150: Let God Be Praised!
January 24, 1999
An old Hebrew legend holds that, after Yahweh had created the world, he called the heavenly host to himself. He asked them what they thought of vast space and white-hot stars, Planet Earth and its human creatures in his own image. One of them said, "The only thing lacking is the sound of praise to their Creator!" So God created music, and it was heard in the whisper of the wind and in the song of the birds. He also gave man the gift of song. Throughout the ages since, the music of praise to the Lord has blessed the human race.
In fact, the created world would be incomplete without the praise of its Creator! And it is the first duty of the church to offer God the worship he desires, deserves, and — for our sakes rather than his own — demands.
One of the consistent criticisms non-Christians have made of the church in my lifetime has been how dull, boring, and irrelevant to life worship assemblies are. Perhaps in response to that consistent and unsettling criticism, some churches appear to have swung to the opposite extreme of trying to compete with the entertainment industry. And there you have the two philosophies of worship that are driving much of the "worship controversy" in today’s church. That "we’ve always done it this way" is both justification for keeping things as they are and the operative reason for changing everything about worship.
Somewhere between these sorry extremes is a truth we must capture. We must never allow worship to be the boring repetition of things we know and with which we are comfortably familiar. Worship isn’t for our human comfort, but for God’s praise! On the other hand, we must never turn worship into a performance that shows off the talents of a speaker or singer or actor. Worship isn’t the time and place for human exhibition, but for God’s praise!
Between dullness and exhibitionism lies the reverent offering of the most excellent gifts under our command to God’s praise and glory. Between boredom and performance lies the overwhelming sense of the presence of God that makes it possible to encounter him in penitence and forgiveness. Between seeking our comfort and catering to our pride lies the abandonment of ourselves for his glory.
Psalm 150 is a call for God’s people to learn the where, why, and how of giving the Lord his due in worship.
What Is Worship?
Our English term worship comes to us through an older word "worth-ship" that signifies the assigning of value to something. Thus we say "He worships (i.e., assigns the greatest worth to) his money" or "She worships (i.e., values above everything else) her children." Christians worship God.
Worship — whether private or public — is neither a place nor a series of acts but an attitude that accompanies certain actions authorized by and appropriate to God. Those holy actions are praise, prayer, and prophecy. And the attitude that makes them meaningful is reverence and adoration, humility and submission to God.
Worship gets our focus off ourselves and onto God. So the way to evaluate a given experience of worship is not by whether we "liked it" or "got something out of it" but by how effective it was in drawing attention away from our things, our issues, and our situations and onto God. We are probably the most worshipful only when we are the least conscious of the worship itself. Good worship is self-effacing in that it does not call attention to itself but serves as a lens through which we get a clearer vision of God.
One writer has claimed that utilitarianism is the greatest temptation to the American church. That is, it seems to be the American way to use the church’s worship for reasons other than the pure celebration of and praise for God. And that is a compromise of the integrity of Christian worship.
Whether it be the old-time tent revivalist who sees worship as "preliminaries" to soften up hardshell sinners for a walk down the sawdust trail or the new social activist using worship as a pep rally to motivate enculturated racists or sexists to "get out into the world and do something," such worship is a human-centered, human-orchestrated perversion of what is meant to be a divine-centered activity.1
To be sure, worship has the effect of bringing sinners to salvation and challenging saints to more authentic holiness. The very act of praising God cannot but transform the mind, heart, and lifestyle of the one engaged in it. "While we are attempting to see God, we are acquiring, as a kind of by-product, a vision of who we are and who we are meant to be."2
Why We Worship
The focus of worship is God’s presence. In times of worship, we open ourselves to him and surrender ourselves to him as the ultimate reality. We are not worshiping when we seek to create or to have certain "experiences" of joy, tears, or release from anxiety. We are worshiping only when we are seeking the face of God. Neither are we worshiping when we are more focused on receiving some blessing from God than on honoring and praising him in his person. The truest worship finds us anxious to bless his holy name.
Unless this is true, how can we make sense of the fact that worship is the biblically appropriate response to the most dissimilar of circumstances? Take, for example, the cases of Jehoshaphat and Job.
King Jehoshaphat’s story begins with the Southern Kingdom threatened by the simultaneous invasion of three armies. As the story unfolds in 2 Chronicles 20, it is apparent that Judah’s king and his army are hopeless to save the people. He confesses the desperation of the situation before the nation and prays to Yahweh: "For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you" (v.12).
At that moment, the Spirit of God came upon a prophet, and he delivered this word from God: "Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. . . . You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you’ " (vs.15,17).
What was the response of the king, his army, and his subjects to this promise of deliverance? "Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD. Then some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites stood up and praised the LORD, the God of Israel, with very loud voice" (vs.18-19).
Job’s experience could hardly have been more opposite. He was healthy, bright, energetic, and wealthy. He had a wife and family. His life was full and promising. Then, with devastating swiftness, his world came crashing down. Four messengers came in succession to tell him that his fortune and family were gone. The biblical text has each one rushing into Job’s presence while the previous one was still speaking (Job 1:14,16,17,18) to relate tragedy upon tragedy. Just told that his oxen, sheep, camels, and children were wiped out, here is what Job did: "At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship" (Job 1:20).
Worship must be something more than giving thanks. It must be something more than honoring him for granting the desires of our hearts. For most of us, however, the "something more" may be missing! For the commonest complaint I hear about worship is not that the worship is too long or too loud, too contemporary or too traditional. What I hear most often is that worship just isn’t possible unless God has lived up to someone’s expectations of him. So what is the "something more"? Just why do God’s people worship him?
What did Jehoshaphat expect from God? A word from the Lord? A promise of victory? Yes, but God had done that before.
Perhaps God would promise extra boldness to his soldiers. Perhaps, as with Gideon’s army, He would reveal some special military tactic. But no — this time God would do it all.
This was much more than Jehoshaphat had dared to dream. His was a God too big, more marvelous than his brain could grasp.
And what do you do when you are confronted with a God too big? You get as low as you can before a God too awesome to grasp. And in that smallness, you say, "Wow!"
Then again, you may not even say anything. Worship is not so much words as it is an automatic response out of your own utter smallness to a God too big — too big to wrap your mind around, too big to figure out. . . .
Job experienced no joy, no sudden exhilaration. Scripture reveals one lone man, crushed by a broken heart in a shattered world. But Job also found himself confronted with a God too big — too sovereign, too mysterious, too much beyond anything he could figure out. He tore his clothes, fell to the ground, and said, "Wow!" . . .
In every circumstance when a believer allows himself to be confronted by his God, he will worship. God, rightly perceived, will always be a God too big — too big in His forgiveness, too big in His love, too big in His judgment, too big in His grace.3
"Praise the Lord!"
Thus Psalm 150 opens and closes with "Praise the Lord" (i.e., Hallelujah). It is a call for those who know the Almighty to bring him the sacrifice of praise to which he is entitled. Everyone who senses his smallness before Yahweh’s greatness is called on to proclaim the holy "Wow!"
Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens (v.1).
The obvious parallelism of this verse points to an important fact about Yahweh’s "sanctuary." It is not only the tabernacle, temple, or church sanctuary. It is ultimately God’s "mighty heavens" — and every place under them. We may set our times and designate our places for his worship. Yet there is no time or place but that God may be worshiped in his cosmic sanctuary. As Jesus would later teach a woman beside Jacob’s well, neither Jerusalem nor Gerizim — neither London nor Nairobi, neither Beijing nor Chicago — is "the place" for acceptable worship. Whenever worship honors God’s true nature (i.e., spirit) and is offered in authentic self-disclosure (i.e., truth), God is pleased (cf. John 4:21-24). As Derek Kidner has observed about this parallelism: "Earth and heaven can be utterly at one in his. His glory fills the universe; His praise must do no less."4
First, God is worthy of praise for his "acts of power." Indeed, both the heavenly host and mortals have witnessed his deeds of creation, providence, and redemption. Second, he is worthy of praise simply for "his surpassing greatness." From everlasting to everlasting, he is the God of truth and justice, purity and trustworthiness, saving love and covenant loyalty.
In his Republic, Plato told the citizens of Athens that the wantonness of its youth was traceable to the things being taught them about their gods. The stories of those so-called gods were nothing more than the tales of superhuman behaviors. Thus they fought monsters and rerouted rivers by their strength. But they also lusted, fought, and murdered with abandon. The essence of Plato’s challenge to his contemporaries was this: "You cannot ask the devotees of the gods to be holier than the objects of their worship."
The Jews had no such problem with Yahweh. Both in his nature and deeds, he was upright and admirable. Thus the cry, "Great is the Lord, and worthy to be praised!" It is a cry that pagans could never make to their gods. The devout followers of such false deities might fear for themselves, if they failed to worship and bring gifts. But they would never fall before them in awe of their holiness as Jews and Christians do before the God of Holy Scripture.
Both the Hebrew and Greek vocabularies employed in Holy Scripture use a term for worship that is particularly significant here. In the Old Testament, histahawah carries the idea of bending down or stooping before Yahweh. In the New Testament, proskyneo refers to the bowing of oneself before a deity. Sometimes in their literal sense and always connoting the bowing of one’s will to God, these words describe the action appropriate to finding oneself before a God too big. One gets as low as possible before a God too awesome to comprehend. In that posture of perceived smallness and awe, one can only say, "Wow!" Thus he has worshiped, praised, and encountered God.
The Audience for Worship
The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard occasionally described worship as a drama. On his view, the congregants were the actors, the ministers and musicians the prompters, and God the audience. Some now take an impoverished opposite view that puts the congregation as audience, the ministers and musicians as performers, and God as the prompter.
If we could recapture Kierkegaard’s more biblical view, we would cease judging the preacher’s "performance" or the prayer-leader’s "creativity" or the musicians’ "quality." On his view, teaching, praying, and singing are not entertainment but worship. They are the whole church’s reverent acts of bending low before its Loving Father, Redeeming Son, and Quickening Spirit.
To be thoroughly biblical, however, we must go further still. Though we will likely always speak of "worship times" and "praise teams" and "preaching ministers," we must understand that true worship is not confined to church buildings. It is rooted in the lives of people who love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and physical powers. It is expressed in obedient, reverent lives offered as living sacrifices daily. Worship is the "Wow!" of worshiping God in spirit and truth by honoring his greatness and sovereignty in all things.
Indeed, if our experience of public worship is anything other than the corporate expression of our personal worshiping lives, such events are unacceptable to the Lord. People who "talk the talk" of worship on Sunday without "walking the walk" of authentic praise are spoken of this way in the Bible: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Isa. 29:13).
At its best, corporate worship will not satisfy a believer’s hunger for God. It will only whet his or her appetite!
If the psalter has taught us anything about God, it should have taught us about the praise of God at all times and under all circumstances. From mountaintop experiences of the Jehoshaphat variety to the deep, dark valley experiences of Job, we have read psalms that fit every circumstance and mood.
There are laments and thanksgiving psalms. There are penitential cries and songs of bright confidence. There are prayers for the nation, prayers for the community of believers, and prayers for the individual. There are imprecations against evil deeds and the people who take delight in doing such things. There are psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.
Oh, these ancient psalms are still powerfully relevant to a modern church. They call us into a lifestyle of longing for God — a longing sufficient to sustain faith in him until we are all safely home at last. Until that day comes, let God be praised!
1William Willimon, The Service of God: How Worship and Ethics Are Related (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 42.
3David Needham, "What Do You Do With a God Too Big?" Moody Monthly (January 1984), pp. 19-20.
4Derek Kidner, Psalms 73 — 150 (London: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 491.
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