Great Themes of the Bible (#17-Praise and Thanksgiving)

"Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever."

One of the five themes our church affirms in its Mission Statement is authentic and meaningful worship. Like Isaiah, we don't know who we are or what we should do until we see the Lord high and lifted up! (Isa. 6:1ff). When we experience the Lord in Spirit and truth, all else becomes clearer immediately. That is why worship is such an important part of our life at Woodmont Hills. Worship is, in fact, not simply one aspect of our ministry but is at the heart of everything we are about as a church.

In my opinion, the single most important thing to an authentically spiritual life is to learn how to praise God. It connects us to the source of all things spiritual. It puts both our triumphs and failures, joys and sorrows into perspective. It sorts out the conflict all of us feel too often between the spiritual and the material, the things of eternity and the things of time. Genuine praise and thanksgiving to God are a soul's orientation to him comparable to the pull of magnetic North on a compass needle when we get disoriented on life's way.

From Psalms 106 and 107, John and I want both to affirm the value and meaning of worship to the Lord and help to direct you in an experience of it.

John York: You probably know that the compilers of the 150 psalms in our Bible arranged their materials into five sections. Psalm 106 closes Book Four of the Psalms, and Psalm 107 opens Book Five. Although we're not sure of the guiding theme or organizing principle they might have had in mind, praise and thanksgiving run through all the psalms. It is this common motif we are choosing to emphasize today.

A God to Praise

Walter Brueggemann provides one of the most helpful devices for appreciating the pursuit of God through the Psalter. On his view of them, there are three great themes around which the poems and prayers in the Book of Psalms can be organized: there are songs of orientation, cries of disorientation, and poems of new orientation. In my terms for you, these correspond typically with times of naive trust in God, events that shake and/or shatter our innocence and simplicity, and eventual triumphs of faith in which we see the faithful workings of God through lenses of experience and maturity that ground us more firmly than ever before.

Psalm 106 is a microcosm of sorts for this total process of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation before Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God.

It opens with a hymn of praise to the Lord, recounts a variety of disorienting times in Israel's history, and closes with a grand affirmation of faith. It begins with these words:

Praise the LORD.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are they who maintain justice,
who constantly do what is right (Psa. 106:1-3).
For everything that eventually will be cited in this psalm, it is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving throughout. God is "good," and his "love" endures forever. These two words are linked in other places in the Psalter such as in the oft-quoted line "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (23:6).

John York: The word translated "love" or "mercy" (KJV) is hesed. It is the Old Testament term that affirms Yahweh's covenant faithfulness to Israel. It reminds the people of the promises on which they can always depend. Linking it with "goodness" here and other places suggests the sort of dependable, always-present, and never- failing support that one can rely on in a family or group of friends who won't let you down.

In this case, the goodness and love of the One in whom Israel has placed her faith and with whom she has covenanted! are so magnificent that the writer despairs of any human's worthiness to praise him appropriately. "Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully declare his praise?" he asks. Here is his answer: "Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right." Do you get his point? Right living is the preface to worship. People who do not have their hearts set on Lord the other six days of the week can't "pull off worship" on Sabbath or Sunday. People who live by the world's dog-eat-dog rules until they pull into the church parking lot and who plan to return to those same rules in sixty minutes will never know why others find worship so enthralling, exhilarating, and transporting.

Experience Discourages Us

John York: But don't we all permit life distractions and personal sins to get in the way of our experience of God? Don't all of us "fall flat" as worshippers on those days?

Yes. And that's exactly where the writer goes next in Psalm 106. Israel was going through one of those valley experiences as exiles in Babylon when this prayer was written. And it wasn't the first time it had happened that God's covenant people were estranged from him. Just look at the Old Testament history that is recounted here: Israel had sinned through doubt and rebellion at the Red Sea (vs.6-12), in the wilderness (vs.13-18), by erecting a golden calf at Horeb (vs.19-23), and so on through her history.

Two things seem particularly significant to me in this recitation of Israel's unfaithfulness. First, the writer saw his own experience to be continuous with that of his forebears. "Both we and our fathers have sinned," he lamented, "we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly" (v.6). Second, he saw not only Yahweh's anger and punishment in these times of sin but his continued hesed, his steadfast love.

Blessed is the Lord!

Here are the writer's words of praise to Yahweh in the context of his lament about the faithlessness of his nation:

But he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
He caused them to be pitied
by all who held them captive (vs. 44-46).
John York: If one set of Israel's experiences is discouraging (i.e., its proneness to distraction, unbelief, and sin), there was a parallel experience of God in those circumstances (i.e., his hesed and intervention based on it) that caused the writer to see hope for his own circumstance in Babylon. Right?

Precisely! And here is the high note of praise on which the writer closes Psalm 106:

Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, "Amen!"
Praise the LORD (vs. 47-48).
It has been a wonderful thing for this writer simply to remember in his time of personal and national distress the kind of God Yahweh has always shown himself to be. He is the God of steadfast love. He is the God who never forgets his people. He is the God who intervenes at the right time and place to do the right thing for those he loves. Praise the Lord. And let the people of both then and now say, "Amen!"

Conclusion

Our customary way of thinking about God and visioning our own salvation, prayers, or worship is I fear ridiculously inadequate. "God, you are holy. We thank you for all you've done for us. Now, to my real reason for being here, there is still a long list of things I need from you: I want forgiveness for my latest sins. I want peace for my troubled conscience. I want to be delivered from certain embarrassing sins. I want this, and that, and some of the other too. So . . . I'm waiting!"

Occasionally, we need to focus not for God's sake but for our own on praise and thanksgiving. No, let me correct that! Frequently, we must deliberately focus more on God and less on ourselves. For the most wonderful thing about us is not who we are but who he is. Not our worship but his willingness to receive it. Not that I am his child but that he is my Father. God himself!


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