Our scripture reading today is Psalm 149, but before we begin, I’d like to recognize a few milestones: Tomorrow is July 8th, which is the seventh anniversary of the day you voted to elect me as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church. I can always remember that date, because it also happens to be my wedding anniversary — tomorrow Amy and I will celebrate 19 years of marriage. I am grateful for both of these relationships that are so central to my life and my identity. ALSO…it just so happens that the sermon I’m about to preach (and yes, I do keep track of these things) is the 300th sermon I have had the honor of preaching to this congregation over the past ten years (since I was fortunate enough to preach a few sermons for you as a seminary student, before I came here to be your pastor).
So thank you for listening to all those sermons, for taking such good care of me and my family, and for being our church family these past seven years and more.
1 Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2 Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3 Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
4 For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
5 Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!
A shipwreck survivor washes up on the beach of an island and is immediately surrounded by a group of native warriors, armed to the teeth with sharp spears, jagged knives, and grim expressions. “I’m done for”, the man cries out in despair. At this, a booming voice sounds from the heavens, “No, you are not done for.” None of the natives seem to hear this heavenly voice, which continues, saying, “Listen carefully, and do exactly as I say.” Relieved, the man waits for his instructions. “Grab the spear from the one who is nearest you, and shove it through the heart of the chief.” The man does so, and the remainder of the natives stare in disbelief. “Now, what?” the man asks the heavens. “Now, you are done for.”
I love that joke because no one sees or anticipates the dark ending. That’s what makes it wickedly funny. A lot of good jokes use that technique. But it’s a little bit less funny when it happens in one of our beloved Psalms, and Psalm 149 definitely ends with a violent twist. It starts off with such beautiful language about praising God, singing and dancing and making joyful melodies with instruments…and then it moves rather quickly and unexpectedly to language about brandishing double edged swords, executing vengeance and punishment, enslaving people with shackles and chains and decrees of judgement. Praise the Lord!
Psalm 149 is the penultimate, or second to last Psalm in the book of Psalms. It’s probably a good thing the Book doesn’t end on this note. Psalm 150, the last Psalm is happy and joyful right to the end. In fact, the last five Psalms in the book of Psalms all belong to the category known as the Hallel Psalms, because they all begin AND end with the Hebrew word “Hallelujah” which translates as “Praise the Lord.” For the most part, they are all upbeat, uplifting Psalms–exactly what you’d expect for a “Hallelujah” Psalm, and a fitting grand finale for Israel’s ancient worship book.
And then there’s Psalm 149. It, too, begins and ends with a Hallelujah, but there’s that dark, vindictive twist in the second half. It would be tempting to skip over this Psalm, or ignore the second half of it, but we’re not going to do that. As Presbyterians, we take the Bible seriously. All of it. Even the parts we don’t really know what to do with, the parts we have to struggle to understand.
So let’s jump in. Remembering that the Psalms are intended for worship, Verse 1 comes right out of the gate with three important instructions for worship. Verse 1 is the “who,” the “what” and the “how” of worship.
Who do we worship? The Lord. With what? With a new song. That’s important, let me pause there for a minute. The world keeps on changing; God keeps doing new things in our lives; and our songs should reflect that. Old favorite songs are important too, and we don’t throw them out the window, but we shouldn’t freeze dry our worship and get stuck there, either. God, in our worship, wants us to sing new songs that reflect new experiences and new circumstances.
Next (but still in verse 1) is the “how” we are to worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing his praise in the assembly of the faithful.” In other words, community is important. You can certainly worship God all by yourself, in the privacy of your bedroom or home, but if that’s the only way you worship God, you’re missing something important. Also note that the instructions don’t say “listen to other people singing his praise in the assembly of the faithful.” And it doesn’t say “sing his praise in the assembly of the faithful, but only if you are good enough and can carry a tune.” Nope. The idea is that when everyone participates, that’s when worship is most pleasing to God.
Verses 2 and 3, in the characteristic style of Hebrew poetry, repeat and expand these instructions with more specifics: Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King. That’s who and what. Who now includes God’s people (the ones worshiping) and their Maker, their King (the object of worship). And “praise” is also expanded now to include being glad and rejoicing.
In verse 3, the “how” is also expanded. How do we worship God? With dancing, and with instruments. The NRSV says with tambourine and lyre, but those are modern equivalents. The Hebrew words are תֹּף (tof), which is essentially a drum (the name is suggestive of the sound it makes–tof, tof!) and כִּנּוֹר (kinnor) which is a strummed or plucked string instrument. Of course, this means that drums and guitars were used in worship long before the pipe organ–but there’s also (perhaps) a distant relative of the pipe organ here too! The word for dance is מָחוֹל (machol) which sometimes does mean to dance, but sometimes also means a pipe instrument, like a flute or panpipes. Or maybe even bagpipes. In any case, the use of a variety of instruments for worshiping God goes back a long, long time–but notice that the instruments are secondary, and supportive of the main (and most important) way to make music: The singing voices of all God’s people.
Verse 4 sums all this up, finally, with the “why” we are supposed to gather together and worship God in the assembly of the faithful: For (or because) the Lord takes pleasure in his people. Our worship, our music, our singing (ALL of us singing) makes God happy. God created you, and your voice, and God knows exactly what he created, and God delights in hearing the voice he gave you, regardless of what the person sitting next to you (or in front of you or behind you) thinks. So sing your song to God with confidence and conviction.
But verse 4 also marks the transition to the darker side of the Psalm: Why praise God? Because he takes pleasure in his people…AND…because he adorns the humble with victory. That word “victory” is the reminder that the ancient people of Israel are a people well acquainted with battle, and violence, and war. And the word “humble” is a reminder that they were often, very often, on the losing side of the battle. Many times, they watched their young men slaughtered, their women, children and elderly carted away into slavery, and their homes and places of worship burned to the ground. Please keep that in mind as we move into the darker side of the Psalm.
Even in the midst of those loses (we might add as a preface to verse 5), “Let the faithful (those who lived, those who are left) exult in glory.”
Even through their tears, “let them sing for joy on their couches” (in their beds at night).
Even in the midst of despair, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats.”
And…here it comes…even in the midst of defeat, “let the two-edged swords be in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings (the ones who invaded our lands) with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron (just as they did to us and our children), to execute on them the judgment decreed.”
The Hebrew word for judgment (מִשְׁפָט – mishpat) can also mean justice. So the “execute on them the judgment decreed” is another way of saying “give us the justice you promised us, God.”
“This is (what) glory (looks like) for all his faithful ones.” It looks like justice, restoration, making everything right again. (For this reason, concludes the Psalm, we will continue to) “Praise the Lord!”
So Psalm 149 is a prayer for vindication, a prayer for salvation in a time of distress. I think we’ve all been there, and we’ve all spoken those kinds of prayers, demanding that God make right all the wrongs that hurt us. And if we’re really, painfully honest, we’ve probably also at times made our worship of God contingent on him doing his part to fulfill our expectations of him.
God, I’ll worship you, but only as long as you keep my loved ones alive.
God, I’ll sing your praises, but in exchange, you’d better fix all the things that are wrong with the world.
While you’re at it God, would you mind getting rid of all the political leaders (Kings, CEO’s, Presidents) that I think are crooked? Lock them up, shackle them in chains. And also, could you punish all the people I don’t like? The people in that “other” political party, or that “other” state or country?
And while you’re busy doing that, God, I’m going to grab my double edged sword–you know, my keyboard and the words that I use on facebook to smite my enemies and put them in their place and prove how right and how righteous I am. Look out, world. Praise the Lord!
We are not, it turns out, so different from the people who wrote the Psalms. Our prayers, and the secret desires of our hearts are not so different after all.
The Psalms can move us, they can teach us, they can inspire us with their passion and beauty. But sometimes they can also function as a mirror, letting us see the best–and the worst–in ourselves through the lens of an ancient people who were doing their best (as we are) to seek out God and truth, and trying to understand why things happen, and how to make it all better.
But through it all, for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons, they kept on gathering together as the community of the faithful. They kept on praising God, with their voices, with their instruments, with their love, with their anguish, and with their cries for justice.
And so may we all. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord.