1 Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Back in the days of the circuit riding preacher–the preacher who would ride on horseback across the plains to preach at several different churches each Sunday–a certain preacher wanted to train his horse, and, being a preacher he thought it would be clever to use biblical phrases as commands. So he taught the horse to giddy up and go whenever he said the words, “Praise the Lord.” And he taught his horse to stop whenever he said the word “Hallelujah.”
This worked out great, and really impressed the people when he rode into town, loudly shouting “Hallelujah,” and bringing his horse to a stop. Then after the service, he’d mount his horse as the people gathered on the steps of the church, shout “Praise the Lord,” and horse and rider would gallop off into the horizon.
One day, in between towns, the preacher fell asleep in the saddle. When he woke up, he found his horse had veered off course and was headed at a fast trot straight towards the edge of a cliff. Flustered, he tried hard to remember which command made the horse stop. He shouted, “Jubilation” and “God Almighty!” and even “transubstantiation” but nothing worked. Just as the horse was about to go over the edge, he remembered and cried out “Hallelujah” and the horse came to an abrupt stop two inches from certain death. Wiping the sweat from his brow, the preacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Whew! That was close, but we made it, praise the Lord!” He was never heard from again.
We’ve spent the entire summer talking about the psalms, prayer and praising the Lord in good times as well as bad. Today, our sermon series comes to an end, and fittingly we’re looking at the very last psalm in the book of psalms, psalm 150. It is a Psalm of praise, just like Psalm 117 (the shortest psalm) and like most psalms of praise, it begins and ends with the words “Praise the Lord” or in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!”
But Psalm 150 does more than that. The final psalm has often been described as “instructions for praising God. It is divided into roughly four sections that answer the questions:
- Where should God be praised?
- Why should God be praised?
- How should God be praised? and
- Who should praise God?
Let’s jump right in.
Verse 1, after the injunction to praise the Lord, tells us where to do it: “Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!”
Now, this might seem strange to our modern minds. We like to know *why* we should do something before we bother with where to do it. But perhaps the Psalmist knows something we’ve forgotten–the importance of sacred space to inspire us, and the importance of just showing up. Often when we do that, not completely understanding why or how, things just fall into place.
My kids are a great example of this: Why do we have to go to to this place? Why do we have to go see this person? Why do we have to go to this event? No explanation we could possibly give would convince them to abandon the comfort of their rooms, their screens, their comfortable routines. And yet when we get there, when we do the thing we set out to do, a lot of times on the way home they’ll say, “That was really great! Can we go there again?”
Sometimes where can be more important than why. There are two wheres in this verse: Praise God in his sanctuary, which in Hebrew is קֹ֫דֶשׁ (kodesh) literally a place that is holy, set apart. We need places like that in our lives, places outside of our home, our work, our routines–places where we can encounter God.
I know some people like to encounter God on the golf course or in the park–that’s my holy place, Pastor! But notice that verse one doesn’t say Praise God in *your* holy place…it says praise God in *his* holy place, the place he has set apart specifically for that purpose, the place where his symbols adorn the walls, where his story is told, his songs are sung, and where his people come together to praise him.
But wait…there is some good news for golfers and nature enthusiasts after all. The *other* place mentioned in verse one, where we are to praise God in *addition* to his sanctuary is “in his mighty firmament.” In Hebrew, this word is רָקִ֫יעַ (raqia) which has the sense of an expanse or something spread out. In other words, the heavens and everything underneath them. John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, says that when we gaze into the night sky (the firmament) and contemplate the vastness of the universe, “our minds can never take in this immensity, the mere taste of it will deeply affect us.” When we let out a gasp or a sigh, this is praise to the force that set millions of stars in place, and “God will not reject such praises as we offer according to our capacity.”
So we praise God in the sanctuary, and under the heavens. Both are equally important, and one causes us to appreciate the other all the more.
In verse 2, we are (finally) given the reason why: “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!”
In other words, we praise God for two reasons: What he has done, and who he is. Here again, both are important and inseparable. I love it when my wife does things for me–when I had surgery earlier this week, she took time off from work and took care of me. But if I only love her when she’s doing things for me…that’s a pretty shallow, self-centered kind of love. And yet, that’s often the kind of love we have for God. “God, you didn’t give me that thing I prayed for. God, you let those bad things happen. God, you let my loved one die. So maybe I don’t love you anymore.”
We want to be loved for who we are, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think God wants the same kind of love from us. And yet…often it is in doing things for each other that we get to know each other, that we begin to fall in love with each other. Those small acts of kindness, gifts, and sacrifices can be signs and reflections of a greater, deeper love. The two go hand in hand: We come to know God through the things he does, then eventually we come to love God for who he is, and finally we come to see that what God does flows from who he is, and who he is is a reflection of what he does.
Verses 3-5 answer the question “How should God be praised?”
“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!”
As much as the music nerd in me would love to spend a great deal of time discoursing on all of the instruments listed here, and their ancient Hebrew equivalents, I think that would be missing the point. This list includes all the musical instruments that show up anywhere in the Bible. These are all the instruments that the Psalmist knew to exist in his world. The point is clear. How do you praise God? With the whole orchestra! With everything you’ve got! With *anything* you’ve got! Some of these are instruments that require skill, and some aren’t. If you’ve got the skill to play the strings or the trumpet, do it. But if all you can do is shake a rattle or hit something metal really hard, then do that! And if you have no musical talent whatsoever…then dance!
Music is certainly an important part of praising God, but here I actually think it’s a metaphor. You praise God with whatever skills and tools you have, but you have to do something; you have to contribute something.
Well, pastor, that’s okay for you to say, or maybe the choir or the praise band. But surely this doesn’t apply to me, right? I don’t have anything really worth contributing.
That’s a great question, actually, and verse 6 answers that question pretty definitively. Who should praise the Lord? “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” So, yes, that means you. You have something to offer, something to contribute whenever we gather to praise the Lord in this place, and anywhere God inspires you to praise him under the firmament.
Everything that has breath. Does that mean cats and dogs should praise the Lord, too? And what about insects? Do insects even breathe? Short answer, yes they do…I googled it. But no, I don’t think this verse actually refers to inhalation and exhalation of oxygen in the scientific sense that we think of today.
In ancient Israel, and especially in Jewish poetry, breath–in this case, the Hebrew word נְשָׁמָה (neshamah) but elsewhere the word ר֫וּחַ (ruach)–tends to be associated with consciousness, spirit, the essence of a human being. That’s not to say that animals or insects don’t have a kind of consciousness, but in the Bible, these words almost always are in reference to people.
“Everything that breathes” is just a shorthand way of saying everyone–regardless of age, gender, health, social status, ethnicity, mood, or frame of mind. No exceptions, everyone should praise the Lord.
We are at the very end of our sermon series on Psalms (for now–I suspect we’ll do this again next summer) and there’s a sense in which Psalm 150, the last Psalm, represents the end of a journey that began all the way back in Psalm 1, the first Psalm.
If you remember (we talked about it two years ago) Psalm 1 is a wisdom Psalm. It talks about obedience, following the law of the Lord. It is written as advice to the young, just setting out on life’s path.
Psalm 150, by contrast, is what we might call a “mature” psalm. It reflects the confident voice of one who has followed the path of praise, the path of the psalms over the course of a lifetime. And something interesting happens along the way: In studying the psalms, in making them our prayers, we move in our relationship with God from obedience to adoration. We move from seeking wisdom…to finding love, and basking in that love, content, happy, and whole.
Another psalmist, at the end of another psalm, also having come to the end of his journey, put that sentiment this way: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
May all of our journeys lead us on just such a path, to just such an end.