Praise in the Psalms
A. C. S. Lewis on the Problem of Praise in the Psalms
Understanding the struggle with the concept of praise which C. S. Lewis had on his initial encounter with the Psalms will help us appreciate this central focus of the Psalter. The following passage is taken from Lewis' book, Reflections on the Psalms.
"When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should 'praise' God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way ---'Praise the Lord,' 'O praise the Lord with me,' 'Praise Him.' . . . Worse still was the statement put into God's own mouth, 'whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoureth me' (50:23). It was hideously like saying, 'What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.' . . . [Furthermore], more than once the Psalmists seemed to be saying, 'You like praise. Do this for me, and you shall have some.' Thus in [Ps.] 54 the poet begins 'save me' (1), and in verse 6 adds an inducement, 'An offering of a free heart will I give thee, and praise thy Name.' Again and again the speaker asks to be saved from death on the ground that if God lets His suppliants die He will get no more praise from them, for the ghosts in Sheol cannot praise ([Pss.] 30:10; 88:10; 119:175). And mere quantity of praise seemed to count; 'seven times a day do I praise thee' (119:164). It was extremely distressing. It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy. . . .
[Part of my initial problem is that] I did not see that it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men. It is not of course the only way. But for many people at many times the 'fair beauty of the Lord' is revealed chiefly or only while they worship Him together. Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship of course this is far clearer --- there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive. The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard him, is implicitly answered by the words, 'If I be hungry I will not tell thee' (50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don't want my dog to bark approval of my books[!].
But the most obvious fact about praise --- whether of God or anything --- strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise --- lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game --- praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn't she lovely? Wasn't it glorious? Don't you think that magnificent?' The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
If it were possible for a created soul fully . . . to 'appreciate', that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude. . . . To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God --- drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him" (pp. 90-98).
B. The Nature of Praise and Worship in the Psalms
The most effective way of defining praise/worship in the psalms is by examining the terminology used to describe it. There are approximately 45 different Hebrew words for praise and more than a dozen in Greek. We will focus on the OT terms.
(1) Halal (@100x) - It means "to be boastful," "to brag," "to shout with excitement and in triumph." It is a word of excitement, exuberance, and exaltation. Cf. "Hallelujah" (praise the Lord!). "How blessed are those who dwell in Thy house. They are ever praising Thee" (Ps. 84:4). "This will be written for the generation to come; that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord" (Ps. 102:18). In sum,
"Halal is the Hebrew equivalent of whatever you say when you are watching a football game and your team has just scored the winning points. This word is what a nursing student says in coming out of an anatomy exam with an 'A' grade, when she had struggled very hard to complete the course. This is the word of any experience calling for excited boasting or joyful expression" (Ron Allen, 64).
(2) Yadah - This means "to acknowledge in public" (often translated in the psalms, "to give thanks"). "I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart; I will tell of all Thy wonders" (Ps. 9:1).
(3) Barak - This word means "to bless", as in Ps. 96:2, "Sing to the Lord, bless his name." See also Ps. 103:1-2.
(4) Tehillah - This is derived from halal and means "to sing halals" to God, to laud and to praise with song. "Yet Thou art holy, O Thou who art enthroned upon the praises of Israel" (Ps. 22:3).
(5) Zamar - This means "to pluck the strings of an instrument" or in some way "to praise with music." "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Thy name, O Most High" (Ps. 92:1). Cf. Ps. 147:1; 1 Chron. 16:9. There are other Hebrew words with similar meaning (shir in Ps.96:1 and ranan in 95:1).
(6) Shabah - This term means "to laud", as in Ps. 117:1, "Praise the Lord, all nations; laud Him, all peoples!" It means to speak well of, to eulogize.
(7) Rua - This means "to shout in joy" as in Ps. 100:1, "Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth!" And again, "O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation." Praise, therefore, is never silent. It is most often loud; but not clamorous or chaotic. We may adore God in silence, we may meditate on His majesty in silence, but we have not truly praised Him until we declare and announce, usually in song, His worth to others.
(8) Rum - This carries the force of "to extol," "to lift high," as in Ps. 145:1, "I will extol Thee, my God, O King."
Praise, it would seem, is the joyful response of all that we are, in adoration and celebration, of all that God is. In praise we announce and declare the worth and majesty and marvel of who God is and what He has done. We ascribe glory and honor to His name. We extol His divine virtues, His incomparable attributes. In praise we brag on God! In praise we declare our satisfaction and joy with all that God is for us in Jesus.
Let us note several other factors about the nature of praise:
First, praise is a universal privilege (Pss. 96:1; 100:1). "All nations, all peoples" (Ps. 117:1) are to praise God. "Let the sea roar and all it contains; the world and those who dwell in it; let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy" (Ps. 98:7-8). Indeed, "let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it; then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy" (Ps. 96:11-12). See also Ps. 148:1-12 where we note that praise is pervasive, boundless, all-encompassing. There are no people who are excused from praise. There is no place where praise is not proper. In 148:1-6 the whole of the celestial or heavenly universe is called on to praise God. In 148:7-12 the whole of the terrestrial or earthly universe is called on to praise God. In other words, heaven and earth and everything they contain and all in between are to praise God. This emphasis on the extent of praise is especially evident in Psalm 148:
(1) Praise is "from the heavens" (148:1) and "from the earth" (v. 7). Songs of praise originate in heaven and descend to the earth. Songs of praise originate on earth and ascend to heaven.
(2) "All His [God's] angels" (148:2) are to praise God. How many are there? See Rev. 5:11; Dan. 7:10. What a choir!
(3) "Sun and moon" (148:3a) are to praise Him. Praise is unceasing in the heavens as the sun praises Him by day and the moon by night. God never leaves Himself without a testimony.
(4) "All stars of light" (148:3b) praise Him. People in the ancient world, especially the Babylonians, believed the stars were deities that controlled human destiny. But here the stars are but one section in the celestial choir that praises God.
(5) "Sea monsters" (148:7), i.e., perch, whales, dolphins, sharks, jelly-fish, stingrays, moray eels, starfish, barracudas, bass, trout, salmon, catfish, etc., all praise Him!
(6) See 148:8. "It is a grand orchestra which contains such wind instruments as these! He is a great leader who can keep all these musicians in concert, and direct both time and tune" (Spurgeon, 439).
(7) "Mountains and all hills" (148:9a), from the smallest ant hill to the pinnacle of Mt. Everest . . .
(8) "Fruit trees and cedars" (148:9b), including apple trees and cherry trees and sycamores and oaks and elms and cedars and sweet gums and weeping willows and sequoias and pine trees, all praise God.
(9) "Beasts and all cattle" (148:10a), such as longhorn and simbrah and jersey and every other animal, exist to praise God.
(10) "Creeping things and winged fowl" (148:10b), such as spiders and ants and bees and bullfrogs and gnats and sparrows and cardinals and bluejays and quail and eagles and even vultures, praise God.
(11) People too, praise God (148:11-12), whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, powerful or weak. In light of 150:6, all that have breath should praise Him with every breath until they are out of breath.
Second, all of creation praises God for who He is and what He has done. (a) Nature praises God because He has created everything and He causes all things to continue in existence (148:5-6). His acts of both providence and preservation evoke the praise of His handiwork. (b) People praise Him because of who He is (148:13; "name" = a simple way of summarizing all that God is) and because of what He has done (148:14).
Third, praise is something we are to do all the time. "I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth" (Ps. 34:1). "And my tongue shall declare Thy righteousness and Thy praise all day long" (Ps. 35:28). "In God we have boasted all day long, and we will give thanks to Thy name forever" (Ps. 44:8). See also Pss. 71:6-8,14-18,24. Also, Pss. 89:1; 104:33; 113:1-4; 146:1-2.
Fourth, praise is something we are to do everywhere, but especially as a corporate celebration in the presence of all God's people. See Pss. 9:11; 22:22-25; 34:2-3; 35:18; 40:9-10; 57:7-11; 78:4; 84:1-4,10; 95:1-7; 105:1; 108:3; 135:1-3; 149:1.
Fifth, there is no more a limit to praise than there is a limit to God. According to Ps. 150:2, we are to praise Him "according to His excellent greatness," i.e., in proportion to his greatness. To the degree that God is great, God is to be praised.
Sixth, we also see that praise is an exhilarating experience for both man and God. (a) As for man, see Ps. 149:2,5. We are to praise God even upon our beds! Whether this means as we go to bed, or during times of sleeplessness, or before rising in the morning, or during times of illness, or at any time while prostrate, praise is a time of joy! (b) As for God, we read that "the Lord takes pleasure in His people" (149:4a). He enjoys us when we praise Him.
Seventh, praise is a powerful tool in spiritual warfare (Ps. 149:6-9). It is through praise that battles are won. One thinks of the victories of Moses over the Canaanites, Joshua over the Amalekites, Gideon over the Midianites, and David over the Philistines. See especially the experience of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron. 20.
C. The Primacy of Singing
C. S. Lewis once wrote, "What must be said . . . is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung; not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons" (Reflections on the Psalms, 2). If this is true, one cannot separate the value of the Psalms as Scripture from the role of singing.
For the importance of singing in Scripture as a whole, see Exod. 15:1,20-21; Job 38:7; Judges 5:2-5; 1 Chron. 16:9; 25; Nehemiah 12:27,28,31,38,45-47; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13.
For the centrality of singing in the Psalms, see Pss. 47:6-7; 66:2,4; 68:24-25; 69:30-31; 96:1-2; 105:2. On no fewer than 85 occasions do we find in the OT alone a reference to people singing or being exhorted to sing praise.
Psalm 33:1-3 highlights several characteristics of singing:
(1) Joy - this is the mood or spirit in which we are to praise with singing. Cf. Ps. 9:1-2.
(2) Instrumental accompaniment - see 1 Chron. 16:5-6,41-42; 2 Chron. 7:6; Ps. 98:4-6.
a) Lyre - 33:2 (strings made of the intestines of sheep; similar to a guitar)
b) Harp - 33:2 (cf. Ps. 71:22) (more strings and larger than a lyre)
c) Ten-stringed lute - cf. Ps. 92:3 (could be a reference to the "zither", a rectangular instrument with 10 parallel strings)
d) Flute - cf. Ps. 87:7
e) Trumpets/Horns - cf. Pss. 98:6; 150:3
f) Timbrel - cf. Ps. 81:2 (some say it was a tambourine; others say a portable drum)
g) Pipe - cf. Ps. 150:4 (oboe?)
h) Stringed instruments - cf. Ps. 150:4 (not one instrument but an entire family)
i) Cymbals - cf. Ps. 150:5 (two types (1) the smaller type, struck horizontally, and (2) the larger type, struck vertically).
j) Tambourine - cf. Ps. 68:24-25.
(3) New Song - See Pss. 40:3; 91:1; 98:1; 149:1; also Isa. 42:10; Rev. 5:9. These are fresh compositions in response to fresh, new works of God.
(4) Play Skillfully - 33:3; 47:6-7. How do we evaluate the excellence of our music? a) Is its message faithful to the Scriptures? b) Does it reflect technical and aesthetic beauty. For example, a melody should be capable of giving expression to your highest thoughts and deepest feelings about God. c) What is the composer's spiritual intent or motive? d) Is the music appropriate to the message?
(5) Shout of Joy - For a similar exhortation, see Pss. 66:1; 81:1-3; 95:1-2; 98:4-6
D. The Purpose of Singing
Music has a peculiar power. Music infuses words with a dynamic energy that merely speaking them could never achieve. Warren Wiersbe put it this way:
"I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear. Many sermons are doctrinally sound and contain a fair amount of biblical information, but they lack that necessary emotional content that gets hold of the listener's heart. Music, however, reaches the mind and the heart at the same time. It has power to touch and move the emotions, and for that reason can become a wonderful tool in the hands of the Spirit or a terrible weapon in the hands of the Adversary."
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is best known for his courageous defense of the doctrine of justification by faith, a truth God used to spark the Protestant Reformation. Yet, one of Luther's enemies insisted that he "had damned more souls with his hymns than with all his sermons!" People of every age are compelled to acknowledge the undeniable power of song.
Luther was himself passionately committed to the primacy of music and song as a means both for spreading the gospel and for the worship of God. "I have no use for cranks who despise music," said Luther, "because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor."
Some are surprised to hear what this great theologian thought about music. That a man with such indomitable courage and intellectual brilliance should place such a high premium on song is unexpected, to say the least. "Experience proves," wrote Luther, "that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues."
Luther was never one to mince his words. He had little patience for those who dismissed the power and primacy of singing. "He who does not find this [singing] an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod and is not worthy to be considered a man." Luther insisted that "the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music." Whether you wish "to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate, name the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good---what more effective means than music could you find?"
What Luther had discovered was that singing enables the soul to express deeply felt emotions that mere speaking cannot. Singing channels our spiritual energy in a way that nothing else can. Singing evokes an intensity of mind and spirit. It opens the door to ideas, feelings, and affections that otherwise might have remained forever imprisoned in the depths of one's heart.
Singing gives focus and clarity to what words alone often only make fuzzy. It lifts our hearts to new heights of contemplation. It stirs our hope to unprecedented levels of expectancy and delight. Singing sensitizes. It softens the soul to hear God's voice and quickens the will to obey. I can only speak for myself, but when I'm happy I sing. When my joy increases it cries for an outlet. So I sing. When I'm touched with a renewed sense of forgiveness, I sing. When God's grace shines yet again on my darkened path, I sing. When I'm lonely and long for the intimacy of God's presence, I sing. When I need respite from the chaos of a world run amok, I sing. Nothing else can do for me what music does. It bathes otherwise arid ideas in refreshing waters. It empowers my wandering mind to concentrate with energetic intensity. It stirs my heart to tell the Lord just how much I love Him, again and again and again, without the slightest tinge of repetitive boredom.]
· Music should exalt God (Ps. 66:2)
· Music should edify Christians (Ps. 33:1)
· Music should evangelize the lost (Ps. 40:3)