Sunday, July 10, 2005

Psalms, Praise and Worship

Between

pretty decent pepper crab and

pretty decent waffles,
was stopped in tracks by a very decent doppelgänger in Sin Ming
of the souped up Toyota AE86 Trueno driven by Jay Chou in Initial D


Didn't wait to see the driver of the doppelgänger. Too shored up in our current reading of Psalms.

Everyone likes the Book of Psalms. It's poetic, it's lyrical, it's beautiful. But pay attention to the words and not everyone can in all honesty praise God with those words.

The word "praise" itself is often used to mean "sing a song to God". "First we'll have a time of praise and worship before Pastor XXX comes up to give us the sermon", say many songleaders (or "worship leaders" as they are misleadingly termed). Many think that "praise and worship" releases the presence of God into a Christian meeting, so they can "have a personal experience of God's presence" (eg. the "liver shivers" or "warm fuzzies"). Some Christians use "praise and worship" as an attempted means of getting God to act. However, this was not how it was meant to be...

It is in fact, no better than the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Contrast this with Elijah's behaviour, which is almost "anti-worship". Elijah "tries to create an atmosphere which is non-conducive to divine intervention (for example, pouring water over the sacrifice)" and then uses only "a short prayer of dependence" which is based on Yahweh's prior faithfulness, rather than being "an attempt to rouse God to act".
This contrast between Israel's worship and that of her neighbours can be simply stated in an antithesis: for Israel, worship was the response to God's action, not the means of rousing it...

The view that our "praise and worship" rouses God to act in some way is attractive because it gives us a part to play in the divine activity. It makes us feel as though we are able to create the atmosphere which is conducive to God's blessing - that my singing, praying and praising somehow invites God's presence. Attractive as it might be to some, I hope it is obvious that this way of thinking cuts right across the gospel of sheer grace. (John Dickson, "Worship and the Digeridoo")
What then is "praise"? And how does one do "praise"?

Tony Payne writes in Confessions of a Teenage Praise Junkie,
The Hebrew title for the Psalms ("tehillim") means simply "praises", and certainly we cannot read many psalms without coming across the familiar call to praise ("Praise the LORD") or some other expression of praise ("I will praise you, O LORD").

In their original context, the Psalms were probably something like Israel's hymnbook. Many, if not all, of them were accompanied by music, and it seems likely that the temple was the usual place where they were sung.

But if it is clear that music was often involved in Israel's praise, it is just as clear that it was the accompaniment to praise, not the praise itself. Singing was often the mode of expression, and musical instruments were the accompaniment ("I will praise you with the lyre and harp"), but what was it that was being expressed and accompanied? When the call rang out to "Praise the LORD", what did Israelite in the congregation expect to happen next? What was the "praise"?

...as is so often the case with biblical words and ideas, the Hebrew word translated "praise" describes a much more ordinary and mundane activity. Suppose we see a friend doing something excellent, or notice a fine quality or attribute in his character. "Praise" happens when, having observed this excellence, we tell others about it. We might stand our friend up in front of his peers and tell them all, right in front of him, just what he has done, and how excellent it is. We praise him. We describe how noble is his character or how extraordinary his achievements.

Praise is this proclamation of how good someone is. It is advertising. In the Psalms, it is advertising about God. It consists of telling forth as loudly and widely as possible, the excellences of the God of Israel, that everyone might honour him.

Thus, when there is an exhortation to praise God in the Psalms, it is invariably followed by the praise itself--the declaration of his mighty character and deeds for the individual or the nation. Psalm 96 is a classic example:
Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples. For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96:1-6)
This public proclamation of God's greatness in the Psalms covers the full range of God's character and achievements. He is acclaimed for being the all-powerful Creator and sustainer of all things (Psalms 74; 104), the Judge of the Earth (Ps 33:6-9,13-15; 11), who rules with righteousness (Psalm 9:8) and acts with an unfailing steadfast love (Psalm 136). The Psalms ring with the wonder that this mighty, righteous, good God has entered into covenant with Israel, that he has stooped from his heights to love them in their depths. He is Israel's Redeemer, both corporately (Psalms 105; 136; 89) and individually (Psalms 22; 30; 32).

Praise, then, is essentially advertising, as odious as that comparison might seem. In fact, to tease the comparison out further, it is like advertising in three ways.

Praise and music
Like advertising, praise can be accompanied by music, although music is not the essence of it. Music is to praise as the jingle is to advertising. It can make it effective, memorable, even grand, but unless the product is actually described and promoted, the music is of little use.

In the case of praising God, it is of course most appropriate to make a noise about it--as in Psalm 150 where a veritable orchestra is assembled to accompany the praise. It is appropriate not only because of the joy and celebration that naturally well up in God's people as they recall all God's mercies, but also because it makes the advertising more effective. The music is not for God's benefit, as if he likes a nice tune, or like Baal needs waking up by loud noise. It is more for those who hear, so that in the context of the temple gathering the proclamation of God’s greatness can have a grand effect.

Perhaps a modern psalmist would write: "Praise our God with a powerful PA system, and with the loudspeaker turned up to 11."

Different forms
Like advertising, praise can take different forms. Very often in the Psalms, it is in the third person--that is, it is spoken or sung about God, being addressed to those listening rather than to God himself. This takes place in God's presence, undoubtedly, but it is addressed to those who are listening:
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised. The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the LORD. (Ps 113:3-9).
Sometimes it is in the form of a personal testimony:
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:1-3).
And sometimes it is addressed directly to God himself:
I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the "gods" I will sing your praise. I will bow down towards your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stout-hearted. May all the kings of the earth praise you, O LORD, when they hear the words of your mouth. (Psalm 138:1-4)
However, even when praise is addressed to God, it has the character of proclamation. The psalmist speaks or sings to God about all the things God is and has done, but he is doing so in front of others. God is "praised" when others hear of the marvellous things he has done. Which brings us to the third respect in which praise is like advertising.

Praise is public
Just as one can't conduct an advertising campaign in private, so one can't "praise" in private. The basic nature of praise is the public proclamation, acknowledgment and acclamation of God. Notice how the psalmist expresses this in Psalm 40:
I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, as you know, O LORD. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly. (Psalm 40:9-10)
It is as if the act of rescue or deliverance is not for the psalmist alone. It is given to him that he might proclaim it to the whole community. To conceal it, to keep it to himself, is unthinkable. He must testify in the great assembly (cf. Psalm 35:18).

This, of course, is not to say that in our private prayers we do not give thanks to God for who he is and what he has done. We express our adoration for his glorious character and works. Yet, if we are going to use biblical words we should use them in a biblical way. This personal, private thanksgiving is not "praise" in the biblical sense. Praise always has the character of public proclamation.

Advertising and us
In the New Testament, praise has the same basic shape as in the Old Testament. As Hebrews 13:15 puts it:
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Or as Peter expresses it:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Praise is a confession, a testimony, a declaration of what God has done. Of course, for us, upon whom the end of the ages has come, praise is no longer focused on the physical temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Through Jesus, we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, and so praise takes place not in the cultic context of a temple gathering, but whenever and wherever we "confess his name". When we declare his greatness to others, telling of how he has shown us mercy and called us to be his own people, then we are praising God.

In the New Testament, then, praise is somewhat similar to evangelism. It is the advertisement of God's mighty saving deeds. Because of what God has done for us, we testify. It is not something that we only do in church, any more than we only proclaim the gospel when we gather together. It is not something that is only ever set to music.

This democratisation or expansion of praise in the New Testament mirrors the way so many Old Testament categories are transformed in Christ--"temple", "worship", "priest", "sacrifice", and so on. In fact, many of the errors and problems we face in church life stem from a failure to recognise this transformation.

In the case of praise, many churches fail to free themselves from an Old Testament/temple way of thinking about how praise should happen. Praise is seen as a cultic, religious activity or experience, set to music, to be conducted in church. Just as God was seen to be specially present in the Old Testament temple, so his special presence is manifest when songs of praise are sung, and a particular atmosphere is created.

But in Christ, the Father comes and makes his home within each of us through his Spirit. He is constantly present. Our spiritual worship is the sacrifice of our whole lives to him (Romans 12:1-2), and our praise, similarly, is the lifelong and lifewide confession before the world of what he has done for us.

It must also be said that many churches today fail to recognise the basic nature of praise, in the Psalms and in the New Testament. Praise is not making beautiful music for God. It is not a personal, mystical encounter with God. Nor do we praise God by saying,"We praise you God, thank you Jesus, Hallelujah".

Praise is advertising. It is remembering and declaring who God is and what he has done. It takes place in his hearing, but it is done by telling others. It is boasting about God, speaking well of him, broadcasting his virtues and excellences. It springs from salvation, from what he has done for us. Praise is the testimony of the redeemed.

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