Praise the LORD!

Praise the LORD!

Praise the LORD! Praise is how this psalm begins; praise is how this psalm ends; and praise is the content of everything in between its beginning and end. Your Bibles may note that this exclamation, “Praise the LORD!,” is the origin of our common word for rejoicing “Hallelujah!” which is an English transliteration of the Hebrew: “Hallelu” the 2nd person plural command for praise as in an older use, “praise ye”; and “Yah” a form of “Yahweh” the Hebrew word for “God.” So from beginning to end Psalm 148, this Old Testament song, is calling one and all to praise the God who made everything that exists. Hallelujah!

With that brief introduction, I thought I’d begin this morning with the most basic of questions: what is praise? My desktop dictionary offers two definitions. First, to praise is to “express warm approval or admiration of” someone. If this definition is correct, then it may be helpful to ask ourselves. When was the last time we felt, and perhaps expressed, such warm approval and admiration?

This definition makes me think of applause for isn’t applause an expression of our approval and admiration? Isn’t applause a way in which we express our gratitude to and praise for others? When we attend an event—whether a play or a musical performance or lecture—oftentimes at the end we will express our pleasure by applauding what we’ve just witnessed.

Or if the source of our praise isn’t present or is perhaps deceased, we might register our praise with a quiet, “Wow” in a deep exhalation, as when we’re in an art gallery or cathedral or museum. Our visceral, emotional response coupled perhaps with a comment to whomever we’re standing next to is yet another way of expressing our praise, our appreciation.

Or we might feel and express pleasure over reading a book or watching a movie or program. In these cases, if we are with others, then the praise is often shared; if we are alone, then sharing our praise may be delayed until we’re able to tell someone about it.

Or our praise may be tied to a sports event—the Pats winning yet another Superbowl game; Tiger Woods winning a Master’s tournament after years of being out of the running. This week I read an article about Matthew Boling, a Texas high school sprinter who broke the national 100-meter dash record. And then there’s Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA, another young athlete who this past January performed an amazing, perfectly scored floor routine at a gymnastics meet—seriously, you should google it! These amazing physical feats, too, can result in our spontaneous praise and admiration as we witness people with physical bodies so similar to ours nonetheless do such extraordinary things with theirs.

Or we might feel and express pleasure over something far more basic but no less profound as when we see children take their first steps or hear them speak their first words; or when someone asks—or grants us—forgiveness; or when someone notices that we are struggling or in pain and reaches out; or when we see someone who is sick recover from their illness. These things as well often result in our expressing our spontaneous pleasure and praise.

Now the second definition my desktop dictionary provides notes that praise is to “express one’s respect and gratitude toward (a deity), especially in song.” And clearly this definition is in keeping with what the psalmist in our passage is stating for, again, a psalm is a song and Psalm 148 is clearly a song of praise to God. And so we can again ask, what kinds of things cause us to praise God?

You won’t be surprised to learn that the world of nature is often a catalyst of praise for me. No matter how many times I encounter a wild turkey—or bunny—or hawk or swan or eagle—or deer—or ground hog, these encounters will usually result in my thanking and praising God for making these critters—and as often as not, I’ll text Gail to tell her about them as well!

But so too, we may praise God when we’re out for a walk and enjoying the feel of the sun or the wind or the snow or even the rain. Or witness a sunrise or a sunset. Or look up at the night sky and take in the vastness of the stars and this world in general. Or sit by a river or lake or ocean. Or, as the psalmist also notes, when we witness lightning and hail and stormy winds. All of these can similarly elicit our praise to God. For nature is, literally, awesome. Its beauty and power can be a source of awe and wonder. And this sense of awe can and should quite naturally lead us to express our praise, our awe and gratitude, to the God who made it all.

Our encounters with each other can similarly lead us to praise our God and Maker. Though he is now almost 30 years old, I remember vividly holding my infant nephew and just staring at him with a sense of wonder at how beautiful and fragile and perfect he was. At the other extreme, I remember sitting for days with a dear friend who was dying and just watching as she slowly slipped from this life to the next. To be with someone who is dying is to be ushered onto sacred and holy ground as we’re confronted with the beauty and the brevity and fragility of life; as we witness one who has completed her earthly sojourn and is now leaving it for a new sojourn to be rejoined eternally with her Maker. And so in the midst of my grief, I was able to thank and praise our Maker.

Well our psalm this morning similarly is a reflection on and exhortation to praise the LORD as the psalmist looks upward—and outward—and downward in considering the vast world God has made. And in doing so, the psalmist calls out, “Hallelujah!” He calls us and everything that exists to “Praise the LORD!”

The psalm begins by turning our eyes heavenward, to all that exists above the earth, as it calls for praise to the LORD “from the heavens,” verse 1, and “in the heights above.” Next the angels are called upon to praise him in verse 2. These are God’s messengers, his heavenly hosts, his heavenly armies, that ever do his bidding. And they are called upon to praise their Leader and LORD.

The psalmist then turns his attention to the celestial bodies that inhabit the heavens, verse 3, as “sun and moon” are called to praise him; so, too, the “shining stars.” The section then ends by reiterating, verse 4, “you highest heavens” praise him, and “you waters above the skies.” All of this language harks back to Genesis 1 which tells how “God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”[1] And he is the one who at the beginning “made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.”[2]

As stated in verses 5 and 6 in our passage, these heavenly entities are then told why they are being summoned to offer their praise. “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created,and he established them for ever and ever—he issued a decree that will never pass away.” This celestial creation didn’t come into being of its own accord but its very existence points to its Maker and it is now being called upon to acknowledge him with praise. The angels and the highest heavens are told to praise the name of the LORD—which in all caps is the great I AM[3]—who is the source of all that exists. They’re to praise the name of the LORD whose name points to his character. As we read in the book of Exodus, when God passed before Moses, we’re told about “The Lord, the Lord,”—again, all caps—“the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”[4] Because God made the highest heavens and everything therein, his name is worthy of its praise. For apart from the LORD having brought them into being, they wouldn’t exist.

But the angels and the highest heavens are called to praise God not only because it is he who made them but also because he is the one who sustains them for “he established them for ever and ever” with a “decree”—a command—“that will never pass away.” It will never pass away because God is true to his Word. Therefore he who made this world continues to hold and sustain it in the palm of his hand. He cares about his creation. He is involved with his creation. He is the reason his creation continues to exist. And praise is the appropriate response to such power, greatness, and care.

Next the psalmist calls us to turn our eyes from heaven to earth, as all the earth is similarly called upon to, verse 7, “Praise the Lord from the earth.” The language of Genesis continues to be evoked as the “great sea creatures and all ocean depths”[5] are addressed. Next are the elements comprising various atmospheric and weather components as, verse 8, “lightning and hail” are told to praise God; and so, too, “snow and clouds” and “stormy winds that do his bidding.” Here we again see God’s involvement in ruling over this world he’s so wondrously made. In its obedience to him, these elements point to our LORD’s magnificence and presence; they praise him in all his glory. For as is true of all of God’s creation, this world and all that is in it was made by the LORD and therefore belongs to him. And in the act of doing his bidding creation in turn points to and displays his greatness.

Next the psalmist takes us from the ocean depths and elements of nature to, verse 9, the “mountains and all hills” that are similarly called upon to “praise the LORD from the earth.” In tracing out the scope, the height and breadth of God’s creation, another psalm, Psalm 139 comes to mind, as David asked the LORD:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

David, too, recognized that the God who made all creation—the heavens, the depths, the sea, the darkness, the light—also cares for and sustains all of it. Therefore there’s no escaping him. There’s no place we can go on heaven or earth that he is not there. And so our psalm acknowledges and affirms as well.

But not only are the mountains and hills called upon to praise their Maker but so, too, are the “fruit trees and all cedars.” And from these the psalmist turns to the creatures our LORD has made beginning, verse 10, with “wild animals and all cattle” that, again, are called to praise God. And the psalmist then turns from these large animals to the “small creatures and flying birds.” But not only are the beasts of earth called upon to praise the LORD, but so, too, are those whom he made in his image, verse 11, beginning with the powerful, the “kings of the earth and all nations,” and the “princes and all rulers on earth” and ending with those over whom kings and princes rule, verse 12, the “young men and women” and “old men and children.” In all of this we are being told about God’s rule over:

inanimate entities—sun, moon, and stars (verse 3);

atmospheric occurrences—lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds (verse 8);

heavenly beings, his angels (verse 2);

the beasts of ocean, land, and sky—sea creatures, wild animals, cattle, small creatures, flying birds (verse 10);

and ending with all people who dwell on the earth he has made—kings and nations; princes and rulers; young men and women; old men and children (verses 11–12).

In times that can feel tentative and uncertain; when those who are ruling over the United States—and China—and Iran—and Iraq—and Israel—and Palestine—and Russia—and North and South Korea—and countries in Europe—and Africa—and other countries in North and Central and South America—can seem, at times, neither to be listening to one another nor working with each other but instead can seem to be focused only on their own interests and power, we can take heart in knowing that the God who made them all; the God who made us all; is still ruling over the Creation he has made; over the Creation he sustains despite its turning away from him. And this is a Creation he intends to redeem.

This is why all people, along with the heavens and the earth and all they contain therein, are being called upon to praise the LORD; to praise him made them; to praise him who is the very existence of their being; to praise him who will one day call them to account. All, verse 13, are told to “praise the name of the Lord” for “his name alone is exalted” and “his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.” The power of those who consider themselves powerful—or are considered by others to be powerful on earth—are nothing when compared to the God who made them. Indeed, who is like God? Who is able to bring the world into being but by his speech? Who is able to make something our of nothing? Who is able to sustain all that has life and being?

But God’s creative and sustaining abilities aren’t the only reason we should praise him. For God who made all that existed also created a people for himself, verse 14: “And he has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his faithful servants, of Israel, the people close to his heart.” A horn is a symbol of power. Therefore to lift it up is to assert one’s power and might. And how is it that God calls us to lift up our horn? How are we to assert our power? It’s by means of our praise, “the praise of all his faithful servants” whom God holds “close to his heart.”

Now though at the time this psalm was written the faithful from the nation of Israel were those who praised God as his faithful servants, we who are now living in the time of God fulfilling his promise to father Abraham to bless all nations through him, are now also the recipients of God’s blessing.[6] For as Paul notes the mystery of Christ “is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”[7] As God’s Messiah was to be the source of blessing to the faithful in Israel, so he is the source of blessing to all who acknowledge and receive him as such. Or, again, Paul notes, “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”[8] Belief in Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the means our heavenly Father has provided to make us all his children. Therefore, returning to the psalm, we can rest assured that all who are God’s faithful servants through belief in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, are now similarly held close to God’s heart.

Well we’ve seen how this psalm calls for all of creation to praise our LORD—again, from the angels in heaven and the celestial bodies contained therein; to the elements and the terrestrial creatures in the oceans, ground, and sky; to those who are powerful and those who are weak—all are called to praise the LORD; all are called to sing “Hallelujah” for God is our Maker. He has made us not because he needs us, for he is perfect; he has made us not because he is lonely, for he is one God in three Persons; he has made us because it was his good pleasure to do so. And as Paul teaches, now, “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”[9] Our God is our Maker; our God reigns; our God will bring to completion his plan to redeem his creation.

All of these are wonderful reasons for us offering praise to our Maker and LORD. But we can’t leave this topic of praising God without acknowledging that praising God can be difficult for us at times. Indeed the psalms themselves bear witness to life’s struggles and turmoil and pain and there are more lament psalms in the Book of Psalms than any other type of psalm. And we often share this sense of lament—these expressions of grief and sorrow and disappointment—when things aren’t going as we would have them; when we’ve sought God and circumstances seem unchanged; when we feel alone and lost and abandoned. In these kinds of circumstances praise can feel unnatural. It can feel forced and artificial.

So what are we to do when, because of our circumstances, praise seems a million miles away from our hearts and lips? Well one thing we mustn’t do is to pretend our pain or disappointment or hurt isn’t real. In turning to God, we must always be honest for he has made us. He knows our hearts. He knows our every thought. He knows our circumstances better than we ever could. He can handle us. He can handle our pain. And he wants us to turn to him at all times.

We can find comfort in the psalms, even or perhaps especially in the psalms of lament. As one scholar has helpfully noted,

the lament psalm is best understood in comparison to the other major genres of psalms, namely, praise and thanksgiving psalms. Psalms of praise…portray a just and life-sustaining created order. They reflect the comfortable embrace of a status quo whose conditions favor the speaker. Thanksgiving psalms speak to the gathered community of their deliverance from a crisis by God. They reflect the resolution of the crisis and the speaker’s progress toward moving on after trauma.

Between these two forms sit the lament psalms, which respond to a crisis that disrupts the life of an individual or community. In laments, a critical event calls into question the conviction that God reliably protects the speaker from injustice, chaos, and death. The lament psalm, then, looks backward at praise (recalling God’s saving acts), and it looks forward to thanksgiving and salvation (praising God’s inclination to save). Lament gazes unflinchingly at the present reality of pain and at God’s apparent slowness to save.[10]

When we are struggling in our lives, we may very well struggle with praising our Maker and LORD. And in those times we need to be honest with him as we lay before him the source of our pain and confusion. For knowing the goodness and kindness and greatness of our LORD, we may well question at times why such a wise and loving God would allow us—or those we love—endure such suffering.

But during such times, though we may not feel or express any sense of gratitude or praise, we are nonetheless called to trust in our gracious LORD. We can indeed look back and remind ourselves of times in which we’ve seen how he has sustained us or those we love. And in looking back we can find the courage and strength to look forward to a time when we will again thank and praise him again for his sustenance and care. For until our LORD returns, things on earth won’t be as he intended them nor will he spare his children the temporary effects of the Fall. But we can trust his in his goodness. We can trust in his greatness. We can trust in his faithfulness. We can trust him for he has promised he will make all things right one day.

And for those of us now living on the side of the fulfillment of his greatest promise to send us Christ, the Messiah, his Son, we can trust that his sacrifice has been accepted for Jesus Christ has risen from death. And by rising from death he has demonstrated that he has conquered the sin that results in death. And in exchange for death he has offered us his eternal life. And God in Christ has made good on his promise to deliver us from all evil and death by sending us his Holy Spirit as a seal and a guarantee[11] that he will never leave us but gives us eternal life in himself, uniting us to himself and to one another forevermore.

So brothers and sisters, let us praise our LORD and Maker, the giver of life;

Let us praise him for his angels, his heavenly hosts;

Let us praise him for the sun, moon, and stars;

Let us praise him for the lightning and hail, the snow and clouds, the stormy winds that do his bidding;

Let us praise him for the ocean depths;

Let us praise him for the great sea creatures;

Let us praise him for the mountains and hills and all manner of trees and flowers;

Let us praise him for the wild animals and cattle, for small creatures and flying birds;

For our LORD and Maker has made us for praise. He has made us to share our gratitude with him and with each other. He has made us to share our praise in words; he has made us to share our praise in actions; he has made us to declare our praise in song.

Let us praise him for by praise we can lift up our horn; by praise we can assert our power as we acknowledge that all power and wisdom and strength resides in him who made us in his image, in him who made us for himself.

So let us praise our LORD for making us—and sustaining us—and calling us to be his faithful servants—and holding us close to his heart;

Let us praise him for one day he will restore his shalom, his peace, as he brings to completion and beauty this wondrous world and once again makes things as he intended them to be from the beginning.

Hallelujah! Praise the LORD!

Let us pray.

[1] Genesis 1:16.

[2] Genesis 1:7.

[3] Exodus 3:14–15: 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.

[4] Exodus 34:6–7a.

[5] Genesis 1:20–21: 20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

[6] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[7] Ephesians 3:6.

[8] Galatians 3:26–28.

[9] Ephesians 1:8b–10.

[10] G. Brooke Lester, Psalms of Lament, Bible Odyssey.

[11] 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.