by David Baer, July 9, 2017
Text: Psalm 150
One of the delightful things about living in the Boston area was the Fourth of July fireworks. As the city where the struggle for independence began, Bostonians want to be second to none in their patriotic celebrations, and it shows. The Boston Pops gave a concert, ending with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with the opening fireworks providing the sound of cannons in the finale of the overture. It’s always a thrilling, spectacular display. Some might think it strange to celebrate American independence with a piece of music written by a Russian composer to celebrate his nation’s victory over the Napoleon. But this is Massachusetts, where the American experiment has always been seen as a “city on a hill,” where freedom and what we do with it are of global importance. Is the meaning of this country’s independence and identity complete within itself, or is it bound up with others’ aspirations for freedom and self-determination? Is it sufficient to set off some fireworks, or does the real celebration of American identity consist of making the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” a reality for all people, as the Declaration of Independence envisions? Perhaps the finale is not really final, but the beginning of something bigger.
Today we read the final psalm in the Book of Psalms. This is the grand finale, the capstone to everything that comes before it. As we’ve heard over the last few weeks, there are many different kinds of psalms in the psalter, as every part of human experience is lifted up to God in prayer. There are psalms that express joy and thanksgiving. There are others that express fear, distress, confusion, and sadness. There are psalms that call on God for help or celebrate God’s faithfulness. So it’s worth paying attention, now that we come to the end, to the final note sounded by the psalter. And that last note is… praise.
The psalm begins with the words, “Praise the Lord!” or, in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!” The whole psalm consists of a series of commands to praise God. God is to be praised in God’s sanctuary, in the firmament, the heavenly dome that arches over the earth. This psalm invites us to begin with awe at the greatness and majesty of God, like a firework exploding its colors across the sky. If you’ve seen the heavens light up at a sunrise or sunset, or looked at an unbroken chain of mountains extending into the horizon, then you know something about awe. God is big and majestic and grand, and when we stand in God’s presence we are small, fragile creatures enveloped in inexpressible beauty and greatness, and so we say, “Wow!”
But God isn’t content to stay shut up in heaven, forever kept apart from God’s creatures. We know God not just as someone who exists out there, but as someone who acts down here, with “mighty deeds” and “surpassing greatness.” And so the psalm commands us to praise God not just for who God is, but for what God has done. God made our world and us who live in it. God has provided the stuff of life. God has acted to save God’s people as a whole, and God has touched each of our lives individually as well. As those who are conscious of God’s great deeds and the way those deeds bless each of us, we say, “Thanks!”
“Wow…” “Thanks…” This mixture of awe and gratitude is the stuff of praise. Praise takes us out of ourselves and puts the spotlight on God, the Great One who does great things for our good. The wants and worries that occupy us, the upkeep and attention paid to our own desires and fears, are allowed to fade away. Perhaps for this reason, as Hebrew Bible scholar Claus Westermann points out, the Bible often places “praise” alongside verbs like “rejoice,” “cry out with joy,” “leap for joy.”1 Standing apart from ourselves in praise of God, even for a moment, brings joy, as God’s unfolding story is ultimately a joyful story.
The next few verses provide direction to various instruments that might have been part of an ancient worship service: “Praise God with the trumpet… with the lute and harp… with tambourine and dance… with strings and pipe… with clanging cymbals.” You can almost imagine the psalmist as a conductor calling on one section of the orchestra after another to join in the song of praise. It’s not enough to hear human voices lifted in praise—the song needs accompaniment to have its full expression. Last of all is an invitation to all creatures, everything that breathes—in other words, everything given life by the breath of God’s Spirit. The chorus must swell greater and greater, until it encompasses all creation. Another psalm says, “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; … Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:7-8); another says, “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (96:12). In the Book of Job, God remembers the beginning of creation, “when the morning stars sang together” (Job 38:7). Praise is a human enterprise, but it is more than just a human enterprise. It’s the resonant note of the whole creation, the frequency that keeps everything humming and moving together.
And then the psalm, and the Book of Psalms, finishes with one last command: “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!”
What does it mean that the psalm, and the Book of Psalms, ends on this note? What does it mean for the psalmist to command praise when the song has come to an end? Is the finale incomplete? Are we missing the concluding word that’s meant to bring us down from the heights of praise into the humdrum of day-to-day living? Or is the song not complete by itself? Is this another finale that isn’t final after all?
When I was a kid, our church had a gathering before Sunday school led by a couple of volunteer song leaders. One of the songs I remember learning was Psalm 100—the one Barkley and I sang this morning—and I know there were others as well. But I don’t think the purpose of teaching us to sing that psalm was so that we could sing it in church. The reason for dwelling on the psalms, for singing them, for marinating on their words, is to let them sink into us so that we carry them with us into everyday life. You don’t read or learn or sing the psalms so that you can sing them better in church. You swallow them and savor them so that they they become part of you, and your whole life becomes an act of praise. If the book of psalms ends with a call to praise, it’s not so that we can stay here in the sanctuary and praise God some more. It’s so that we carry praise with us into the world.
When life is filled with blessings, when you find enjoyment in good relationships with family and friends, in doing meaningful work, in experiencing beauty and art, then let the psalms of thanksgiving play in the soundtrack of your mind… and maybe, if you have a quiet moment to yourself, let them come to your lips as well. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”
When life’s path is littered with obstacles, when you feel trapped or stuck, when your friends or your body or your mind betray you, when others treat you with ingratitude or unfairness, let the psalms of lament be your song. The psalmist shows us that God wants to hear our frustration and fear, our anger and anxiety, our loneliness and longing. “How long, O Lord?”
Hearing our stories reflected back to us in the words of the psalms means we’re not alone. We are part of a fellowship of God’s people who approach God in trust and love through prayer. And as Christians we pray the psalms with Jesus, whose story embodies the beauty and the hope of the psalms. After all, he not only brought God’s redeeming love to earth; he also lifts our humanity up to heaven. Those who worship God, he says, must worship in spirit and in truth. We worship God most fully when we lift up every part of our lives—the good and the bad—to God.
The finale is not final. The psalms show us how every moment we live is ripe with possible prayers, if only we follow the psalmist in giving them voice in songs of joy, lament, trust, and thanksgiving. And because all of these songs direct us to a God whose steadfast love never fails, every song is undergirded with praise. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Amen.
Claus Westermann, “hll pi. to praise.” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Tr. Ernst Jenni, with assistance from Claus Westermann. Peabody: Hendrickson. vol. 1, p. 372.