Informed Praise — Psalm 150

Reflections on Psalm 150 —

Our praise must not only be emotional, but informed. Let us be great at praising the true God–the God described in the Bible.

“Praise the Lord!”

–Psalm 150:1a

Psalm 150 begins with a simple, yet entirely appropriate command, a command that encapsulates the central theme of the one-hundred-forty-nine psalms preceding it.

Psalm 150 is the culmination of the Book of Psalms, the end of this great collection of richly artistic and spiritual poems. Like this first phrase, the lines of Psalm 150 are relatively short and to the point. They are easy to understand.

They are also easy to take for granted.

As is true throughout the Psalms, these final words are rich in theology. They are not to be dismissed as a simple benediction.  They contain the last theological statement of the Psalms. They do so by focusing on the object of our praise–Almighty God.

Modern churches have learned how to praise God with emotion. That’s good for a quick, uplifting experience on Sunday morning, but it does not always make a lasting impression. Emotion in praise is good, if not necessary. But in Psalm 150, we see that our praise must also be informed. We ought to praise not just with emotion, but with our minds, sizing up the magnitude of the God we are praising.

The church is a unique institution. It has been given hymns, songs, and anthems to be sung in unison, songs directed to the One for which it exists. Since we have been given so high a privilege, we ought to do it well. Let us be good at praising the Lord, doing it the right way, for the right reasons. This last entry of the Book of Psalms challenges us to do that. Let us take our time and consider the point of each line of Psalm 150. Let us measure our praise against these lines to refine and perfect our sacred art of praise. From Psalm 150, we can become informed worshipers, praising God the way He intended.

Praise God Where He is

“Praise God in His sanctuary. Praise Him in His mighty expanse.”

–Psalm 150:1b

The first verse instructs us to praise God where He is. God is in a “sanctuary”, and He fills the “mighty expanse”. Our praise should be informed by these word pictures.

First, we are to praise God in His sanctuary. We have an image of this in Revelation 4:2-6. In that passage, God is seated on a throne and His appearance is “like a jasper stone and a sardius.” There is a “rainbow around the throne, like an emerald”, and before the throne there is something like “a sea of glass, like crystal.” It is a magnificent place where God dwells. Breathtaking. Filled with awe and beauty.

God’s sanctuary is a holy place where He dwells. To enter the holy place in the Old Testament temple, priests had to atone for their own sin with an offering of animal blood. The honor of approaching God came at the cost of a life. It is a tremendous privilege that we can approach God confidently (Hebrews 4:16), but that privilege was bought at great expense, for the redemption of the soul is costly (Psalm 49:8). For the priests of old, it required blood atonement. For us, entry is possible only by the blood of Jesus Christ. We ought to be mournfully grateful of that fact as we begin to sing our songs of praise.

In Psalm 11:4, God is seated on His throne within His sanctuary, and there He scrutinizes our thoughts and tests our hearts. God sees our motives. We ought to take care that our praise is sincere, not pretentious. He can tell when we’re singing for that pretty girl two rows in front, or with the vain hope that you’ll be discovered and selected for the next season of American Idol. He knows our attitudes. He knows when we’re singing with a hint of disdain for the music director’s ugly sweater, or of the worn-out chorus from the nineties. It is work to sing for the right reasons. I am under the opinion we are totally corrupt and incapable of doing anything worth God’s time, except when we plead with the Spirit to fill and consume us. Even when praising, we need the Spirit to praise rightly.

That said, being in God’s temple is a delightful experience. There is something freeing about sincerity, being fully honest and up-front about our corrupt state, and being fully dependent on God’s mercy to appear before Him. There is no pretending, no masking our hurts and pains.

In His sanctuary, God gives shelter, warmth like the sun shining on our cold skin. He encourages us to dwell in the temple with Him. David could hardly wait to shun the busyness of the day and be alone in God’s house (Psalm 84:1-2), suggesting that a single day in God’s courts is better than a thousand days anywhere else (Psalm 84:10). In His sanctuary, God gives protection like a shield. He gives us grace, accepting us even with all our scars and warts. And He gives us glory–a distinction and honor that is exclusively ours as His chosen ones (Psalm 84:11).

God not only dwells in His sanctuary, He also fills the heavenly expanse. Consider these great words from scripture:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!”

— I Kings 8:27

“Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the Lord.

— Jeremiah 23:24

“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.”

— Psalm 139:7-10

The knowledge of God filling the heavens and earth should instruct our praise. When we praise, we should be mindful we are in the presence of the Lord of the Universe. We should be confident to approach God, but not be casual about it. We should not babble in praise, prayer, or song, flippantly offering up meaningless words or mindless prattle.  As Solomon said, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore, let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). We ought to be thoughtful, direct, and sincere in our worship.

Knowing that God is so great the heavens and highest heavens cannot contain Him should make you feel small. That doesn’t mean you should feel insignificant. An oft-repeated theme in Psalms is that even though God is highly exalted, yet He is mindful of man, stiff-arming the proud and helping the lowly. He loves getting involved in the trivial affairs of everyday life. Accordingly to Psalm 138:6, this is His glory.  It is what makes Him so great, so wonderful.

Seeing God in this light helps us confront our problems, no matter the size. Our problems may seem like mountains to us, but compared to Him, they are molehills. Believing in the God who fills the heavens and the earth and yet gets involved in our lives should give us confidence and peace that He cares about our situation and is willing to take the time to help.

Knowing God fills the heavens and earth also gives us comfort. I’m on travel this week as I write this, sitting in my hotel room in Lexington Park, Maryland. I’m preparing to give a presentation to a large crowd. I’ve done this before, but I’m still anxious. In my moment of anxiety, I am comforted by the truth that God is here with me. Even in this place, God can fill me with the full measure of His being. When God says He fills the heavens and the earth, you can rest assured that no matter where you are, He hears you and is with you one-hundred percent. That thought causes me to shudder just a little, and whisper my praise to Him.

The same applies to the people we pray for. My son lives in Portland, thousands of miles away. Since God fills the heavens and the earth, He is fully here with me and also fully with my son. I can pray resting assured that God is working where he is. That’s how we praise a God who is “mighty in His expanse”.

Praise the Revealed God

Many praise God in the form in which they imagine Him. In our mind, we can conjure God to be kind, never harsh, and always inclined to help us with our problems. Or maybe He’s a God we can “woo” with our good behavior. Our praise can become slanted to the point of manipulation. We ought to take care, for not even Moses, the humblest man that ever walked the face of the earth, had such casual familiarity with God. As with all things, familiarity can breed contempt. Resentment can grow and fester over unmet expectations.

Praying to an imaginary God is a form of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” It is defining Him the way we think He should be, not the way He has described Himself. It is on the same level of evil as unbelief for it discounts the true nature of God, the description God carefully composed in the pages of scripture.

God gave us many testimonies about Himself in the Bible. The clearest description God gives of Himself is in Exodus 34:6-7, in which He says He is the Lord God, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth, forgiving, and a judge of sin. There are plenty of examples in which He demonstrated His love and power. We ought to know these and form our perception of Him based on them. They are evidences that help us praise Him rightly.

God’s testimonies include His “mighty deeds” and “excellent greatness”, both of which should inform our praise.

“Praise Him for His mighty deeds.”

–Psalm 150:2a

As we praise, we ought to be mindful of God’s mighty deeds. These are evidences of His limitless power and ability to do anything.

When the Israelites arrived at Rephidim and found no water, they were chided for their unbelief. God had just split the Red Sea and destroyed the most powerful army in the world right before their eyes, yet they doubted His ability (Psalm 95:8-11). We often struggle because we want to believe He is mighty, but we doubt because He hasn’t removed our impossible situation in spite of our faithful prayers.

Perhaps your praise is hindered by those impossible situations–a wayward child, a hopeless financial burden, a nagging sense of despair. The mighty deeds recorded in scripture demonstrate God’s control over those things, His purpose in them, and His ability to remove them with a single word. Nothing is impossible for God (Jeremiah 32:17). We should worship Him accordingly. Worship in the knowledge He has authority over your impossible situation and be confident in that.

When He seems silent, remember He is not obligated to answer on our timetable, nor because of our good conduct. God has a reason and a purpose for the impossible situation. He may be teaching you to wait and trust. He may be deepening the roots of your faith. He may be setting up the impossible situation that only He can resolve; the miracle that only He can do. I have been praying a specific prayer on behalf of my oldest son for over five years. So far, I have seen no effect on him, but the effect on me has been pronounced. I pray with more fervor, more zeal, and more faith than ever.

God likes doing impossible things that glorify His name. Remember that as you praise. Praise God with full expectation that He could handle your impossible situation if He chose to do so, and that by keeping it around, He is doing something good in you and for you.

“Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.”

–Psalm 150:2b

When biblical authors encourage us to do things “according to” something, they are suggesting we should consider the magnitude of the object on the receiving end of our action, and to do our action accordingly. When we’re praising something grand, our worship ought to be sizing up the full measure of that grandness.

Good luck doing that with God, for He is infinite. God has infinite understanding (Psalm 147:5), infinite mercy (it “reaches to the heavens”, Psalm 36:5), and infinite power (Luke 1:37). He has infinite knowledge of every detail that might concern us. He even knows the number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30) and has named every star (Isaiah 40:26).  Our praise must be informed by the infinite magnitude of God.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he said he prayed that they would be strengthened in the inner regions of their souls with power in heaping portions–“according to the riches of God’s glory” (Ephesians 3:16).  That is an intense thought. How awesome it would be to sense the infinite power of God working in us, so much power that it felt like our soul was filled with the full measure of His glorious might!

In that same passage, Paul likens Christ’s love for us to an ocean. Imagine you are floating on a raft in the middle of the Pacific, no land in sight. Miles and miles of clear, blue water is all you can see in any direction. Beneath your toes, the water is over a mile deep. That’s a bazillion gallons of water all around you. The overwhelming magnitude of the ocean demonstrates how infinitely Christ loves us; a concept we find hard to grasp.  That’s why Paul prays that the Ephesians would “comprehend” it (Ephesians 3:18). Something that big can be right in front of us without our even knowing it.

God wants us to grasp the infiniteness of His being. Later in that same prayer, Paul wishes the Ephesians “…would be filled up with the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). When we grasp the greatness of God, when we allow our soul to be overwhelmed with His infinite nature, our praise is so much more appropriate.

Praise God with an Ensemble of Instruments

“Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals.”

— Psalm 150:3-5

Music plays a big part in praise. Variety is encouraged. Contemporary churches really pick up on this. We have our worship bands, choruses, syncopated rhythm, ear-blasting drumbeats, and foot-stomping melodies. It’s all good stuff. Perhaps too good.

A friend of mine from the Czech Republic recently took his father to his first American contemporary church service. The father thought it was more like a concert than church. We take that as a complement, but I don’t think we should take it as such, at least not entirely.  We can be happy that his first impression of church is not some stoic, stale, and somber ritual, or an aging tradition that has lost its meaning. But we should also be concerned that outsiders see our praise as a product of our culture’s unhealthy idolization of talent at the expense of sacredness, virtue, and substance. When unbelievers see us praise, they should feel the conviction in the air the way Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. Our praise should promote exposure, conviction, and desperation; not just syncopation.

In our exuberance to praise, let us not forget the infinite nature of God. It’s about Him, not our talented musicians. God can actually create praise for Himself if He so chooses. He can make rocks sing His praise (Luke 19:40), so let us not be too vain to suggest we are bringing something new to Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that the “new song” mentioned in the Psalms is God’s ongoing, heavenly chorus praising His character (Psalm 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, and 149:1). We who are redeemed are merely taking part in that heavenly chorus, invited to sing with the host of angels this new song. We ought to make sure our praise is not about our talent or syncopation, but about the unity of the body joining in on this heavenly chorus.

That being said, I love the creativity and variety of modern worship. Songs like Lauren Daigle’s “You Say” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIaT8Jl2zpI) have a way of shaking me to my core. When I’m sitting at my office and that song comes on, my soul immediately falls apart and I am free to worship God with complete sincerity and humility. Let us use creative music to encourage each other this way. As Paul says, we ought to be “…speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody…to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).

Everyone’s Doing It

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Praise the Lord!”

–Psalm 150:6

The invitation to praise applies to everyone on the planet, not just churchgoers, not just for men, nor for Anglo-Saxons, nor just for conservatives and Republicans. It is a universal appeal. All people ought to praise the Lord. This is the glory of the church, the thing that outsiders looking in cannot grasp. When the church is acting as it ought, it is a unified conglomeration of cultures, colors, shapes, backgrounds, and ages, all sharing a mutual love for one another and a common appreciation for the infinite God.

It is with an ironic mixture of fear and confidence that believers everywhere praise God.  We do it now because we believe. We will do it in the end because we will have no choice. Someday, every knee will bow to God and every tongue will praise God (Romans 14:11). Better to do it now, while we have opportunity to do it freely, not under compulsion. Humans have shown a propensity to discombobulate in God’s presence (Daniel 10:8-9). We should praise with a sense of fear and awe knowing every knee will drop to the floor at the very sight of God.

Christians take consolation in the promise that someday, every tongue will praise God. Unbelievers scoff at it, stake their hope that it’s all make-believe, that it won’t really end this way. But with what evidence do they make this assertion?  On what basis do they have such confidence? They are not God. They cannot predict the end from the beginning. It is the ultimate gamble for the ages, one not to be taken lightly.

Conclusion

The lines of Psalm 150 culminate the great theology of the Psalms. It all comes down to praising the Lord. We ought to learn how to praise well, for it was the very thing we were created to do. Our praise should be well-informed.

God’s filling the mighty expanse should remind us that God is not beholden to us when we worship. He will not dwell in the houses we build with our hands. We ought not use praise as a way to get what we want, a secret manipulation of the Great One. We ought not be presumptuous to believe He is obligated to fulfill our wishes when we worship. He does as He pleases. We should feel small in His presence, and yet take comfort and have confidence that He is glorified when He comes down to our level and takes interest in our everyday lives. That is something to for which we can praise Him!

We should praise the God described in the Bible, not some image of Him we have conjured up.  The many testimonies of God’s miraculous strength and infinite power, love, and knowledge ought to be on our minds as we worship. There is no room for doubt. Our minds must work to recall the great things He has done, the impossibilities He overcame to display His glory. Our praise should be joined with belief that this same God is the One we worship.

Finally, in our creative worship, we must remember that God is the object of our praise, not our musical talent. We must be diligent and open to ensure that is happening. Don’t let the popularity of our church be the measuring line, but the effectiveness of the praise.  Our praise should move people to reflect on the greatness of God, to be filled to the full with His limitless power.

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