Psalm 150: “Praise the Lord, Praise God in his sanctuary. Praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power. Praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him for the sounding of the trumpet. Praise him with the harp and lyre. Praise him with tambourine and dancing. Praise him with the strings and flute. Praise him with the clash of cymbals. Praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.”
Some weeks ago I attended a worship service in another state. While I was reading through the bulletin and looking at the order of worship, I was surprised to see in that order of worship a section of the service that just had the heading “P&W.” I knew that I was getting old and was out of it, but I was a little bit surprised at this. I thought I was well informed in liturgics. I thought I knew something about the traditional liturgical forms so I pondered, “What is P&W?” I racked my mind for various appropriate Latin phrases but none seemed to work out. When we got to P&W in the service, I was interested to discover that P&W stood for “Praise and Worship.” Now probably most of you who have been around already knew that. But I was surprised. I had not heard that abbreviation and was not entirely familiar with that phrase. But it did remind me that many places I go now I hear the opening section of the service given over entirely to what are usually called “praise songs” and that this section of the service is often called the “worship” part of the service.
Such language has troubled me. As a preacher I like to think that my preaching is also part of the worship. It is distressing to think that when the people stop singing and I stand up to preach, the worship is over.
Now this new language did lead me to reflect further on what we mean today by “worship” and perhaps in a more focused way, what we mean by “praise.” The notion of “praise songs” has circulated far and wide in our time and become very, very popular. Initially I thought such songs must all be psalms since the Book of Psalms in Hebrew is called the Book of Praises. But I discovered that “praise songs” are not exclusively psalms. So what is the character of our praise, what should be the character of our praise and most importantly, of course, what does the Bible itself say about our praise? We, as Reformed people, have always been very insistent that we need to worship God as He wants to be worshiped, and that must certainly entail that we must praise God as He wants to be praised. So we must study His Word to learn how to praise Him.
In various discussions on the subject of praise, I have frequently heard people appeal to Psalm 150 as if Psalm 150 gives us a blank check for any kind of praise that we would offer to God. Since Psalm 150 seems to gather together all sorts of praise activities, and not incidentally that little phrase, “praise him with dance,” it has raised in my mind the question, what really is Psalm 150 teaching us about the praise? How does the Lord want us to praise Him? The only way we can answer that is by looking into His Word and taking a special look, then, at this important psalm, this oft-quoted psalm, the culminating psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 150.
Certainly Psalm 150 is very much about the praise of the Lord. We are called to praise the Lord some thirteen times in this psalm. It is a recurring refrain: “Praise the Lord,” “Praise the Lord.” And its praise is an appropriate culmination to this book of praises.
Some observers of the Psalter have noted the careful way the Book of Psalms as a whole has been put together. In the early section of the psalms there are many psalms of lament. Many psalms reflect on the difficulty of the human condition and the sadness that can easily come into human life. But as you move towards the end of the Psalter, there is a growing chorus of psalms of praise and of delight and joy culminating then in Psalm 150 which is purely a psalm of praise. These observers suggest that the Psalter is put together perhaps in a way to reflect the pattern of the life of the believer as we pass from suffering into glory. Psalm 150 then is in a sense the culmination of the glory, the hope, the praise that is to be ours as the people of God. It is good then, to look at this psalm, this key psalm to ask what does it say about praising God? How does it direct us in praise? I would suggest that this psalm is rather comprehensive in its direction of praise because it talks about the where, the why, the how and the who of praise, just as if the psalmist had been a good journalist.
THE “WHERE” OF PRAISE
The where of praise is really quite an important question. Where are we to praise the Lord? The psalmist instructs us in the second part of verse 1, “Praise God in his sanctuary, praise him in his mighty heavens.” The psalmist declares first of all, that we must praise God in His temple, His holy place. We must praise Him, that is, with the focused character of our worship. We must be a worshiping people. We must be a people who gather to praise God and to worship Him. That is a teaching of the New Testament. Hebrews 10 says, “Neglect not the as selves as is the habit of some. It is easy to think that we can worship God and praIse God just anywhere and therefore, conclude that we do not have to come together as His people; we can stay home and praise Him. But the psalmist wants to make the point that communal worship is central. Communal worship is necessary. Communal worship is important for the people of God. We need to come together. We need to focus on God.
You may have had friends and heard people talk about worshiping God on the golf course. I think that is a good idea if it is possible — we have a number of golfers at the seminary and I hope they are able to worship God on the golf course. But I have heard that sometimes on the golf course, people have other thoughts in their minds than praising the Lord. Sometimes there are distractions on the golf course. I have learned that sometimes there are temptations on the golf course to think of other things than the Lord. And so the Lord knowing our human frailties, knowing our easy distraction, says to us that we need to have times together praising Him in His sanctuary, praising Him with His people.
The Psalm also declares: “Praise him in his mighty heavens.” I think that this phrase does call us to praise Him in all of creation. Praise Him wherever you are. Praise Him at all times and in all places, including the golf course. The psalmist in verse one speaks not only about our gathered, focused worship as a community, but also about all the moments of our lives. We are always to be praising the Lord. Our lives are to be—as much as we are able—filled up with praise. We are not to be just Sunday Christians. We are not to be just two-hour a week Christians as we gather Sunday morning and Sunday evening, but praise is to characterize us at every moment wherever we are. And that of course has a very solid, Reformed ring to it. All or our lives are to be lived for God. Whether we are at school or whether we are at work or whether we are at home. These are not places away from the Lord. These are not places we are not serving the Lord. But all of these areas of life are to be places where our lives are lived in praise to Him.
So, where do we praise the Lord? We praise Him everywhere. And we praise Him with focused devotion when we gather as His people together.
THE “WHY” OF PRAISE
Why do we praise the Lord? Verse 2 talks about that. We praise the Lord because of what He has done and of who He is. We praise Him for His “acts of power” and we praise Him for His “surpassing greatness.”
We praise Him for what He has done. When we reflect on the Lord, when we lift our voices in praise, our songs of praise are filled with the acknowledgment of the activity of God. God is our creator. God is our sustainer. God is our redeemer. God is our judge. We think about the things that God has done, the things that God is doing, the things that God will do for us. We want to raise our voices in praise because of all the wonderful things that He has done for us.
But even more, it seems to me that this psalm encourages us to recognize that we are to praise Him for who He is. We praise Him for His “surpassing greatness.” We all in human relationships like to be appreciated for the things that we have done. I think parents like to think that their children occasionally pause to be thankful. In friendships we are glad when something special is acknowledged and appreciated. That is important. But we also think that in human relationships there are times when we would like to be loved just for who we are.
The Lord says to us that this attitude should at points characterize our relationship with Him, too. We should love Him for His own sake. We should love Him for His surpassing greatness, just for who He is. And that sometimes is hard. It is so easily becomes characteristic of us to think only of what God has done and to thank Him for that. But we should also thank Him for who He is, for His greatness, for His goodness, for His love, for His faithfulness. We should meditate not only, then, on what He has done but on who He is. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 145:3).
THE “HOW” OF PRAISE
How should we praise Him? And here we come to the section of the Psalm that really occupies about half of the whole psalm where we are told to praise Him in a great variety of musical ways: “Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with the tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.” How are we to praise the Lord?
I suspect that if you had been asked to make a list of how we should praise the Lord, you would have written more about song and prayer. So why does the psalmist at this point talk not about words of praise, but rather primarily about sounds of praise lifted to the Lord? Why does he marshall these musical instruments—strings and percussions and wind instruments—just about the whole range of instruments in ancient Israel? Why does he want us to focus on these sounds of praise raised to the Lord?
We should not look at these instruments as abstractions, as instruments without any background or history or character to them. I do not think we should read this psalm as saying, “If we really want to worship God, we have to have a trumpet, we have to have a tambourine, and we have to have a cymbal or two.” No, I suspect that the pious Israelite as he heard this psalm read would have thought very much of the occasions on which these instruments were used in the history of God’s people. These instruments are so richly attached to crucial experiences in Israel’s worship and national life that as the people of God read or sang this psalm, their minds would have gone back to those events.
Think of the trumpets: For the pious Israelite the mind would surely have gone to various solemn religious occasions, the offering of sacrifices at the temple, the day of atonement annually, the great moment of victory when the ark was taken up to Jerusalem (Numbers 10:10, Leviticus. 25:9, II Samuel 6:15). At those times the trumpet was sounded. The psalmist’s call to praise God with the trumpet would have reminded the people of those powerful acts of the Lord and the greatness of the Lord. They remembered that the trumpet was used to summon them together both for worship and civic meetings (Numbers 10:4, I Kings 11:34, 39, 41). It would have reminded them how they were summoned to go into battle for the Lord against the enemies of the Lord and to preserve their nation. They would have remembered how the trumpet was sounded at the anointing of their kings Joshua 6, Judges 7). This instrument, you see, would have carried their minds back to all sorts of occasions in which they praised the Lord. Praise Him in His temple. Praise Him under His heavens in all that you do.
Think of the harp and the lyre. These instruments of rejoicing (Genesis 31:27) were played at the dedication of the temple, played at the dedication of the new walls of Jerusalem, played sometimes to accompany prophecy and sacrifices, played to celebrate victory in battle (II Chronicles 5:12, Neh. 12:27, I Samuel 10:5, I Chron. 25:1–6, II Chron. 29:25, 20:28). Again you see the richness of the historical background of these instruments for IsraeL Not just sounds raised to praise the Lord, but sounds resounding in the religious and national and military history ofGod’s people in all that they did in service to Him in all of their praise.
“Praise him with the tambourine and dance.” Here again we have particularly elements and expressions of joy. Dance is contrasted regularly in the Scripture with mourning. In the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to mourn and there is a time to dance (Eccl. 3:4). Dance and the tambourine especially recognized those times of happiness, those times of celebrations, those times preeminently of triumph (Ps. 30:11, Jer. 31:4, 13). For in Israel the tambourine and dance were brought out to celebrate especially military victory. We find Miriam dancing and leading the women of Israel in dance and playing the tambourine as they celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh in the Red Sea and the deliverance of the people (Ex. 15:20). We find repeated references to how the women danced to celebrate the victories of Saul and David over the enemies of God (I Samuel 21:11, 29:5, 18:6). We find the dance at times of the harvest celebration Judges 21:21). And so the dance was particularly a military and civic affair in the life of Israel’s history. The dance is not particularly used in our recorded Scriptures for worship in Israel except at that tragic moment when all of Israel danced before the golden calf (Ex. 32:19). But in the worship ofJehovah we find no instances of dancing as a regular part of the worship of God.
Now there is one possible exception to the pattern. In II Samuel 6:14 we are told that David danced before the ark with all his might as it was being taken up to Jerusalem. And you remember his wife, Saul’s daughter, criticized him for that dance and the Lord cursed her for her criticism.
This event is interesting because the Scripture says that David danced naked before the ark. This might raise the question whether the only legitimate kind of liturgical dancing we find in Scripture is naked dancing. This conclusion would pose even more problems than we have had thus far in our study of worship together. What is really going on in this story of David dancing before the ark? It seems to me that when the Scripture says that David was naked, it does not mean that he was bare. It means that he had put aside his royal robes and insignia. He had put aside the royal vestments that the king ordinarily wore in a triumphal moment. He had divested himself and had humbled himself before the people and before the Lord. In that sense he was naked of the signs of his office. (I hope my understanding is not just a Victorian, prudish reading of the text; but I believe my interpretation is most likely correct since nakedness is not a frequent occurrence in IsraeL) What David’s wife criticized was that he took upon himself this humble role. He did not measure up to her image of a king and soldier when he joined with the women, removing his royal insignia, dancing before the ark. But he gave proper glory to God in this celebration of the great victory that the Lord had given the people of God in conquering the city of Jerusalem. He did not claim glory for himself. He celebrated his joy humbly in this triumphant moment of the people’s existence. So David danced preeminently as a celebration of this victory that the Lord, his great God, had given to His people.
The strings and the pipes recorded here (or the strings and the flutes as the NIV has it) are also general terms for instruments of rejoicing. The cymbals again are associated with the moving of the ark and with the sacrifices in the temple (II Samuel 6:5, 11 Chron. 29:25). So we see that these instruments lift not just sound in praise to God, but they lift the whole history of the nation’s experience to God in praise.
Interestingly the greatest description of the use of instruments in Israel’s history comes precisely at that moment when the ark is taken up to Jerusalem. In I Chroncicles 13:8 we have the key to what all this means. There we read that “David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs, with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.” You see that phrase “with all their might.” How are we to praise the Lord? We are to praise the Lord with all our might. That is what is principally being taught here. That is the great message of Scripture. Our praise of God is not to be an incidental matter for us. Our praise of God is not to be a casual matter for us. Our praise is to be wholehearted.
Now, I love to come to church and sing out. It is one of the few places where I am invited to do that! And it has always troubled me to look around and see people not singing. There may be good reasons for not singing occasionally. Sometimes I stop singing in some churches and my children lean over and say, “What is theologically wrong with that one?” There are times not to sing. But you see, I hate to sit there and not sing because I really long to praise the Lord with all my might as well as I am able to do that (which is to say only in a large group). The Lord wants us to have an enthusiasm in His worship. And it is not really a matter of how much volume we can have—that is not the primary thing to think about when we are praising the Lord. The question is, are we really doing it as a concentrated activity of our being? Are we like David, praising the Lord with all our might, with all of our concentration, with all of our focus?
Sometimes when I get home from church and I have sung a song which has particularly moved me, I say to my children, “Now which psalm was that we sang in church today?” They have learned after the years to be ready because they know that such a question may be coming. But, you know, that is a good test. Can you remember what you sang two minutes after you sang it? Have we really allowed the wonderful blessing of praise to fill our hearts, to fill our minds so that we are focused on what we are singing?
There are voices raised today which say we should not have too many words in our praise. There is even a little joke about that now: the church now sings four words, three notes for two hours. But you see, God has given us an abundance of words to lift in praise to Him: words that we cherish, words that we should love, words that connect us with all the history of His great redeeming work And so when we read these words about these instruments out of the history of Israel, what it says to us is that both when we gather for worship and when we are out in our everyday activities of life, we need to be praising the Lord. We need to be using our might, our energy, our attention to praise Him, to focus on Him. Now obviously we cannot drive a car and praise the Lord with all our might in the same way that we can praise Him in church. But we do want to allow our hearts to be connected to God. That is why we have long stressed the value of knowing the Scripture, memorizing the Scripture until those words of Scripture can fill our hearts and fill our minds. That is why it is so wonderful to sing the psalms so that the very Word of God is planted in our hearts and in our minds. When we really know the psalms, our praise can rise so easily and so naturally to God. So, how are we to praise the Lord? We are to praise Him with all our might, with all of our focused energy.
THE “WHO” OF PRAISE
Who is to praise the Lord? The psalm concludes: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” All of us who have been enlivened by God, all of us who have been created and have the very breath of God breathed into us, all of us especially who have been made in God’s own image for fellowship with Him, let us praise the Lord. You see, we have been entrusted with a tremendously important task. We have been given a great command—“Praise the Lord!” We dare not take it lightly. We dare not take it casually. But all of us who have breath, all of us especially who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, who have been recreated, who have been born again by the Spirit of God, all of us who have experienced the saving work of Jesus Christ in our hearts, we need to be about the business of praising God. We need to fill our lives with praise, praising Him with all of our might as we gather together and as we serve Him in the vast expanse of the world that He has given to us. We need to guard ourselves against trivializing His praise as if it can be just a little comer of worship or life under the abbreviation “P&W.” Our minds have to be stretched out to the whole world that God has made, to recognize that we praise Him everywhere.
Now I hope you see how this psalm is filled with praise and how it informs and directs our praise. Let all creatures everywhere with all their strength praise the Lord. You praise the Lord.
Dr. Godfrey, editor of this column, is President of Westminster Seminary in CA where he also serves as Professor of Church History.
Reprinted with permission from Modern Reformation, Janl/Feb. 1996.