+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week we began our six-week-long series on the Psalms by looking at how these songs help us to orient ourselves to a particular way of looking at the world. In Psalm 1 we were invited to see life as a choice between two paths – the path of the righteous, which leads to blessing, and the path of the wicked, which leads to destruction – and we reflected on some of the pitfalls of following that logic, specifically our tendency to equate suffering with unfaithfulness. We’ll see as our series continues that the psalmist will challenge that easy equation repeatedly throughout the collection.
This morning, we move from the so-called wisdom or instructional psalms – of which Psalm 1 is undoubtedly a part – to the psalms of praise, specifically focusing on Psalm 113. Expressions of praise were particularly important for the people of Israel who first composed these songs. In fact, the centrality of praise is reflected in the Hebrew name of this collection. The Hebrew language has a word – mizmor – which is roughly equivalent to our English word “psalm”. You might, then, expect this book to be called Sefer Mizmorim, which would literally mean “Book of Psalms”, in Hebrew, but you would be wrong. To this day, the collection of songs we call the Psalms is referred to in Hebrew as the Tehillim, or “Praises”.* What makes this fact significant is that it tells us something about the focus of these songs. There are many different kinds of Psalms, and yet this whole collection is unified by the fact that it says is addressed to and expresses deeply-held convictions about this God – the God who claimed Israel and promised to be with them (and us) – and that it encourages us to honor God for no other reason than that God is worthy of being honored and adored. In fact, that’s really what praise is all about: giving glory and honor to God simply for being God.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s not always a significant focus of my prayer life. I often find myself making requests of God, or thanking God for something that has happened to me or someone I love, but I don’t often find that my prayers are offered up simply because God is worthy of my praise. Psalm 113 then, helps us to recapture this important aspect of the life of prayer. Gratitude and petition are undoubtedly important, but they must always be balanced by prayer that expresses wonder or awe at simply being invited to share life with the creator of the heavens and the earth. So we turn to Psalm 113, which begins with this unabashed language of praise:
Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord! Praise the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.
From the rising of the son to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above the nations and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
(Psalm 113:1-6, NRSV)
It is only after these beautiful expressions of praise that the psalmist moves on to reflect on what kind of God we are being invited to praise, and in that move we find something that should still give us pause:
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.
to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 113:7-9, NRSV)
This is a truly remarkable claim, isn’t it? There’s something incredible, after all, about the assertion that the God who rules high over the nations, and whose name is praised from east to west, is also the God who cares intimately about the fate of the lowly, the marginalized, those who are pushed aside by the powerful and influential of this world. As Christians, of course, we can’t help but recognize in this psalm an echo of the life of Jesus, the one who literally embodied God’s care and concern for us and for the creation in his being born among us, suffering and dying for our sake, and rising again so that we might be raised up ourselves. It seems fitting, then, that there is a very tangible connection between Psalm 113 and one of the defining events of Jesus’ life. On the night of his betrayal, following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus and the Twelve sang a hymn as they left dinner and went toward the Mount of Olives to pray. The “hymns” that they were likely singing on the journey that would lead to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest were a selection of Psalms, known collectively as the “Hallel” or praise psalms, and the first of those Hallel psalms is, in fact, Psalm 113.
It might seem like a small thing, but I think there’s something powerful about hearing these words on the lips of Jesus and his disciples as they walked into a trap that would lead to his death. Knowing exactly what was going to happen to him, Jesus was still able to lift his voice to praise God and to express his conviction about God’s care and concern for those who are brought low by the world. We may not enjoy the intimacy with God that Jesus did, and yet we do well to recognize that these words of praise, these words that acknowledge God’s majesty and glory, can – and often do – transcend our circumstances. At the same time, these words aren’t spoken in a vacuum. So it is that the same Jesus who praised God as he approached the Mount of Olives would soon lift his voice in lament, using the kind of lament-filled language that we’ll look at more in depth next week.
For now, brothers and sisters, perhaps it is enough simply to acknowledge that the language of praise is an important part of the life of faith. As we honor God with our lips, we call to mind one of the vital truths of human existence – that for all of our creativity and power and strength and influence over the affairs of this world, we are not the creator. To be human is to be created in God’s image, and to acknowledge God as the one who has made our lives possible. This week, then, let us endeavor to praise God “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, confident that the one who hears our praise will also hear us in our time of need. Glory be to God! Amen.
*This insight appears, among other places, in the introduction to Robert Alter’s profound translation of The Book of Psalms, W.W. Norton and Co. (New York: 2007), xx.