Thursday, April 18, 2013

Psalm 148: From Heaven O Praise the Lord

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens
Praise him in the heights!
Praise him all his angels, praise him all his hosts!
Praise him sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars!
Praise him you highest heavens and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord 
for he commanded and they were created 
he established them forever and ever 
he gave a decree and it shall not pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth 
you great sea creatures and all deeps, 
fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together, old men and children!

Let them praise the name of the Lord 
for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, 
for the people of Israel who are near to him.

Praise the Lord!

Verse one begins with a shout of praise to the Lord. In Hebrew, the words are Hallelujah, which, literally rendered, means "Praise Yahweh!" Next the Psalmist describes the praise due to the Lord from the heavens, and the first thing on his list of things to say is, "Praise him in the heights!" Here the Hebrew word for “heights” refers to the highest elevations within the heavens. In other words, from whatever perspective there may be concerning the high elevations within the heavens, God’s praise is to be proclaimed from the highest peaks. But who or what is to do some of this praising? The next verse gives us an answer: all his angels and all his hosts are to praise the Lord. It is here that the author provides his first pair of things in the heavens to contrast with each other. Here the angels are paired with hosts. The word “hosts” is very common throughout the Old Testament scriptures and it often refers to angelic armies. In other words, what the author is saying is that all the way from the individual angelic messengers to the entire collective army of angels together, God is to be praised. None of them are excluded from giving God the praise and glory due to His name.

Verse three provides another pair to contrast with each other: "Praise him sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars!" This contrast is probably more obvious to us all. One the one hand, the sun and moon appear to be very large stars in the heavens, whereas the "shining stars" of the distant sky appear to be small. And so, the contrast is set between all stars, both great and small. In other words, there is no object within the heavens, whether great or small which is exempt from giving God the praise and the glory due to His name.

Next we read: "Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens." Literally the Hebrew says "praise him you heaven of heavens," which is a superlative expression referring to the farthest outer limits of the heavens. But notice carefully that praise is to come from as near as the waters above the skies too. The clouds above our earthly skies (our "heavens") are these "waters above the heavens." This is obvious for two reasons: first, because the farthest heavens are being contrasted with the "waters above the heavens," and second, because we know the clouds above our skies are the nearest dividing line between the heavens and the earth. We know this when we look up and see clouds covering our skies, and also when we see them part. After they part, we can see far into the heavens. The bottom line of all this is that God is to be praised everywhere and by all of creation in all of the expanse of the heavens. There is no place within the vast expanse of the heavens where God's creation can find itself to be exempt from giving him the praise and the glory due to his name.

Following this sevenfold ascription of praise, we find our first summary statement, "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for...". This is followed by three reasons: 
1) He commanded and they were created. 
2) He established them forever and ever. 
3) He gave a decree and it shall not pass away.

What could be more comprehensive than this threefold purpose? The reason why everything above the earth --out in the heavens-- is to be praising God is because He alone commanded them into existence, established them for a certain duration of time, and made decree concerning their purpose in existence. The reason why the heavens are to praise the name of the Lord as long as they exist is because that's what the Lord created them to do! The Lord created them and established them to praise him according to his decree, and that decree shall not pass away. God is worthy of such praise!

From here the author moves down into the earthly realm, for he says, "Praise the Lord from the earth." Now, notice further who is to be doing all of this praising and from where this praise is to come. Starting below ground level, the author speaks of praise coming from “great sea creatures and all deeps.” Every sea creature within the massive body of water covering the earth is to praise God. Every creature, from the great big ones that appear above the surface to the ones which lurk in the deepest, darkest caverns of the ocean. All are to praise God. None are exempt from giving God the praise and the glory which is due to his name.

Next the author mentions "fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!" Elsewhere in the Scriptures we learn that this word for "fire" sometimes refers to lightning bolts from the sky (cf. Ps. 105:32; Ex. 9:23). And if that's the way the Psalmist intended to use the image of fire in this verse, then what we are presented with is another pair of natural elements. The first pair refers to that which comes down from the clouds (lightning and hail). The next pair refers to that which temporarily resides on the ground below, namely snow and thick foggy mist. Between all of these natural elements is "stormy wind." Literally, the Hebrew says "high winds." These high winds flow between the clouds which bring lightning down upon a foggy mist, and hail down upon snowy ground. Commenting on this passage, John Calvin noted that “it is not by an effect of chance that the heavens are clouded, or that a single drop of rain falls from the clouds, or that the thunders rage, but one and all of these changes depend upon the secret will of God.” Even though all of these aspects of nature are completely outside of man’s control, none of them are outside of God’s control. God has made even these natural elements to praise and glorify him. None of them are exempt from giving God the praise and glory which is due to his name. 

The following four verses (vv. 9-11) contain an exhaustive list of virtually everything else on earth. The Psalmist lists mountains and all hills together, followed by fruit trees and all cedars. This imagery signifies that God is to be praised from the highest peaks to the lowliest of hills, among the fruit-bearing trees that dot the hillside all the way through the forests of the earth. No elevation of land or obstacle in sight is going to hinder God from receiving the praise which is due to His name!

Next, “beasts and all livestock” are mentioned together, followed by “creeping things and flying birds.”  This means that every beast of the field, both wild and domesticated, and every creature which crawls on the ground, from the chipmunk to the grasshopper, are to give praise to God! And no creature of the air is excluded from that privilege and responsibility either. God created them to praise him, and none of them are exempt from giving him the praise and the glory which is due to his name.

Finally, at the end of this long list of creation, the author mentions human beings. The Psalmist mentions "Kings and all peoples, princes and all rulers, young men and maidens, old men and babies.  Let them praise the name of the Lord!"

I fascinates me to find human beings of all kinds listed last in this Psalm. Why not mention mankind first? And why does the Psalmist also mention such an exhaustive list of mankind? Why didn't he simply mention all men, both male and female? That certainly would have been sufficient. Instead, what we find is much, much more efficient in getting the main point across. And by this point, I hope the author's main point is obvious to us. By mentioning such an exhaustive list of mankind, we learn that no human being of any social status, economic status, sex, or age is exempt from giving God the praise and the glory due to his name. But this poses a dilemma, doesn't it? It is here that we are confronted with the first aspect of God's creation which questions God's praiseworthiness. It is here that we recognize mankind as the only creatures in this long list who question God's command concerning us as his creation. We're the only ones who question the meaning and purpose of our life. We're also the only ones who refuse to glory in God and acknowledge his praiseworthiness. This is a dilemma unique to mankind. 

I also find it interesting that the same reason which the Psalmist gives for why God is worthy of our praise is also the same reason which we use to excuse ourselves from praising him. The Psalmist writes, "Let them praise the name of the Lord for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven." That word "alone" is significant. So significant, in fact, that even when men attempt to exalt themselves above God and eventually realize how futile such attempts really are, they still try to place themselves on the same plane as God. In other words, whenever men realize the impossibility of exalting themselves self above God, their next attempt is to drag God down to their level, placing God on the same level as man. But the Psalmist has an entirely different revelation of God. For the Psalmist, Yahweh "alone is exalted." And the Hebrew word for "exalted" used in this verse literally means inaccessibly high. Yahweh alone is inaccessibly high, which is to say that his majesty is above the earth and the heavens.

Finally we arrive at the final destination of this Psalm. Finally we are confronted with a clear and concise reason for why sinful, doubting creatures such as us can praise and glory in Yahweh. Here we learn that Yahweh, who alone is exalted and whose majesty is above earth and the heavens, “has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him.

In ancient Israel, the horn was symbolic of strength and victory, which is why some commentators suggest the alternative translation, "he has raised up strength for his people." It is because Yahweh has raised up strength  and victory for us that all his saints are able to give him the praise and the glory due to his name. The people of Israel had seen and tasted Yahweh's goodness in providing victories for them. They understood what deliverance from bondage meant. And it was because of the victory that Yahweh provided and the strength that he had raised up for all his saints that they could draw near to God in worship. In Deuteronomy 4:7 the people of Israel declared confidently: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us?” A similar expression could be spoken by all of Yahweh's saints today as well: "What people is there that has a god no near to it as the Lord our God is to us?"

The point of the Psalmist here is not to exalt man to some inordinately high plane among creation, and certainly not to a plane that is equal with God, but rather, instead to magnify the grace of God in raising up strength and praise for fallen humanity at all. But Alleluia! He has done so. All the emphasis is placed upon the finished work of the Yahweh himself. And because He has done it all, we can praise him all the more. And to paraphrase something which I remember Charles Spurgeon once saying, the praise we give to God here and now on earth is the rehearsal of our eternal song with the rest of creation. Hallelujah!

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