Thursday, April 18, 2013

Psalm 148: Literary Structure

Psalm 148

v. 1a: Praise the Lord!   (“Hallelujah!”)

v. 1b:  Praise Yahweh from the heavens
v. 1c – 4:  Elements of praise
v. 5a:  Injunction (“Let them praise”)
v. 5b-6:  Reasons  (“for”)

v. 7a:  Praise Yahweh from the earth
v. 7b – 12:  Elements of praise
v. 13a:  Injunction (“Let them praise”)
v. 13b-14a:  Reasons  (“for”)

14b – Praise the Lord!   (“Hallelujah!”)

The first aspect of this Psalm worth noting is the way it begins and ends. In verse one, it begins with the words, “Praise the Lord!” And the very last verse says the same thing: “Praise the Lord!” 

The Hebrew behind these words is Hallelujah. Hallelujah is actually a combination of two words, Hallel and Jah. Hallel means to praise, adore, boast about, and glory in someone or something. It’s a word used to express the excellency of a thing or to extol the greatness of someone. When we wish to glorify someone or something, we Hallel them. Then there is the word Jah, which refers to Jah or Yahweh – the LORD. This exclamation of praise to Yahweh is how this Psalm begins and ends. It is this bracketing device – this ascription of praise to Yahweh – which sandwiches all the glorious contents of praise in between. The first ascription of praise to Yahweh teaches that he is worthy of praise and adoration. The second and last ascription of praise to Yahweh reminds us again that he is worthy of praise and adoration, but more particularly from us, his people. This is made even more evident in my detailed commentary on this Psalm.

Between these opening Hallelujah’s we find two distinctive literary sections:
1)  The praise due to the Lord from the heavens
2)  The praise due to the Lord from the Earth

The first section of praise from the heavens is a seven-fold pattern directed at him (heights, angels, hosts, sun moon, shining stars, highest heavens, and waters above the heavens). This seven-fold pattern of praise is followed by a summary statement of why everything above in the heavens ought to praise the Lord: "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for...". The explanation given by the Psalmist is threefold: because God commanded their existence into being, he established their life-span, and he made a decree concerning their meaning and purpose of existence. These reasons are more than sufficient to explain why his creation ought to praise him.

The second section begins with another seven-fold pattern of praise (great sea creatures, all deeps, fire, hail, snow, mist, stormy winds), all of which are said to be "fulfilling his word." But that is followed by an exhaustive list of basically everything else on the planet (vv. 9-12). In fact, in both the original Hebrew and our English translations, verses 9 through 12 are one long sentence listing eight poetic pairs of nouns (16 total) with no verbs whatsoever (mountains, all hills, fruit-trees, all cedars, beasts, all livestock, creeping things, flying birds, kings of the earth, all peoples, princes, all rulers of the earth, young men, maidens, old men, and children).  It’s as though the first seven aspects of nature in the skies above and the waters below were only mentioned in order to tease us into being interested in who or what is to be praising Yahweh. But in the lengthy list that follows, we are confronted with the immense volume of praise from the earth which is due to the name of Yahweh. Again, this overwhelming pattern of praise is followed by a summary statement of why everything below on the earth ought to praise the Lord: "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for...". Here the explanation given by the Psalmist is twofold: because God alone is inaccessibly high above all the heavens and earth, and because this God who is above the earth and heavens has descended low to help mankind give him the praise and the glory due to his name. 

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