The Purpose of Praise
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 15, 2019
Psalm 149 NRSV
1Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
4For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.
5Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.
6Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands,
7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron,
9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!
This morning I want to jump almost to the end of the Book of Psalms. Psalm 149 is next to last in the book, and it contains some beautiful and, to be honest terrifying, imagery. I want to walk us through the verses and try to hear them, even though there is some difficult language in there, and then try to reflect on the purpose of praise in our faith and religion. Let’s deal with the hard parts first, shall we, then I will try to offer some fresh thoughts on why we ought to praise God.
The Psalm begins well enough: “Praise the Lord!” Well, sure, why not? That’s our job as believers in the Lord, YAHWEH, the God we call – among other things – Almighty, Creator, King of the Universe, Mighty, oh, and “Love.” Yes, we talk a lot about how “God is love.” And I want to affirm that, yes, I believe God IS love perhaps “love” beyond anything we can even imagine. Certainly deserving of praise. But, how and where? What do I mean? How do we praise the Lord and where? Well, here of course, in church. The Psalm says “praise God in the assembly of the faithful.” Is that exclusive? Should we not also praise God out there in the world? How about all those acquaintances and even friends or relatives we have whose every other word is “praise God,” “Amen, brother,” and similar such constant stream of religious – ish, talk? Well, that’s another question. I am going to stick with the Psalm – it is good to praise God here in the assembly of the faithful.
But, honestly, I have to laugh at the line, “sing to the Lord a new song.” How many times, after I invite us to “sing a new song,” do I get in some variation or another the comment after church, “boy, that was terrible, we can’t sing that,” or “we like the old, familiar songs,” or “let me give you a list of the songs I like?” Well, pretty much every time I put a new song in there. Now, I get it, everyone likes the songs they like. Me too. And rather than explain again that I pick the songs based on the way they fit the theme, either in the mood of the song for the topic or Scripture or point of my sermon, or the words fit the theme, topic, or focus of my sermon. And I mention that I normally don’t pick anything new that I can’t “sight-sing” – to see that is it is easy enough to sing the first time I hear the melody without struggling with it – and that it doesn’t have big jumps in range from low to high or vice versa or that it isn’t rhythmically odd, but none of that is the point. The Psalm writer urges us to sing a “new” song, so maybe we can keep that in mind when the preacher is trying to keep worship fresh and to expand our musical horizons with a new song now and then. And at the same time I will welcome your opinion about it as long as you know I’m going to keep picking an occasional “new song.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is we aren’t singing for our satisfaction or our enjoyment we are singing to praise God. Whether we like it or not the most important thing to remember is God listens for the intent, God wants God’s people to intend praise, whatever the style of the music. Dwight Moody, heir of the famous preacher of the same name wrote recently, “God is the primary congregation to whom I preach. In the same way, all our music is to God.”
He asks, “Can I quote the incomparable C. S. Lewis? He has a wonderful essay on church music. He was dealing then, fifty years ago or more, with what we are dealing with now: High Church music or Low Church music. And he said, among other things, we all should defer to our neighbor. We should say to one another, ‘I want to sing what you want to sing.’ But then he writes this, ‘For all of our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless gift of a child, which a father values but only for their intent.’
He adds this and I say, “amen.” “I intend to praise God when I sing, don’t you? We intend to please God when we sing, don’t we? And when it is from the heart, from the soul, from the deepest places in our being, God receives it as if it were written by Mozart and sung by angels.” So having said this I make this promise: All of you won’t like all of the songs I pick, but hopefully all of you will like some songs I pick some weeks.” And if you have a favorite I always say give me a list – I will try to incorporate them at some point, even if it is when I am on vacation!
About halfway through the Psalm writer goes off on a tangent that might leave most of us squirming. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed.” Well, golly! Um, not sure that fits in with my understanding of a “God is love” type faith. To explain the context without trying to justify the sentiment, the timing of the writing of this Psalm probably dates to when Israel has returned from exile, from suffering in bondage in foreign countries after being dragged off by a conquering army. These words probably reflected a very real desire for revenge, for taking a pound of flesh. They are the words of the youth who has been the whipping boy of the school yard bully. They are full of anger, rage, and hatred. I cannot magically make them fit the attitude of praise or worship, but they are honest in their pain and in their expression of wanting revenge for suffering experienced. Maybe it is a little like those who have suffered from the injustices inflicted on many women by men, on many people of color by white supremacists, the pain of those trapped in poverty not because they are lazy or expecting a hand-out or a free ride but can’t even get a fair break, of those who don’t fit our preconceived notions of sexual or gender orientation. While praise is the natural attitude of worship, of coming to God, if we cannot bring our real fears, our real pain, our real grief, any and every real emotion to the one who is our Maker, our King, our Lord then what good is our religion? Better to express it in the context of prayer, praise, and worship than in the streets with guns or bombs or fiery destruction. It is hard to praise if all you feel is rage. And let us remember the tradition of the Negro Spirituals, for example, which were proclamations of protest veiled in Biblical metaphors, calling for the day when they would be free from slavery and injustice. Protest songs are often praise songs.
That said, I doubt I would ever feel comfortable saying ok to the hate-filled speech of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church or of many preachers who have access to television time to spew bad theology covered in hate for those they fail to love as Christ has loved them. So let’s turn to the purpose of praise and why our faith calls us to this not just in the assembly of the faithful, but certainly here as well as by our lives out there.
The purpose of praise is to lift our eyes and hearts and lives above ourselves. This is really a two part purpose. It is important that we gain perspective on ourselves, that we humble ourselves, and remind ourselves that we are human beings, we are a creation of a God greater than our greatest combined imagination. Our words remind us that we did not do all this by ourselves, we are not islands unto ourselves, that there is One who has given us everything. I always think it is sad to meet someone who thinks they got where they are without any help. There is a real human tendency to think, “I did this by myself without any help.” But of course, none of us does. We had parents, who had parents, who had parents and so on, and some of them had means that others did not have, some had God-given abilities that others did not have, some had opportunities that others did not have. These aren’t signs of God’s love being greater for us than for the one who doesn’t have these things. That fallacy must always be challenged. One of the purposes of praising God is to lift our hearts and eyes to the giver of everything – our Creator God. Why some get more than others is too complicated to address here. Suffice it to say the more we praise God for what is, the more it will keep us from confusing ourselves with the real God. There are far too many who have a God-complex in places of power for any more of us to fall into that sin.
A second purpose of praise is to remind us of what God has done before us, in our lives and world now, and in the world as God intends, and destines it to be. I ties us to history, reminds us of our place in it, and that things, as great or terrible as they may be for us now, God intends something even better for all people, and for all of creation. When we praise God we should always have an eye and a heart on the way God promises to remake reality. The thing that gives me hope in these violent, fearful times is the promise of Scripture that the God we praise has the intention, and the power to bring a “new heaven and a new earth.” Now the heresy that some Christians hear in this promise is that we should blow up this earth in order to bring that one. It is a truly sad and twisted theology that advocates the destruction of our planet because it is evil or people are evil, or because then God will send those we hate to hell and give us a perfect paradise with only people who think and look like ourselves. Praising God reminds me that God has a far better reality in the works. And it reminds me to trust that God has the power to bring that about. And by the way, singing those songs that lift my spirits and cheer me up help me keep believing that!
The purpose of praise is also to turn us from ourselves to God, but perhaps a thought you find as thought-provoking as I do. We are not only singing to lift our own spirits, but as with all things in Christ, we should sing hoping to lift the spirits of others. Dr. Moody suggests that it is a commandment: “Sing to God about Christ for each other.” He reminds us, “We sing for each other. You never know what spiritual trauma sits next to you in the pew. What desperate prayers are being lifted up, what defeats are being remembered, what sadness has settled in someone’s soul. You are singing for them. Your words of hope, of love, of assurance, of trust in God, are just the words they need to hear.
So let us sing praise to God. Let us sing FOR one another and FOR and TO God. Let us sing new songs and old songs, let us remember that those near us may be filled with anger, fear, hatred like those ancient Israelites returning from exile, or they may be filled with pain, sorrow, or grief, or even with joy, hope, and love. But let us sing TO God to praise GOD, for God’s sake. AMEN.