Grace Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2021, Epiphany 5B (recorded)
The Praise of God
“Praise the Lord!”
More than one commentator on the Psalms has observed that when preaching from the Psalms, particularly one like Psalm 147 or its surrounding songs at the end of this great trove of song that all start with that word “hallelu-ja”, one might be best served by quoting this opening exaltation and stepping down. I might just as well move on to my usual concluding “Thanks be to God. Amen” and move on to the Affirmation of Faith. There’s really not much way to top that.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’m getting paid for, however, and for that matter the psalmist doesn’t stop there either, but perhaps I can be as economical as possible with my words, the better to keep the praise of God as uncluttered and clear as possible.
In continuing, the psalmist, almost like a film director, moves seamlessly between tightly focused, intimate and particular scenes of God and God’s provision for creation and vast sweeping vistas that, for all their vastness, only hint at the scope of God’s power and majesty. The same God who “gathers up the outcasts” and “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” in one scene then “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names” (2-4); the God who “covers the earth with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills” then turns and “gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” We humans tend to get caught up in one or the other – the cosmic or the immediate; the psalmist reminds us to praise God for both.
So “Praise the Lord” in all things great and small, right? Well, there might be more to say, based on the context in which this text first appeared.
While we tend to think of the book of Psalms in general as being of the time of King David, and while many of the individual psalms do originate in or around that era, not all of them do; some come from perhaps a little earler, and some from later – even quite a bit later. This particular psalm, with a particular style and certain seeming references to language found in later parts of the book of Isaiah, seems to date from a period after the exile of the people of Judah in Babylon and their return under the direction of the Persian ruler Cyrus. It is a return, but not necessarily all that triumphant. Christine Roy Yoder of Columbia Theological Seminary describes the likely audience for the psalm in such a scenario thusly: “…the psalmist heralds the sovereignty of God for a ragtag and conflicted community composed of returnees, those who had been left behind to till and keep the land…and others, who were struggling in the aftermath of the exile to rebuild as a small colony on the fringe of the new world empire, that of the Persians.”
You can almost imagine the returned exiles sneering at the rough, uncultured bumpkins who had remained, while those who had remained in Judah grumbled about the JINOs (Judeans in Name Only) who came barging in as if they owned the place. At any rate it is in the midst of this uncertain and fractious setting that the psalmist sings out the exhortation to “Praise the Lord” in the cosmic and the personal, in all things great and small. Perhaps hearing it from that perspective – one that might not be as different from our own as we’d wish – might give us a new perspective on just what kind of startling, upending, even radical call this is that is embedded in what seems a simple psalm of praise.
I was a little too young to grasp what was going on when the first pictures of our planet to be taken from space began to appear, as NASA and Apollo astronauts began to produce views of Earth that had never before been possible. The now-famous “Earthrise” image and others sent back from various Apollo missions around or to the moon put our planet in a perspective simply not imaginable before; from vast, unknowable horizons viewed by the naked human eye to a blue dot set in space.
Later years have brought us a different alteration of perspective: with the aid of new technologies and scientific advancements, we can see smaller and smaller living organisms – microscopic bacteria, for example, that could easily nestle together one hundred fifty or so in a single E.coli cell. [Note: image below]
Obviously the psalmist would have had no clue about either such thing, nor the ability to visualize the earth from space or to view microscopic bacteria. And yet, the vision of the psalm extends all the way through these extremes and even beyond. Our exhortation to “Praise the Lord” encompasses both the vastness of the universe, and our planet’s small place in it, and the tiniest of living organisms, to which we are universes, smaller by magnitudes than our human eyes can see or our human minds can conceive.
There is one more part of this psalm that demands consideration. To put it in more modern terms: God does not relish superpowers.
It is not in our great accomplishments that God glories. God isn’t about delighting in the speed of the Kentucky Derby winner or Olympic gold-medalist sprinter, or the strength of the greatest weightlifter or most powerful wrestler. Since there’s apparently some football game tonight, we’ll also put it this way: God does not delight in Patrick Mahomes’s ability to scramble away from would-be tacklers, or Tom Brady’s ability to find receivers in tight corners.
No: God delights, as verse 11 says, “in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Remembering that this usage of “fear” is not about our modern “being afraid” condition, we see that this psalm-long exhortation to “Praise the Lord” touches upon this delight of God in those who pay their honor or adoration or respect towards God, those who know their own strength or speed or cunning or reason are no match for the vastness or the infinitesimal scope of God’s care for creation. God, you see, has taken care of the great and the small. Here’s a spot to remember the verse from Psalm 62, a few weeks ago: “For God alone my soul waits in silence (or “silently”); for my hope is from him.” This is, in short, what gives God joy.
In the vastness and unimaginable scope of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In the infinitesimal inner reaches of God’s creation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of triumph, glory, success, fame, or exaltation, “Praise the Lord.” In moments of struggle, division, conflict, or loss, “Praise the Lord.” In all things, “Praise the Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #657, Sing to God With Joy and Gladness; #547, Go, My Children, With My Blessing