THE PINNACLE OF PRAISE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A little girl was saying her prayers, and her mother suggested she ask God to get uncle John a job. The little girl considered this a good idea, and so she included this in her requests. The next evening when it was time to say her prayers again the mother reminded her to pray for uncle John to get a job. The little girl looked up at her mother in surprise and asked, "What was wrong with the job I got uncle John last night?"
There are adults who are convinced this is to be our attitude in prayer. Just ask and believe and it is yours. Just name it and claim it. Others are equally convinced that we need to be persistent in prayer, and pray without ceasing, to make it clear to God it is not just a whim, but a sincere heart-felt desire. There is debate on prayer, but there is no debate on praise, for the Bible evidence is so overwhelming that it convinces all that praise is to be perpetual, persistent, and never ending. There may be a limit to how many times you pray to God for something, but there is no limit as to how many times you praise God for something. The Psalms are filled with never ending praise.
Going through the Psalms is like climbing a mountain. You don't just go straight up, for there are valleys to go down into on the way up. There are cliffs to go around, and so the journey to the top takes you up and down, and around, and covers a lot of ground. The Psalms take us into the valleys of lament, discouragement, and depression, and there are times when the Psalmist is singing the blues. But in the end he gets to the top, and the book of Psalms ends with a series of praise songs unmatched anywhere in the world. This is the pinnacle of praise, and Psa. 150 is the grand finale.
James Stewart, the great Scottish preacher, wrote, "All the way through the book of Psalms you feel that you are walking on a smoldering volcano of praise, liable to burst out at any moment into a great flame of gratitude to God." In the last 6 Psalms we are in the heart of that erupting volcano of praise, and in this last Psalm all heaven breaks loose as the angels of heaven join man in the earthly sanctuary in a universal praise of God.
If you are superstitious about the number 13, you will be glad to know the Bible is not. 13 times the word praise is used in this brief Psalm. There are no unlucky numbers for God. Praise Him 13 times and you will be blest. W. Graham Scroggie said, "Was there ever so much said in 37 words as is said here?" That is all there is in the Hebrew. There are just 37 words and 13 of them, over one third, are the word praise. What does this Psalm tell us?
1. Who is to be praised?-the Lord.
2. Where is He to be praised?-in the sanctuary, and in the mighty heavens.
3. Why is He to be praised?-for His acts of power, and His surpassing greatness.
4. What are the ways He is to be praised?-by instruments and by voice.
5. Who is to praise Him?-everything that has breath.
This is also the Hallelujah Chores of the Hebrew hymnal, and it calls for total inclusiveness. Every voice and every instrument are to join in the reverberation of jubilation that fills the universe with praise to God. Praise the Lord is one word in Hebrew. It is hallelujah, and this Psalm begins and ends with hallelujah. You might feel inadequate to join such a choir and orchestra, but if you have breath, you are invited. It does not say, if you have pitch, and tone, and can read music, and can sing harmoniously. It says, if you have breath, join in this universal praise. There are many groups we would not qualify for, and we would not be so presumptuous to even audition, but for praising God we all qualify.
Do you sing in the choir? Most of us would say no, and, thereby, be guilty of speaking falsely again, for as children of God we are all in the universal choir that offers unto God the sacrifice of praise. If you are breathing you are in this choir. Why are the Psalms forever urging us to praise? They urge the whole world to do so. They urge the nations of the world to praise God. They urge the world of nature to praise God. They urge the angels of heaven to praise God. They urge God's people to be in perpetual praise. Why this obsession- this magnificent obsession with praise?
Because the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and the primary way we do this is by praise. Every being and every created thing fulfills it purpose for existence in the praise of their Creator. Spurgeon in his Treasury of David writes of this Psalm, "We have now reached the last summit of the mountain chain of Psalms. It rises high into the clear azure, and its brow is bathed in the sunlight of the eternal world of worship. It is a rapture. The poet-prophet is full of inspiration and enthusiasm. He stays not to argue, to teach, to explain, but cries with burning words, Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise Ye the Lord."
In other words, this Psalm is pure praise. It is a call for all-inclusive praises to God. It is inclusive of the earthly sanctuary and the heavenly sanctuary, and thus, inclusive of men and angels. It is inclusive of both God's acts of power and God's being. It is inclusive of all the kinds of musical instruments, and it is inclusive of both instrumental and focal music. It basically has no other purpose than that of getting you to join the universe in response to the Creator of all that is, with praise.
Westminister Abbey in London is one of the greatest shrines of the English speaking world. It memorializes the men and women who have made immense contributions to our way of life. Just inside the main entrance on the floor in the center aisle is a large brass plate in memory of W. H. Auden, a leading poet of this century. These words are engraved on it:
In the prison of his days
Teach the free men how to praise.
They came from a poem Auden wrote in which he says that the duty of any poet in this difficult fallen world is to give man a reason to sing. He wrote:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
The Psalms are the Bible poets labor to do just that, and this final lesson in Psa. 150 makes a powerful point that true praise must be God-centered. 13 times the word praise is used, and all 13 of them have just One they refer too. Every praise is praise the Lord; praise God, or praise Him. We are looking at a spiritual pyramid here. The base is broad and all inclusive of all that has breath, and all instruments, but the pinnacle narrows to a point that focuses on One and no other. It is not wrong to praise others, for the same word for praising God is used for the praise of the king, ones wife, and other people. We can praise our heroes, our country, our flag, and anyone or anything for which we feel strong admiration.
The point of the Psalm, and all the rest of the Bible, is that when it comes to worship there is only one target of praise, and that is God. Miss this target and you have not worshiped. You can praise the pastor, praise the choir, adore the sanctuary, and admire the stain glass, and be in awe at the organ, or the high arches of the Cathedral; you can go through a host of positive feelings, and feel wonderful about the whole experience, and not have worshiped one second if you offered no sacrifice of praise to God. On the other hand, you may be disappointed in all of the above, and have no positive emotions stimulated by the environment, or actions of worship leaders, yet have a great experience of worship if you have, by your voice, or in the silence of your mind, praised your Lord.
True worship is not in how you feel, but in who you praise and adore. You have to take the positive feelings that may be stimulated in a positive worship setting and direct them toward God, for if you do not praise Him, your experience, no matter how pleasant, is not worship. A.W. Tozer, one of the great writers on worship, wrote, "I want to warn you against the religion that is no more than love, music, and poetry. I happen to be somewhat of a fan of good music. I think Beethoven's nine symphonies constitute the greatest body of music ever composed by mortal man. Yet I realize I'm listening to music; I'm not worshiping God necessarily. There's a difference between beautiful sounds beautifully put together and worship. Worship is another matter."
Worship has to be God-centered to be authentic. It is not that you can't truly worship by listening to Beethoven. Many hymns are sung all over the world to the music of Beethoven. One of my favorites is Ode To Joy, or Hymn To Joy from his ninth symphony. The problem is, it is so easy to stop short of worshiping God, and be content with the positive feelings of experiencing the music.
This was the very issue of the women at the well who got into a discussion with Jesus about worship. She tried to make the place of worship an issue. The leaders of Israel tried to make the rituals an issue. Jesus said all of these things are irrelevant. The only real issue in worship is your attitude toward God. Do you worship Him in spirit and in truth, for that is what God is seeking. If your heart and mind are led to focus on God, then, and only then, have you truly worshiped. We have become such an entertainment oriented society that we judge everything by how it stimulates our interest. If we come to church with this spirit, and the music and the message are not entertaining, we feel it is a boring experience. This makes worship a completely self-centered experience.
I have been bored many times in what was suppose to be a worship experience. And the reason I was is because I had this same self-centered perspective. I was judging the service based on what it was doing for me without realizing the goal was to praise God, and that the value for me was to be a by-product of my being God-centered in my focus. We need to reprogram our minds and listen to the focus of Psalm 150. It says, praise the Lord, praise God, and praise Him, praise Him, praise Him. Get your mind on Him. Bruce Leafblad, a leading authority on worship wrote:
"So much of our recent history has been slanted
toward developing a receiving mentality as Christians:
God exists to meet our needs, to give us blessings, to
fill us up. So when we come to church, it is with our hands
cupped open so they can be filled again. We have become
professional beggars in the courts of the Lord, and we
have to turn that around so we see ourselves as "offerers,"
We come to give to God the sacrifice of praise, and what we go away with is a by-product of that experience of true worship. It will be far more than we will go away with if all we come for is to get and not to give. We come to church to celebrate who God is and what He has done. Anything short of this is not true worship. God hated all of the elaborate rituals and sacrifices of His people in the temple when their hearts were far from Him. It was all meaningless religion, even though from man's point of view very beautiful and emotionally moving. God despised it because it was a man-centered worship. They had no desire to glorify God and be channels of His will in the world. They only desired His approval of their will. The Old Testament is full of elaborate worship that is wicked worship, because it is man-centered and not God-centered.
If you read books on worship today, you will find the main criticism of worship is that it is man-centered. People go to church, not to worship God, but to be entertained. The bigger the show the better the crowd. I think entertainment is an important part of life, but it is not worship. It is not impossible for it to lead to worship if your pleasure leads you to praise God, but if you just experience your own pleasure, and do not praise God and give Him pleasure, your very positive feelings could be harming your experience of true worship. It takes a conscious effort on our part to let all we experience lead us to praise God. It is not automatic, nor is it easy. What is easy is to just experience our own feelings as an end in themselves rather than as a means to the end of praising God.
If you feel guilty for your failure to be all God has willed for you, then praise God that He loves your enough to forgive you and give you a second, third, fourth, and many chances to be faithful. Praise God for His forgiving grace, and for being faithful when you are not. If you feel good and enjoy the music and the message, and get more light for the Christian walk, then praise God and thank Him for His love and His resources to guide you to be more Christlike. True worship is such a paradox for it is something we are to take very seriously, and yet it is to be enjoyable. It is fun to praise God and enjoy Him. You would conclude this if you studied the 50 Hebrews words and the 26 Greek words in the Bible for praise. These 76 words cover such experiences as-
Laud and celebrate.
Shout and sing.
Shout with joy.
Clap and make music.
Dance and skip about.
Play and leap.
To jump with joy.
I don't know about you, but this gives me an impression of a good time. Sad people do not do these sorts of things. God expects us to enjoy Him, and all of these words are ways we enjoy others as well. It is party language and wedding terminology. You don't call the band in for a funeral, but Psa. 150 calls for the trumpets, the tambourine, and the cymbals. Every sound an instrument can make is to call our attention to God that we might praise Him and enjoy Him.
The Bible is so insistent on praise because it is in praise that all being relates to God, and praise makes it a relationship of beauty. A female student at a university once said to the visiting speaker, "I can't see that life has any meaning whatever!" The speaker looked at her unusually pretty dress and said, "That is a very beautiful dress you are wearing! Why did you choose it? You could have chosen an ugly dress. Is there something that makes you feel beauty is better than ugliness? And if so, may that not be the clue to the meaning of life? Must there not be something beautiful at the heart of the world that won't let you rest content with ugliness?"
The Psalms call us to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Worship is to be beautiful, and we are to add to the beauty of it, a beautiful spirit of praise. Beauty is the goal of God for the universe, and that goal will be achieved. Right now it is a fallen world full of the ugliness of sin, and it is our job to rise above the ugly and offer the beautiful sacrifice of praise. It is our task to live a life that adds order to chaos and beauty to ugliness. All that is ugly in our acts and attitudes comes short of the glory of God, and is part of the problem. All that is beautiful in our acts and attitudes is for the glory of God, and is part of the solution. Praise is part of the answer to all of life's problems, because it is a creating of beauty.
The Dean of Women at a Western University found that telling girls what was right or wrong failed to have an impact on them. But if she said, "That would be beautiful," or, "that would be ugly," she got the desired results. Morality can be better taught sometimes by the terms beauty and ugly, rather than by the terms right and wrong. Even in an age of confused morality people are touched by these categories. Everyone prefers their life to be beautiful rather than ugly.
The Christian is one who makes life beautiful by means of praise. The goal of praise is to glorify God, but it also helps us to be agents of His glory in a fallen world. Praise gives us balance, and helps us go into an ugly world with hope, faith, and meaning. The goal is not escape, even though that can be helpful for a time. The goal is to go back into an ugly world with light to call attention to the beauty that is ever real no matter how real the ugly is. The praiser can go into a fallen world with optimism, because he or she knows that ugly as reality is, there is the beauty of God's love, and the beauty of the Gospel of Christ, and the beauty of God's promise, and the beauty of eternity. All of life's meaning is found in beauty, and we are to be agents of that beauty in a world of ugliness. The ugly is to motivate us to see why we are to be agents of beauty.
Most of the things that Christians reject as fitting for their lifestyle are things that fail to make their life more beautiful. It may not be an absolute evil to smoke or to drink, but the question is, does it beautify the life, or make it more ugly. Slavery was conquered because it was shown to be ugly. So it is with child abuse, drug use, promiscuous sex, and many other such practices. If you can show that something takes away beauty and adds ugliness to life, you can show that it is not a practice fitting for a Christian life. Louis Untermeyer wrote:
Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit-
But let me always see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.
Open my ears to music; let
Me thrill with Spring's first flutes and drums-
But never let me dare forget
The bitter ballads of the slums.
From compromise and things half-done,
Keep me, with stern and stubborn pride;
And when, at last, the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.
We must stay ever unsatisfied with what is, so we will never cease to work at what can be, by the grace of God. We must be ever worshiping in the beauty of holiness that we might be channels of that holy beauty in a world that so desperately needs it. So it is for God's sake; our sake, and for our needy world's sake that we must be ever climbing up toward the pinnacle of praise.