I remember the morning (a few years ago) when Psalm 135 became memorable to me. I started reading and meditating on this psalm on a stormy morning. There was a thunderstorm raging outside. And, I slowly read these lines:
“He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (v.7 NRSV)
So, now, when I read this again, I am reminded of that morning.
But, for now, let’s begin at the beginning. Notice how it starts.
The Psalm opens with a Hallelujah — quite literally!
Our translations say: “Praise the LORD.” This is correct. “Hallelujah” means “praise the God of Israel.” The name “Jah,” “Yah” or “Yahweh” is the name by which Israel’s God was known. And, it carries with it all the rich history of the nation. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God of Moses.
“God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.'” (Exodus 3:15 NRSV).
And for the Christian: this is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The very phrase “Hallelujah” resonates with the rich and complex history recorded in the Bible. We are called to praise this particular God. Not: God as a philosophical idea. Not: God as an abstraction. Not: “your Higher Power, however you may understand that.” But: God as known to us through the story of Israel, the story of Jesus, the story of the church’s proclamation & witness. You know: that God!
So, to me, the words that follow simply echo the thoughts that are implied in the opening Hallelujah:
הַלְלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם יְהוָה
“Praise the name of the Lord…”
I think the use of term שֵׁם (shem translated “name”) by the Israelites is a reflection of their caution in speaking about God. Even the Israelites knew that the Creator of all things was a being beyond their understanding. This isn’t some sort of contemporary insight. To some degree, it is as old as the realization of God’s existence. It is as old as the realization of God’s greatness. The created can never fully understand their Creator. We cannot fully describe God. We cannot enclose God in the parameters of human thought. God is greater. God is greater than our greatest idea or thought. As human beings we barely know how to speak about God. Language fails us.
But, here’s the thing: God has made God’s own self known! God revealed Himself to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses, to David, to the prophets. God has made Himself known in Jesus Christ. And, God made Himself known in the preaching of the apostles and their successors.
God is revealed here and now — to the human heart and mind — in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Christ.
So, to say “Praise the “name of the Lord” is to say “praise God as we know God.” Or: “Praise God as God has revealed God’s own self to us.” Notice how often in the Old Testament this word שֵׁם is used this way.
• Psalms 8:9: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
• Psalms 9:2: “I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.”
• Psalms 33:21: “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.“
And, so forth. Rather than: “God dwells in Zion” it is: God’s name dwells in Zion: God as God has made God’s self to be known.
Never think you have come to fully understand God. Never think the last word has been spoken — either by you or by anyone. God is always greater. God is greater than whatever the human mind can conceive.
הַלְלוּ עַבְדֵי יְהוָה
“praise him, you servants of the Lord,”
It seems to me that there is a progression in this psalm: first it is the priests and Levites who are called upon to praise God, then it is all Israel.
I understand “servants” (עֶבֶד) here to mean priests and Levites. I base this on the very next phrase:
שֶׁעֹמְדִים בְּבֵית יְהוָה בְּחַצְרוֹת בֵּית אֱלֹהֵינוּ
“you that stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God.”
These are the people who officially lead in worship. They need to give the example, so that all of Israel — and really, all the world — can be invited to join in that praise. If the leaders don’t worship with their whole hearts, how can the people be expected to ever learn? If the leaders don’t pray, how can the rest of the people learn to pray? If the leaders don’t meditate on the Scriptures to keep themselves on the way of life, how will the people learn to do that?
I think that’s the principle here. The Psalmist wants to call all Israel to praise God. Through Israel, God wants to reach all the world. But, it has to start somewhere. Someone has to lead. Someone has to not only tell others the importance of worship, but actually live it out in front of them!
הַלְלוּ־יָהּ כִּי־טוֹב יְהוָה זַמְּרוּ לִשְׁמוֹ כִּי נָעִים
“Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant.”
There are two ideas here:
- we are called to praise God because God is good (טוֹב). This is “good” in the sense of “pleasing” or “desirable.”
- we are called to praise God because such praise and worship are themselves pleasant (נָעִים). The word used here can also refer to beautiful music. Praise itself is beautiful, it lifts the heart. (And, by the way, I don’t really get why the NRSV reads it differently here.)
To be honest, sometimes church involvement doesn’t sound so good to me. (The church can betray us — sometimes without knowing or acknowledging that it has.) But, in spite of that, I still want worship to be part of my life. I still want to rise in the morning and praise God. I still want to join with other Christians on Sundays to sing praise to God and to be instructed from the Scriptures.
Worship is pleasant because it turns my mind from myself to God. Worship is pleasant because it reminds me that life is about something greater than myself. Worship is pleasant because it reminds me to hope in God — for even if all other earthly hopes were to fail there would still be hope in God. In worship I align myself with God’s plan and purpose. No. I don’t perfectly understand what that is. In fact, I believe there is a plan and purpose greater than I can understand. We are here on earth for a purpose. The best we can do is align ourselves God — as best we can understand God. We praise the Name of the Lord.
כִּי־יַעֲקֹב בָּחַר לוֹ יָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לִסְגֻלָּתוֹ
“For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession.”
And, there is what Walter Brueggeman has sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” God chose Israel. It was grace. Israel did not earn this grace. Grace cannot be earned anyway. It was not merit, it was grace.
God had to start somewhere. To reach the world, God began with Israel.
According to Deuteronomy 7:7-8 Moses said to Israel: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God didn’t love them because they were great. God loved them. And, God’s steadfast love made them great. Adam Clarke says:
It was no good in them that induced God to choose them at this time to be his peculiar people: he had his reasons, but these sprang from his infinite goodness. He intended to make a full discovery of his goodness to the world, and this must have a commencement in some particular place, and among some people. He chose that time, and he chose the Jewish people; but not because of their goodness or holiness.
If God’s will is going to be done in this world, it has to start somewhere. It starts with you and me. Ordinary people called to serve an extraordinary God.
Divine election starts with the utterly unpredictable choice of the enslaved people Israel, but continues in God’s continual choice of quite ordinary people for extraordinary tasks. Always their résumé and their skill-set are totally inadequate, but it is the very experience of being chosen that somehow empowers them.
— Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (page 164).
O God of surpassing goodness
It is pleasant to sing Your praises
and feel Your presence near.
Times are sometimes dark and uncertain.
And, it is tempting to despair.
Even though despair itself leads nowhere.
Bring me back to You
Refresh my soul in worship.
May there still be those whom you call to lead.
May they lead faithfully by showing the way and living it.
Join me to Your will, Lord.
Empower me to do Your will.
And, may the whole world come to know Your mercy,
through Jesus Christ. Amen.