The book of Psalms comes to a great ending of praise with these psalms. When all the prayers, laments, please for vengeance, thanksgivings, confessions and the rest come to their climax it’s in the words ‘Praise the LORD!’
One psalm after another gives reasons for praise – God’s provision for his people, his glory in creation, his everlasting kingdom, his attentiveness to the ry of those who love him – and that’s just in psalm 145!
Psalm 146 adds God’s care for the vulnerable, setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind – with pre-echoes of Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke, and of the Magnificat.
Psalm 147 swings from praise for God’s healing love to praise for his majesty in creating and naming the stars. God as creator is firmly in view, and for this he is rightly praised. Psalm 148 takes it further, moving from praising God for the stars to calling the sun, moon and stars to praise him with us. All creation is called to praise its creator – a wonderful vision of the big picture of worship in which we are just a part.
Psalm 149 starts with the favourite words of many a worship leader – ‘sing to the LORD a new song’, with the modern instruments of tambourine and lyre. But just as we think we’re on the home straight of praise, there’s that familiar sharp corner, reminding us that these psalms are prayers from a very different world to that which most of us inhabit. We lurch from ‘let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy upon their couches. Let the high praises of God be in their throats…’ straight to ‘…and two-edged swords in hteir hands, to executre vengeance upon the nations’. And we were doing so well at praising God without wanting to kill anyone as a result. But yes, this is all part of the same psalm, and while we can reasonably stop praying psalm 149 at the first half of verse 6, we can’t pretend that it isn’t there.
That’s one of the things that’s struck me most clearly through reading the whole book of Psalms. These are prayers and hymns from a world and mindset where God’s blessing and the humiiating defeat and destruction of one’s enemies are, if not one and the same thing, closely related. They come entirely and consciously out of Israel’s national experience of being the covenant people, and make no pretence to be ‘balanced’ in their view of other nations. When we take the ‘comfortable’ words and leave the unpleasant ones behind, we distort the meaning which the original authors had in mind. That needn’t stop us from doing it so that we can pray at least some of the psalms with a clear conscience, but we should at least be aware that we are choosing a new context and so a changed meaning for those words. The psalms are not ‘nice’ religion, but from-the-heart, full-on call-a-spade-a-spade prayers. For God can cope with those prayers just as much as with those which stop in polite form once we’ve prayed the things we’re not ashamed to think or feel.
At least we have Psalm 150 to end with. It’s quite simple, after all we’ve been through.
Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!