Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to write a paper or speech and gotten stuck on the conclusion. Personally, I find conclusions to be very challenging, because by the time you’ve gotten to the conclusion, you’ve already said everything you wanted to say. And yet, you’re still supposed to find a way to wrap it all up and drive it home in a meaningful, memorable way. That’s hard!
Now, imagine trying to write a conclusion for a book like Psalms. How on earth do you encapsulate 149 chapters-worth of deep theological material, and then how are you supposed to punctuate what has already been filled with passion and emotion?
Well, you and I would have really struggled had we been given the assignment to write a conclusion to the book of Psalms; but of course, God knew exactly how to proceed. And so we have before us this morning the perfect psalm with which to conclude this incredible book. Let’s begin by reading it. [scripture reading and prayer]
Pastor Kit mentioned last week that some psalms are simple and others are complex. This is one of those simple psalms, so I’m going to have a simple outline. I’ll go ahead and give it to you now, and then you can fill it in as we go.
In the first part of v. 1, the psalmist tells us what he wants us to do—praise the LORD. In the second part of v. 1, he tells us where God ought to be praised—in His sanctuary and in His mighty firmament. In v. 2, we see why God ought to be praised—because of who He is and what He does— “His mighty acts and His excellent greatness,” as the NKJV puts it.
Verses 3-5 talk about how we ought to praise God and list many different kinds of instruments.
And v. 6 reveals who ought to praise God—namely, all people, or “everything that has breath,” as the Psalm says. And of course, the Psalm finishes with one final admonition to praise the LORD.
So that’s Psalm 150 in a nutshell; now let’s take a little closer look.
What? Praise the LORD!
When I say “go,” I want all of you to say out loud the central command in this psalm. The most important command. Ready? Go! (Praise the LORD!) Very good! Now, I’d like to go right into a complex Hebrew lesson. And I’d like to introduce that lesson with a song. If you know it, sing along with me. (“Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah”)
You are now prepared to translate almost half of this Psalm out of Hebrew into English.
You say, “Pastor Kris, I’m lost.” Okay, let me explain. That little song we just sung contained 2 Hebrew words—hallelu and hallelujah—both of which are based on the Hebrew word hallel, which means “to praise.” The Hebrew word hallelu shows up 10 times in this Psalm. Do you have any idea what it means? (“praise Him”) The Hebrew word hallelujah shows up 3 times in this Psalm. Do you have any idea what that word means? (“praise the LORD”) Very good! So now let me read the psalm again, inserting the Hebrew words you just learned. [read psalm]
I hope you found that little exercise fun and interesting; but even more so, I hope that it helped you to notice the emphasis that this psalm places upon the importance of praise. I could stop and develop that point more fully, but I think it would be better just to move on and let the psalm itself do the work.
“In His Sanctuary”
There is some debate as to what the psalmist is referring when he says “sanctuary.” Is he talking about heaven? Or is he talking about the tabernacle or temple? Because the word “sanctuary” is used in the OT to refer to all three of those places. Those who believe it’s a reference to heaven cite the parallelism in the line. They would say that because the last half of the line is talking about the sky, the first half of the line is probably talking about something similar, because that’s often the way that Hebrew poetry works.
However, I tend to think that when the psalmist says “sanctuary,” he is referring to the temple—or even more likely, to the tabernacle—because vv. 3-5 focus on the praise which is offered up by people when they gather to praise God. So the children of Israel were to praise God when they gathered together in His holy place.
“In His Mighty Firmament”
But notice that the psalmist doesn’t stop there. He says, “Praise Him in His mighty firmament,” which is a reference to the sky.
Now how are we supposed to praise God in the sky? I’m going to be flying in an airplane tomorrow, so I suppose that during that time, I’ll have the opportunity to praise God in the sky. But is that what the psalmist is talking about? Clearly it’s not.
Look over a page if you would to Psalm 148:1-4. These verses contain some very similar language as it relates to praising God in the sky, but then they also go on to explain what that means.
So based on what we have just read, I think that we can safely conclude that in Psalm 150, when the psalmist says, “Praise Him in His mighty firmament,” he is issuing a figurative command to the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the clouds to praise God.
Only in the psalms, right? Only in the psalms can someone other than God issue a command like this.
Now why would the psalmist issue a command like this? Did he really expect the angels to read this? Did he really expect the stars and clouds to listen to him? Well no, he was using figurative language to make a point.
By the way, this type of figurative language is not limited to Hebrew poetry. It occurs in English poetry as well. For instance, William Shakespeare wrote, “Blow, blow thou winter wind, Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Was Shakespeare losing his mind? After all, he was talking to the wind! No, he was using figurative language to make a point—he’d rather wander around in a blizzard than deal with the unfaithfulness of those he once considered friends. And the psalmist is doing something similar here. It’s not that he expects the sky to listen per say. But he’s making the point that even angels, stars, planets, and clouds ought to praise God, and do praise Him.
Application: I think the application is obvious. If even angels, the stars, planets, and the clouds ought to praise God, surely I must praise Him too. And when I do praise Him, I am not alone. Instead, I am joining an ongoing cosmic symphony. That’s exciting.
So I must praise God, but why? Verse 3 offers two answers: because of what He does and because of who He is.
Because of What He Does
Verse 2 says “Praise Him for His mighty acts.” What mighty acts of God did the children of Israel have to praise Him for? (creation, bringing them out of the land of Egypt, and rescuing them from their enemies)
What mighty acts of God do you have to praise Him for? Well, like the children of Israel, you ought to praise God for creation. But you also ought to praise Him for saving your soul, for answered prayer, and for His providential care for you.
But the Psalmist also tells us to praise God because of who He is.
Because of Who He Is
Verse 3 says, “Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” A better translation of the word for “excellent” might be “abundant.” Have you ever sat down to a meal in which there was more than enough to go around? I mean, you couldn’t eat it all, even if you wanted to. You were experiencing “abundance.”
The Bible says that God is abundant in greatness. There’s more than enough to go around.
But that’s not all that the psalm says about God’s character. I want you to look back at v. 1 for just a moment because there are two implications about God’s character from this verse that I don’t want you to miss.
In the first line of v. 1, we see the word “sanctuary.” That word simply means “holy place.” It was a place set apart for God because He is set apart from us. He’s holy. So when I go into the sanctuary, I’m reminded of God’s holiness.
Then in the second half of the verse, we see the word, “mighty.” The skies declare God’s strength.
In fact, we could even paraphrase this line, “Praise Him in the firmament, which testifies of His might.” So according to this psalm, God is abundantly great, and He is also holy and strong. Now, is that all there is to say about God’s character? No, clearly not. But the rest of the psalms fill in the gaps, so the psalmist isn’t worried about being exhaustive here.
Instead, he wants to focus on the means of praising God.
Like I said, vv. 3-5 list a bunch of instruments. And this is where the music nerd in me tends to come out a little bit. I was a church music major in college, and these verses provide perhaps the most complete description of instrumental worship in the whole Bible, so we’re going to take a few minutes to talk about these instruments. You’ll have to bear with me.
The first instrument that the psalmist mentions is the trumpet, or shofar.
Now this is not the metal trumpet of today. They did have a kind of metal trumpet in OT times, but not until later on in Israel’s history. What this psalm is mentioning is the shofar, or ram’s horn. And I happen to have a shofar with me this morning. I can’t remember exactly where I got this, but I think I picked it up in Israel. The label is in Hebrew. Now, this shofar is curved. Many of the shofars played by the children of Israel would have been straight, but I think you get the point.
So let me see if I can play this. The pressure’s on. [play shofar]
So as you can tell, the shofar is loud like a trumpet. In fact, its primary usage was not in worship but in battle. However, we do see examples like this one in which the shofar was said to be used in worship, as well. They probably didn’t use it to accompany congregational singing, but to announce when the worship was about to begin. And they would have been played by the priests. (That actually might be kind of effective. If I pulled this out at 10 AM every Sunday and played it so that everyone would know it was time to stop talking and go to their seats.)
The next two instruments that the psalmist mentions are the lute and harp, or the nevel and kinnor.
Now the children of Israel would have understood the distinction between these two instruments. Today, it is very difficult for us to know how they were different from one another. But we do know that they were both handheld string instruments that could be either plucked or strummed. And they would have looked something like this. [show slides] These were the kinds of instruments that David played. And you see them referred to variously as harps, lyres, and lutes, depending on which translation you are reading. These instruments were played by all types of people, but later on in Israel’s history, David assigned a specific group of Levites to become proficient on these instruments so that they could accompany congregational singing in the LORD’s house.
Verse 4 says “praise Him with the timbrel [or “tambourine”], and dance!”
The tambourine was another very common instrument in ancient Israel, and it was often played by the women, as they danced in celebration of one of God’s victories. For instance, Miriam led the women of Israel in tambourine playing and dancing after the LORD parted the Red Sea.
Now, the dancing that these women would have done was very different than most dancing today.
The dancing in Israel was most likely a spontaneous and innocent form of twirling in circles. It actually reminds me a little bit of the type of dancing that some of the little girls like to do on Sunday nights once all of the chairs are taken down for AWANA. They just spin in circles.
And I probably should take another minute on this topic because the whole idea of dance in worship has become a hot topic these days.
I want to read to you what one commentator said about this topic. He said, “For dancing to be in praise of the LORD it had to be inspired by some great or gracious act of God (and so a natural and spontaneous response), it had to communicate that God was the focus of the praise (and so not a performance or entertainment), and it had to be consonant with purity and righteousness (not distracting or suggestive, and not mixing the sexes).”
So that’s what this type of dancing looked like. And I think that much of the dancing that is done in the name of worship these days would fall outside of those boundaries. But that said, I don’t think that we should minimize the principles here. There is a certain level of self-abandonment that goes along with dancing. And according to this psalm, that is actually a good thing.
Can I show you the opposite of this type of attitude? “I don’t want to sing because I don’t have a very good voice and people might think that I sound funny. What does that lady think of my dress? Is my hair messed up?”
What’s wrong with that line of thinking? It’s totally self-absorbed, and worship is supposed to be just the opposite. When we worship, we are supposed to take our eyes off of ourselves and focus upon God.
The last part of v. 4 says to praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes, or pipes.
I don’t need to spend much time on the stringed instruments, because we already talked about those. And this is just a general reference to all stringed instruments.
But what are these flutes?
Well, don’t think of the modern flute. Instead, think of something that looks more like a wooden recorder. That’s probably what this verse is referring to. Some render this word “pipes,” which is probably a better translation. The pipe was another instrument that was very common in Israel. In fact, some commentators have suggested that all of the instruments mentioned in v. 4 were ones that would have been played by the common people, so to speak—as opposed to the Levites and priests.
The last instruments that the psalmist mentions are the cymbals. And he refers to both the loud cymbals and the clashing cymbals.
Now, it’s possible that this could be a reference to two different types of cymbals, or it could be a reference to two different uses of the same instrument. Some Bible scholars have even conjectured that “loud cymbals” is a reference to the use of cymbals to announce the beginning of the song, and that crashing cymbals is a reference to their use right at the end of the song, to signal the congregation to respond by shouting something like, “hallelujah,” which would have functioned like verbal applause. Now that might be reading a little bit too much into this passage. However, Bible scholars do seem to agree that one of the primary uses of the cymbal was to signal transitions, like the beginning and end of a song. And they also seem to agree that like the shofar, the cymbals would have been played by the priests.
So are there any conclusions that we can draw from this long list of instruments?
Well, first, I think that we can conclude that God desires joyful praise. Verses 3-5 sound like a celebration; not a funeral dirge. So our worship ought to be marked by joy.
Second, God desires wholehearted praise. As you read through these verses, you get the idea that the worshippers are grabbing whatever instruments that they can get their hands on in order to add to the significance of the worship that is taking place. And you also get the idea that they’re not holding back at all as they sing, play instruments, and even dance before the Lord.
One of the most obvious implications of these verses is that God desires instrumental praise.
Throughout the history of the church, some have shied away from instruments in worship or in some cases, even from singing at all. In fact, one well-known reformer said in his commentary that these instructions about playing instruments applied only to Israel, and not to the church. But I would strongly disagree with that statement.
The reason that the NT doesn’t say a lot about music is that the OT says so much about it, and many of those OT principles carry-over. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any differences between OT and NT music in worship, but I do believe that there are many similarities.
Finally, I think we see from these verses that worship is meant to be participatory. Worship is not a spectator sport, and we’ll see that even more clearly in the last verse.
Verse 6 says, “let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
Now the question arises, “Does that include animals that breathe, or just people?” And I think it’s pretty clear that this is not a reference to animals, but just to people. And the reason is that almost without fail, when this Hebrew word for breath is used, it is a reference to people.
Also, in many of the passages in which this word is used, there is an allusion to Gen. 2:7, which says that God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life.
There’s a line in one of the hymns we sang today that I just love. It refers to “all that borrows life from Thee.” Did you know that your ability to breathe, which is a symbol of your life, was given to you by God? If it wasn’t for Him, you wouldn’t be here! You wouldn’t be functioning as one of His image-bearers. If it wasn’t for Him, you wouldn’t be you! And so you ought to praise Him with your breath!
Now what type of praise does that imply? (vocal praise, and specifically singing) So lest you think that the idea of singing is absent from this psalm, it shows up here in v. 6.
Congregational singing is and always has been the most-important aspect of musical worship. Even in the elaborate temple worship we read about in the OT, the instruments were only to supplement vocal praise.
So what this verse is saying is that the breath I borrow from God, I owe to Him in praise. I must sing to Him because I owe Him my very existence.
So as we conclude today, let me ask you, “How did God conclude the book of Psalms?” Not with a theological summary. Not with an extended, complex poem. But with a very simple, yet passionate plea for passionate worship. Whole-hearted worship. Enthusiastic worship. Worship worthy of its object.
So let me finish by asking you a very simple question: Do you give God the kind of praise that He deserves? Let’s pray.
More in Psalms
March 22, 2020The Shadow the Almighty: Pestilence and Protection in Psalm 91
March 17, 2019Disciples Live in the Word
December 30, 2018Portraits of the King