The Reason for Praising
October 20, 2019
The story is told of an old farmer went to the city one weekend and attended a large church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the farmer, “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”
“Praise choruses,” said his wife, “What are those?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re sort of like hymns, only different,” said the farmer.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.
The farmer said, “Well it’s like this – If I were to say to you: ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a hymn.
If, on the other hand, I were to say to you: ‘Martha Martha, Martha, Oh, Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, the CORN, CORN, CORN.’
Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus.”
Coincidentally, the same week, a young businessman from the city who normally attended a church with contemporary-style worship, was in the old farmer’s town on business and visited the farmer’s small town church.
He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the young man, “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”
“Hymns,” said his wife, “What are those?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re sort of like regular songs, only different,” said the young man.
“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.
The young man said, “Well it’s like this – If I were to say to you,
’Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a regular song.
If, on the other hand, I were to say to you:
Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry.
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
to the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night,
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.
Then, if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.”
Today we’re talking about praise. And no we won’t spend our time debating contemporary versus traditional worship music, but the reason I like this story is because I think it so humorously reveals how little we actually think about the ways we worship God, or even why we worship God. We don’t think much about our worship until we encounter a form of praise that is unfamiliar and foreign to us. Many of us, especially those of us who grew up in the church, are so used to showing up at church and singing songs of praise and worship to God, that we don’t really question it. Of course that’s what we do at church; why wouldn’t we?
So today we’re going to ask the question: why do we praise God? This is the second week in our sermon series on the Psalms as a mirror for our souls. The English word psalms, comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mizmor, which means “melody of praise”. So the title of the whole book of Psalms already communicates something about praising, and indeed, a majority of the 150 psalms in the book are prayers or songs of praise for the community or the individual to offer to God.
The early church father Athanasius once said: “most of Scripture speaks to us; but the psalms speak for us.” There’s something about the psalms that are unique to the rest of Scripture. The Psalms don’t give us more information about God or instructions on how to live a faithful life, but instead it’s a book of prayers and songs that reveal much to us about what it means to be human, and what it means to respond to God out of our various human emotions and experiences. The Psalms are a collection of prayers prayed and songs sung by faithful Jews and Christians that show us how to respond to God out of the breadth and depth of our human emotions. Last week we looked at the imprecatory psalms – the psalms that thirst for vengeance and call down divine curses upon their enemies – and we are shown how to bring our raw emotions of rage, anger and vengeance to God in prayer. These psalms give language and articulation to our very real human emotions.
And so today we’re taking a close look at what the psalms of praise reveal to us about what it means to be human and what it shows us lies at the depths of our souls. In short, why do we praise God, and why does Scripture offer such a vast collection of praise songs and prayers for us to take up as our own?
Now, if you’re like me, the first question you have might be: why does God need our praise? Psalm 50:14 says: “Offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The one who offers praise and thanksgiving as their sacrifice glorifies me.” Is God some cosmic egomaniac who needs to hear words of praise in order to be affirmed? Does God’s love cup need to be filled up every day? Does God’s self-esteem need a boost? What is going on here and why does God throughout Scripture ask for our praise and thanksgiving?
Surely it can’t be that God needs and craves our worship like a vain man in need of an ego-boost, or a vain woman in need of compliments. Because if that’s the case then God seems no different than every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity we despise because of their incessant need and demand to be praised. I’ve struggled with this question for a number of years: Why does God want us to praise him? In order to answer this question, we’re going to first look at Israel’s sacrificial system.
When God gave Moses the Law shortly after Israel escaped from Egypt, there were included in it instructions for animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was used to atone for someone’s sin. Each time you sinned, you needed to offer an animal to God to atone for that sin. This seems very strange and even barbaric to us, but this would’ve been a common practice back then and never would’ve been questioned.
This sacrificial system was in place for hundreds of years, and eventually, when the prophets step onto the scene, they tell Israel that God no longer cares for their sacrifices. The people were convinced that God just needed roasted meat in order to be appeased, so they’d offer a bunch of sacrifices, but they would go on sinning, unchanged. And God eventually says to them: no, you’re missing the point! I don’t want your sacrifices, I want you to have a contrite heart, I want you to change the way you’re living so you stop hurting people. Do you think I feed on goat and cow; no! I desire mercy, not sacrifice; I desire for you to live a whole life, rather than your burnt offerings.
What we see is that these sacrifices were never meant to benefit God, but they were meant to benefit Israel! God didn’t need Israel’s animal sacrifices in order to be appeased, or even in order to forgive them, but Israel needed those sacrifices in order to understand the gravity of their sin. The physical act of sacrificing was meant to mirror the spiritual act of repenting and recognizing the harm that their sin does to the community. Eventually though, Israel began to take the spiritual reality for granted and only sacrificed out of rote necessity.
I wonder if God’s desire for our praise is a lot like God’s desire for Israel’s sacrifices. What if God desires our praise, not because God needs it or craves it like some vain old man, but what if God desires our praise because he knows it’s good for our souls? As C.S. Lewis ponders, what if it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates his presence to us? Even in Judaism the essence of sacrifice was not really that humanity gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave himself to them.
So does God need our praise? I don’t think so. But I do think that God knows how much our souls need to praise, and that it is in our physical act of praising God that God communicates his presence to us.
The author of Psalm 100 writes: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” When we pray these words sincerely or sing them in song, there is something that happens to us. We may find that we can’t help but smile a bit; we can’t help but feel a twinge of joy inside. When we truly and sincerely praise someone or something, this gratitude sparks joy inside of us.
This is because as humans we delight to praise what we enjoy; we delight to offer gratitude to what moves us. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not only expresses but completes our enjoyment of that thing or person! “It is not out of a need to compliment each other that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until is it expressed! It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not be able to tell anyone how good she is. It is annoying to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch. It’s hard to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.” (C.S. Lewis). Our souls long to praise that which we enjoy. Oftentimes this praise bursts from our lips before we even realize we are engaging in an act of praise. “Wow, that painting is gorgeous!” “That game had an incredible ending to it.” “My husband is just the best cook!”
To keep from uttering these exclamations of praise and enjoyment would be to lessen our enjoyment of them. We all know what it’s like to be so enamored, so amazed by something and have nobody to share it with. There is something about giving voice and articulation to our enjoyment of something that somehow completes and consummates our enjoyment of it. And we never think too much about it. Enjoyment and gratitude overflows spontaneously into praise; it’s not something we need to force or think too much about.
As C.S. Lewis writes: “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” If you pay close enough attention, you may notice that it is often the humblest and healthiest among us who so readily offer praise and gratitude; it is often the cranks, the people who are too caught up in their own worlds to be able to offer much praise or much gratitude. I wonder if this is because our souls long for something to praise or offer gratitude to. We were not created to be self-absorbed beings, but we were created to enjoy nature, beauty and one another. It is only when we are able to get outside of our own little worlds and open ourselves to gratitude that we find we are able to enjoy life, God and one another a little more.
To praise something is to recognize that we are incomplete on our own. To praise something is to communicate that it has made our life better in some way or given it more meaning; it is to offer gratitude for how that thing or person has enhanced our life. We might praise a painting that has deeply moved and affected us. We might praise a friend who has stood by us through the hard times in life. We might praise a mountain that has reminded us of how small we are. And we might praise God for how he has loved us.
Psychological studies show how expressing gratitude has immense health benefits. There is something about praising and offering gratitude that refreshes our souls. It’s as if we were created to live in connection with God, nature and each other in order to find enjoyment and wholeness outside of our own little worlds. We praise and offer gratitude to the things and the people that give us life.
And this is exactly what our psalmist wants to communicate in Psalm 100. The psalmist begins with the call to praise, and then moves to the reason for praising: “It is God who made us and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pastures whom he shepherds…The Lord has been good to us; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness lasts for all generations!” God, who created us, who breathes life into our lungs, who created all things and declared them good, this is a God worthy to be praised, says the psalmist. This God who will never leave us alone, who will never abandon us but will always remain by our side, in hard times and good times, this God is worthy of our thanks and praise. Not because God needs it, but because we need God.
The Westminster Catechism, one of the great confessions of faith in church history, states that our purpose in life is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We were created to praise, we were designed to offer gratitude, our souls were fashioned with the capacity to enjoy God and all things good, and to revel in it.
And so these psalms of praise are not to be taken as commands to praise God or else…but they can be received as great gifts that teach our souls how to enjoy God and offer gratitude for all the blessings we have surely received. These psalms give language and articulation to our soul’s experience of living in God’s presence. When we experience God’s grace, when we understand God’s love for us, when we know that we are God’s craftsmanship, then our only response can be one of gratitude.
This life we have been given, with such a capacity for love, grace, peace and joy is not anything we deserve or have earned. It is all a gift. Everything. All we can do is receive it and let our souls respond in praise and gratitude to the one who has given it.
Friends, let us cultivate lives of gratitude and praise, because we have a God who loves us and offers us grace at every turn. “It is God who made us and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pastures…The Lord has been good to us; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness lasts for all generations!” Let us enjoy and give thanks for all the relationships, the beauty, the love, and the grace that God has given us. All we can do is receive it with open hands and praise the one who has given it.