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Psalm 113. 1-3 and Christmas

21 Dec

(Photo by GaborfromHungary on Morgue File)

Today, one of the daily readings in the lectionary is Psalm 113. I must admit this particular psalm is one of my favorites. In fact, I have preached from that psalm more than any other psalm. If you are a preacher you know what I mean when I say it is one of my go to sermons

Below are the first three verses of Psalm 113:

[1] Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD! [2] Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore! [3] From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! (Psalm 113:1-3 ESV)

When it comes to reading the Psalter there are some important things to keep in mind. First, the book of Psalms is actually five books collected together. Second, not every psalm is of the same type. There are, that is to say, different types of psalms that one can read. There are, for example, psalms of lament, praise, thanksgiving, assent . . . etc. These different types of psalms have different forms (or gattungs) and different themes and purposes for being written and recited (or sung).

Psalm 113 is a praise psalm. This can be fairly easily deduced from the content of the psalm itself. The psalm begins with a summons to praise in v. 1: Praise the LORD! (In English, this phrase can be brought over from the Hebrew as Hallelujah!) There are a couple of things of importance to notice here.

First, the word (more specifically, name) LORD is different from the other words around it. It is written in all capital letters. Whenever one sees this in the Old Testament, it is telling the reader that this is in fact the divine, personal, covenantal name of God. (You will sometimes see this with the word God as GOD.) This name is sometimes written as Yahweh or simply as YHWH. It is typically understood to mean, I AM Who I AM, or some prefer,  I Will Be Who/What I Will Be.

This is the name that God revealed to Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel. It is the name God told to Moses in the burning bush. It is a name that carries great reverence and respect. As for the psalm, it is important practically because it makes it clear who exactly we should praise. It is not just the notion of praising any god whosoever. We are not to be as the Athenians and have a shrine to any and all gods or goddesses, including one to the unknown god. No, we are to know whom we are praising—the one who has revealed himself as YHWH.

The name of the LORD is significant. But how do you praise or bless a name? Does it mean one repetitiously recites, in a meditative voice, YHWH, YHWH, YHWH, YHWH, over and over? No, of course not.

In the ancient world, a name represented a person’s character and nature. When it comes to God, his name represents his attributes or who he is. To praise his name then means to extol and to enumerate his many and great attributes (e.g. holy, just, righteous, patient, merciful, eternal . . . et. al.).

The second thing to notice is that this phrase, Praise the LORD or Praise YHWH is an imperative in the original language. Now an imperative can carry different meanings, depending on a variety of things. One of its most basic connotations though is as a command. It may seem a bit strange, however, to think that we are commanded to praise God!

After all, does this not paint God as a bit egotistical? Self-absorbed? Self-centered? Even brutish and maniacal? It possibly could, but it helps to think about the implications for such a command.

The Bible is clear that we as created things, humans, are prone to praise. We are prone to worship something or someone. C.S. Lewis said, in his commentary on Psalms, we delight to praise that which we enjoy. You see then, the question is not if  we will praise; but rather, who or what we shall praise. All this is to say, will we rightly praise the only One who deserves our praise and adoration; or, will we turn our attention to a less than deserving object, perhaps even ourselves?!

So then, the imperative to praise is God reminding us where our attention should be when it is time to give adoration. It is a rod to our wandering, sinful hearts when we want to praise anyone or anything except the One who is truly deserving of it.

In verse 3, we have a qualifier concerning this praising of God. It uses a literary device called a merism. The merism in verse 3 is from the rising of the sun to its setting. Here, the merism takes the two contrasting ideas (i.e. the rising of the sun and its opposite, its setting) and uses it to teach us about the praise of God. The question is, what does the merism teach us? There are really two ways to understand it; or, we may choose to hold both at the same time (something I often refer to as an either/and proposition!).

On the one hand, the merism could speak of a sequential aspect. In other words, it could speak to the time element of God’s praise. If so, it would mean something like, from the beginning of the day until its ending, God is to be praised. Or, the short-hand would simply be, God is to be praise at all times!

On the other hand, the merism could speak of a spatial aspect. In other words, it could speak to geographical locale. If so, it would mean something like, from east (the sun’s rising) to the west (the sun’s setting) God is to be praised. Or, to put it more simply, God is to be praised everywhere, by all peoples and nations!

I choose to go with my either/and proposition and see both being taught. After all, both are certainly attested to in Scripture.

So, what does this have to do with Christmas? Where are the shepherds and the wise men from the east? Where is the manger and the star shining in the sky? Where are the cattle and sheep and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes?

Yes, well, we do not find any of that, per se, in Psalm 113 do we? However, the message of Christmas and of its implications are clearly found therein.

Just as God revealed himself by a personal name in the Old Testament, so he does in the New. As the angel pronounced the birth of Messiah, he instructed that his name was to be Jesus. Why? The angel said it was because he would save his people from their sins. Now, of course, it helps to know that the name Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) comes from a Hebrew verb which means to save, rescue, deliver.

The apostle Paul tells us that . . . God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (Ph. 2.9). Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Before him all peoples will bow and proclaim his greatness. Before him every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess!

May we praise him! May we extol his incredible attributes! May we shine as lights as we bear witness to his greatness and divinity! May we join in the universal chorus of praise: from beginning to end and all around the globe, giving him the praise and adoration that only he deserves!

Praise the Lord! Praise the Christ of the Eternal God!

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