The Praise Imperative
Praise, Confidence, Worship
Most people would agree that it is easier to praise God when things are going well than it is when they are not. Throughout the book of Psalms, however, we have seen the writers praise God in almost every circumstance. The Psalms reflect the whole gamut of human emotions, but the common thread we see is praise. Nowhere is that more evident than in the last five psalms of the book. Each one begins and ends with the same words: Praise the Lord. It seems fitting to close the book with 5 psalms that all focus on praising God. It is as though those who compiled the book wanted to communicate the point that at the end of it all, the chief attitude we should cultivate is one of praise.
This morning we turn our attention to Psalm 146, which is the first of these five psalms of praise. Psalm 146 begins with a command—Praise the Lord! The word in Hebrew is actually a word that is familiar to us, it is Hallelujah. In Jewish culture, the word hallelujah was part of the liturgy (or normal ritual) of the worship service. Hallelujah was a response that was given to something the worship leader said (kind of like “amen” sometimes is today.) The worship leader might proclaim, “His love endures forever” and the people would be expected to respond with, “Hallelujah”. Seeing hallelujah at the beginning of a psalm was out of the ordinary. Instead of hallelujah, or “praise the Lord” being the response as it usually would be, putting it at the beginning of the psalm makes it a command that demands a response.
So in this context, the phrase “Praise the Lord” is a command issued to the congregation assembled for worship. It is a call for everyone to worship and honor the Lord. It is interesting, however, that the writer doesn’t stop with the command to the congregation. In the next verse he declares, “Let all that I am praise the Lord”. He doesn’t merely tell others to praise the Lord, he exhorts himself to praise the Lord fully. He doesn’t want to praise God half-heartedly, but he declares that he wants to praise God with every fiber of his being.
We should strive to have the same attitude. We should seek to praise the Lord with all that we are. In other words, we should not simply go through the motions of praising God; we should be genuine in our praise. We should not merely praise with our lips, but with our lives. The writer carries this a bit further in verse 2.
I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath. (v. 2)
What he is saying is that not only should praise involve everything we are; it should be the continuous pattern of our lives. This flies in the face of the modern conception of praise and worship. So many people today think of the terms praise and worship as nouns rather than verbs. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say outside of a church, “The worship was good today”. That’s a peculiar statement because worshiping God is always good. What most people mean when they make a statement like that, however, is that they very much enjoyed the music that day, or that they felt like the service was fun, or that they learned something from the sermon. That is not the biblical conception of praise or worship at all. Worship is not a place we go, or an event we observe, worship is something we do.
Many within the American church today think that if they have gone to church on a Sunday morning they have worshiped. Many people think of the command to praise the Lord and assume that means they should sing during the song times at church. The truth is, you can go to a church service and never worship. You can sing the songs at church loudly and with gusto and perfectly on pitch but never actually praise the Lord.
Certainly while we are gathered together as a church our desire should be to worship God and to praise Him for who He is and what He has done, but simply gathering together and holding a worship service doesn’t guarantee that worship will happen. It’s possible to participate in every element of a church service and yet fail to praise the Lord. True praise requires active participation on our part at a deeper level than simply going through the motions. True praise is about turning our hearts toward God and honoring Him for who He is. While we can praise God in our church services and by singing songs, there is so much more to it than just that. The psalmist says that he wants to praise the Lord with all that is in him, and that he wants to praise the Lord as long as he lives. This attitude is at the heart of true worship. True worship doesn’t end when we leave this building; true worship should be at the center of everything we do.
What Not to Do
The Psalmist has given us a sense of what it means to praise the Lord. He continues to flesh out that explanation by giving us instructions on how to praise the Lord. He starts by telling us how not to praise, and then he tells us how to praise God. His basic thesis is simple: we should praise God by reflecting on who He is, and then living our lives based on that truth.
He tells us how not to worship in verses 3 and 4.
Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. (vv. 3-4)
He says that we should not put our confidence in men, but in the Lord. His reasoning is simple—men are not able to effect lasting change. They might seem to give us hope in the short term, but ultimately all human beings discover they are not as powerful as they think. Even the most powerful human will die, and lose any authority or power they think they have. The truth is there is no guarantee that a human being can really change anything. Not only do human beings die, but they get sick, they lose their position of power, or they discover that the thing they thought they could accomplish was actually something they couldn’t do. God is not subject to the same limitations. He transcends these things. As a result, we should not look to human devices, leaders, or schemes to help us through life—we must look to God and God alone for assurance, guidance, and salvation.
It’s a simple principle, but if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will be forced to admit that we often place far more confidence in men than we do in God. We put our confidence in all sorts of things other than God. We might trust:
- A certain political leader or commentator or ideology to fix the problems we see around us.
- A particular “guru” or supposed “expert” on a topic to guide us in how we should live.
- A Christian teacher or even your pastor who “always seems to know what to say.”
- A financial planner who will ensure our security.
- Our skills or work ethic to ensure success.
- Our goodness as opposed to God’s grace.
The truth is there are lots of ways that we put our confidence in men rather than God. We understand, at least logically, why it is better to trust God rather than men, but it is difficult to actually trust God in practice. We often don’t even see the ways we have ignored God, so I came up with four things we should look at in our lives to help us see where our confidence really is.
First, look at your first resort. When everything seems like it is falling apart, where do you turn first? Do you immediately ask for the Lord’s help and guidance? For most of us, I suspect the answer is no. If we don’t turn to the Lord for help, then we are clearly relying on something else first. If the Lord is your last resort (or anything other than your first resort) then you are placing your confidence in human beings, rather than God.
Second, look at what you devote your time to. If something is really important to us, we make time for it. Think about how you handle your calendar. If you have two things that both occur at the same time, how do you decide which one to do? Most of us decide that whichever thing we deem more important is the thing we will make time for. The “thing” you make time for gives you a clue as to where you place your confidence and hope. Most people, when faced with an opportunity to go to a sporting event they have been looking forward to, or a concert they’ve got tickets for, or participating in some activity they enjoy, will drop those plans in an instant if they feel like their children need them. We always make time for the things that are most important to us. This begs the question—do you make time for God, or does He get whatever is left over? What you make time for shows what you deem important and where your confidence lies.
Third, look at whose advice you follow. When you are unsure of the best course of action whose advice do you follow? It isn’t wrong to ask our friends for advice, and it isn’t wrong to seek the advice of people who might be experts. God should be the One to whom we turn first, but it isn’t wrong to also seek advice from these people. The question is what do you do when the advice of the so-called experts, your friends, family, or society goes against the instructions that God gives us? Do you follow the Lord’s instructions or do you trust the advice of other humans? Do you trust the Creator or the creations?
Before you answer too quickly, let me give you some examples of ways in which we have a tendency to ignore God’s advice in favor of human wisdom.
- God tells us to forgive those who have hurt us; the world says that if we forgive people, they will hurt us again. Our friends may tell us we are justified in holding on to our anger. So we stay bitter.
- God tells us that He designed sexual intimacy to be reserved for a husband and a wife. The world says that’s an impossible standard, and that it’s unhealthy to neglect our “need” for sexual intimacy. We see others who seem to be enjoying this sexually immoral lifestyle with no consequences. So we feel justified in our immorality.
- God tells us that we should give a portion of our income back to Him through our local church as a way of reminding us that everything we have is His. The world tells us that we have worked hard to earn “our” money, and that giving it away is foolish. The world bombards us with the message that we need more. So we choose “stuff”.
- God tells us that we should not gossip about other people, but the world tells us that we need to share what we have heard about others, because it’s important that everyone knows these things. We feel important when we are “in the know.” So we perk up at gossip.
- God tells us that the best way to love someone is to tell them about Jesus; the world says that it’s mean and unkind to tell people that they need to repent (even if it’s true!) So we keep quiet.
We are surrounded by all sorts of human advice that contradicts the instructions God has given us in Scripture. When we choose to ignore God’s instructions in favor of following human wisdom, we are demonstrating that our confidence is not in God, but in people.
Lastly, look at your view of yourself. Do you find that you compare yourself to other people? Do you look at some people and think to about how you are better than them? We would never admit to these tendencies out loud, but the truth is, most of us do this. Are there some people who you would not choose to sit by at a ball game, or in a restaurant, or at the lunch table—or even at church? Why don’t you want to sit with these people? Isn’t it because we think we’re better than they are?
When we see this kind of attitude in ourselves, it is an indication that we are trusting our judgment of people (both ourselves and others) instead of God’s. God says that each person has value and deserves to be respected and loved. God also says that every one of us is a sinner, but that He has made it possible for us to be forgiven anyway. God says that any righteousness we have comes from Him, and not from us. When we view ourselves more highly than we should, or have a lower view of others than we should, we are putting our confidence in our human judgment rather than God’s perfect judgment.
What to Do Instead
The Psalmist says that we shouldn’t put our confidence in human beings or human devices (even ourselves), but should trust in God. In verse 5, he contrasts what happens to people who trust in the Lord rather than men.
But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God. (v. 5)
The psalmist says that those whose hope is in God (and God alone) are joyful or blessed. We should stop and ask, what does it mean that those who trust in God alone are blessed or joyful? Does it mean that their lives are easier than those who aren’t? Does it mean that God will grant them great wealth and keep them from getting sick or experiencing hardship? I don’t think that’s what the Psalmist (or the rest of the Bible) is saying at all. Just as true worship is more about the internal than the external, true joy is more about our internal attitude than our external circumstances. The Psalmist is contrasting those whose hope is in men with those whose hope is in God. When things begin to go bad, the one who trusts in God can remain confident, even joyful, while the one who trusts in men must despair.
When our confidence is in men, difficult circumstances are a sign of failure, a sign that the one in whom we had confidence is unable to do what we thought they would. At that point, we have nowhere else to turn—all we can do is start looking for someone else to follow. But if our confidence is in the Lord, then when trouble comes we do not need to despair, because we know that God is still in control. We may not understand why things are happening as they are, we may not understand why God isn’t stopping it, but we do understand that God is still in control, and that He really does know best.
In the remainder of the psalm, the writer emphasizes this point. He looks at the nature of the Lord and the ways He provides for us. These things give us confidence that we can trust in Him.
He made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. He keeps every promise forever. He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. The LORD frees the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are weighed down. The LORD loves the godly. The LORD protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. The LORD will reign forever. He will be your God, O Jerusalem, throughout the generations. Praise the LORD! (vv. 6-10)
The point the writer is trying to make is that we can place our confidence in God because He has proven himself to be faithful time and time again. In the times when we are tempted to trust in the things of the world, we should take the time to look back at God’s track record in our own lives and in the lives of others. Look back at the ways that God has proved Himself faithful. Look at the ways He has kept his promises. Look back at the times in your past when you realized that God’s way was better than your way.
True praise is about more than just singing songs, it is about rejoicing in His goodness, being grateful for His consistency, and trusting in (and following) His guidance. True praise springs from our love of the Lord. Such an attitude only comes when we understand the character of God enough to know that He is worthy of being trusted and praised. When we remember the nature of the Lord, we cannot help but praise Him.
I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now. You may have come to worship this morning out of obligation. Maybe you don’t really feel like praising God. I hope you see that praising God is really the only appropriate response for believers. Christians, by definition, are people who recognize they deserve condemnation and cannot change that fact on their own. Christians recognize that our only hope is to ask God to do what we cannot. If you are a believer, then you understand what God has given you in Jesus Christ. He has met the greatest need you could have—the need for forgiveness. If we understand what we have been given, then it is impossible not to praise the Lord. If we find it difficult to praise Him, it’s because we have forgotten who He is.
True believers recognize that our only hope is the Lord of all Creation. He alone can sustain us and save us. Our circumstances might change, but God does not. Our feelings might change, but God’s love for us does not. In every case, we see that God is the only One on whom we can rely. When we really understand this truth, it should change us. It should lift our eyes from our circumstances to our provider and deliverer. It should make us confident in life, even when we don’t understand why things are happening the way they are. Rather than panicking, we can rejoice in His perfect sufficiency. When we understand who God is and what He has done and is doing, praising Him with all our soul won’t be something we have to think a great deal about doing—it will just come naturally.