Psalm 148 – A Psalm of Joy
This is one of the songs we’ve been singing at Mainly Music. It’s a great song and lots of fun. Normally we’re sitting in a circle with a piece of lycra and the kids take turns crawling around underneath. But this song is also evil! Over the last week, at all sorts of times I’ve found myself humming or singing it! I just can’t get it out of my head. And it’s not just me. Sarah’s been doing it too and so we keep reinfecting each other with it!
Songs have a way of getting stuck in our heads like this don’t they? There’s even a term for it, which is pretty apt for this Mainly Music song. A song that gets stuck in your head is called an ‘earworm’. Sometimes songs just get stuck in our heads for a week, but they can also burrow deep down and take root in our brains. Those who’ve helped at any of the nursing home services will be able to tell you of people who rarely speak, who don’t engage much with the world. But when we start singing, they come alive again. We connect with songs in a deep way.
Today is All Saints Day and yesterday was All Hallows Eve. Yesterday was also Reformation day, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Thesis to the Castle Church Door in Wittenberg. But Luther knew that theological treatises and lectures weren’t enough to get the message of the Reformation out. So being a decent musician himself, Luther also wrote hymns. He actually did something clever, using the tunes of the best pub songs of his day but rewriting their words to carry the message of the Reformation to the masses. He did this because he knew songs have a way of slipping past our conscious minds and having a deep impact. A song can connect, teach and even transform us more than any letter or lecture, even more than even a sermon!
In a way that’s exactly what the Psalms do. They take timeless truths and deep theology and express them in poetic form, as songs of worship. You could write a treatise on the difference between the righteous and the wicked, but Psalm 1’s illustration of the righteous as fruitful trees and the wicked as tumbleweeds works far better! Again, you could write a book about God’s care and provision for his people, even in the most dire of circumstances, but would that resonate as deeply as the words of Psalm 23?
But the Psalms also connect with us because they’re deeply human. They’re full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. You can find just about every human emotion, every experience, every longing in the Psalms. There are Songs for every Season of the Soul. There are Psalms of Joy, of Yearning, of Lament and Hope, and about everything in-between.
The Psalms express the emotions we feel and they give us the words to express ourselves when we don’t know how. When we’re feeling joy we have words to express our joy, when we feel trapped, or abandoned, or betrayed, the Psalms give us a guide as to how to pour we can pour our thoughts out to God. The Psalms pull no punches. At times they challenge God. At times they challenge the world around us. But at all times they challenge us. If we read the Psalms, if we pray through them, if we sing them we cannot help but be transformed.
When Cranmer was crafting the Prayer Book and the Lectionary to go with it he specified that the Psalms should be read through in their entirety every month! He wasn’t just trying to bulk out the service. Cranmer knew that the more we read the Psalms, the more we would be transformed. And the more we read the Psalms, the more we’d have the words to speak to God when circumstances overtook us. Unfortunately we can’t look at all the Psalms this month, unless you’d like to come and hear five sermons a day! Instead, over the next four weeks we’ll be looking at Psalms of Joy, of Yearning, of Lament and Hope.
We’re beginning in Summer, looking at a Psalm of Joy, Psalm 148. It would be great if you could open up your reading sheet as we look at it a bit more closely now.
Though I have to be honest with you. It’s been a long and tiring week. We’ve had some pretty average sleep at home. At church, I’ve been tied up on some big burdensome issues like the budget, or meetings about Work Safe. I’ve been working through some pastoral issues, constantly striving to be Christlike in my responses. I’ve missed my day off two weeks in a row. All in all, I haven’t felt particularly joyous. In fact I did changing the sermon series to start with a Psalm of yearning or lament!
Now, I’m not telling you all this to garner sympathy. And I should say there have been some great times over this week, like sharing communion with some of our brothers and sisters at BUPA who can’t make it to church. I had fun at Mainly Music and even our Warden’s meeting on Friday was fantastic. In fact, I should say that if you’ve spent any time with me this week, that it’s not you, it’s me. For most of the week I’ve felt under a cloud, hard to feel particularly joyous.
Until I sat down with Psalm 148. Like each of the last five Psalms it begins and ends with the words, ‘Praise the Lord!’ I challenge you to read this Psalm and not get to the end wanting to join in with the final shout, ‘Praise the Lord!’
Psalm 148 begins, ‘Praise the Lord’ but it doesn’t jump to telling us how we should praise God, or why we should praise him the way some of the other Psalms do. Instead it focuses on where that praise should come from.
The call to worship doesn’t start with us, but with the heavens and heights. All the angelic and celestial bodies that inhabit the heavens are to make a joyful noise as they praise the Lord. The sun, moon and stars are to join with the angels and all the host of heaven in worship. By beginning with the heavens, the Psalm lifts us up above our present circumstances. The heavens themselves are crying out in praise to God. Life isn’t just about me, or what I’m feeling or what I’m going through. We are surrounded by a vast universe the length and depth and breadth of which is shouting glory to God.
It’s only when we get to the end of verse 5 that we find out why. It’s because God made them, he commanded and they were created. These words should transport us back to the very start of the Bible, back to the book of Genesis. God spoke, he commanded, and the world came into being. That connection is made all the stronger if we notice the order in which the world is called to praise God. It loosely parallels the order in which God made the world. It even mentions the waters gathered above the heavens, as in Genesis 1:7. The second half of the Psalm follows this pattern in the way it describes the living things, the sea creatures, wild animals, the cattle, the creeping things and flying birds, and last of all people. God has created all these things and they are to join in joyfully praising him!
All the heavens and the earth and all that’s within them owe God this praise because it is only through him that they exist. And it’s only by God’s decree that we continue to exist. He fixed their bounds and they cannot be passed. No force can end the world, except God. No power is sufficient to destroy the world, except God’s. That too is a reason to joyfully praise him.
From the heights of the heavens, the Psalm moves closer to home in verse 7. All things on earth, and under the sea, should join in the praise of God Almighty. Even those forces we might think as the most powerful on earth, the fire and hail, snow and frost, the stormy winds and all the seasons are called to acknowledge their place and to praise God. The mountains and hills, which would’ve dominated the author’s landscape are to bow in worship. The fields of wheat and the trees laden with fruit are to wave in praise to God. All the creatures God has made, which walk the earth, or swim in the sea, or fill the air are to make a joyful noise, or bleat, or sound to God.
Eventually, in verse 11, the Psalm turns to humanity. All the kings and rulers, all the people of the earth, male and female, rich and poor, old and young should joyfully praise God together. God deserves universal praise, not just praise from all the universe, but universal praise from all the people of the earth. There is one action that should unite us all and that is the praise of God, whose name alone is exalted, who’s glory is above the earth and the heaven.
But then in the last verse the Psalm springs another reason for why we should praise God. In verse 15 we’re told we should praise the Lord for he has lifted up a horn for his people. In the context of praising God and making a joyful noise to the Lord you might imagine a ram’s horn, a trumpet of sorts, being lifted up to lead God’s people in their praise. But that’s not what this picture intends. A horn is a symbol of strength. It makes sense when you think of a bull charging, or deer fighting. All of their force is concentrated in their horns. As creation looks at what God does for his people, it finds here another reason to praise him. The ancient Israelites who first read and sang this Psalm would’ve been reminded of God’s promises to give them strength, to protect them and to make them great among all the nations of the earth. But as Christians singing this Psalm we have an elevated perspective and understanding. The horn that God has lifted up is in fact Christ, who was lifted up on the Cross.
Which leads us to the second, and even more unexpected, twist in the next line. God is not only to be praised because he has lifted up this horn, but he is to be praised for his people, for his faithful ones who are close to him. It’s kind of embarrassing in a way. Most of the Psalm has been a call for creation to join in praising God. Now we find out that we’re actually one of the reasons they should praise him! In his first letter Peter writes about the joy we should rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy because of the salvation we have received from God. He then says that even the angels long to look in and see this salvation at work among us. Not only do they look on in wonder, Psalm 148 tells us that the heavens, sun, moon, stars, angels, earth, and creatures all praise God because of the church. Not because we’re such a great group of people, but because of what God has done in us, and for us and through us. He has forgiven us in Christ Jesus, he has restored us, and through us he promises to restore the world.
If you cast your minds back a few weeks to our sermon on Christ’s Church reaches out, you might remember William Tyndale’s definition of the gospel as:
‘good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that makes a person’s heart glad and makes them sing, dance and leap with joy!’
What better way to express our joy in God our creator, our sustainer and our redeemer than to lift our voices praising the Lord? Please stand and let’s express our joy in God by saying Psalm 148 together, joyfully!