Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The third of our ‘Hallelujah’ psalms begins with a call to praise the name of YHWH. One of the features of the previous psalms is that they are acrostics, each new line beginning with a different consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The Psalms have focused on YHWH’s character and how that is to be reflected by those who are made in his image and who belong to his people.
God is to be praised for all time (v. 2) and in all places (vv. 3–4). There is an echo of the Old Testament vision of the nations’ worship of YHWH (Malachi 1:11) and of Jesus’ Great Commission to bring good news to all the people of Earth (Matthew 28:18–20). Why is YHWH to be praised? God is to be praised because he is high and mighty. Verse 4 challenges worship of any other god. YHWH is exalted over all the nations with the implication that all competing deities were inferior or imaginary. The gods of modern western society are possibly harder to spot than those that the psalmist had in mind but that doesn’t mean they are any less real.
Frequently the gods of those other nations were praised for being high and lifted up, the same was true of the ancient gods of the Greeks seated on Mount Olympus. The God revealed in Jesus is ‘almighty’ but such a term needs to be handled with care. In the context of Nazi Germany Karl Barth wrote, ‘There is much that is called might and would like to be called almightiness, which has got nothing to do at all with the almightiness of God.’ Although God is superior to all other powers Barth makes the point that our understanding of that must be defined by God’s self-revelation in his one and only Son, ‘the man [sic] who calls the ‘Almighty’ God misses God in the most terrible way.’
The God of the Bible is not a God of sheer naked omnipotence, a deity so great that he can have nothing to do with Earth (v. 6). Jesus says he is the heavenly Father who sees the sparrow hop on the ground, who knows each hair on our head and knows what we need (Matthew 6:8, Matthew 10:29–31, Luke 12:31). In the Old Testament, God stoops low to create living human beings out of dust (Genesis 2:7) and he stoops low to see the suffering of his enslaved people and to set them free (Exodus 3:7). In the New Testament God stoops so low that he becomes one of us. Viewed from the other side of ‘the Word become flesh’, the incarnation is not a shocking contradiction of divinity but its supreme revelation. Only the truly great can humble themselves. And God stoops down to be with and to raise up those who are crushed by life. We see the fullest expression in the crucifixion when Jesus humbled himself even to death upon the cross, though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich (Philippians 2:6–11, 2 Corinthians 8:9).
The final verse is reminiscent of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2. The verse is particularly poignant for those who wish to have children but are unable to do so and it is naturally an encouragement to believe and hope that God can deliver the gift of a child just as he did to Hannah and as he did to Sarai before her (Genesis 21:1–7). Miracles, though, by their very nature are rare and prayers don’t always get answered as we would like.
Many couples struggle with infertility and the inability to have a child is a type of bereavement, a loss not from the past but the loss of a hoped-for future. Without minimising that pain and as difficult as it might seem, for an infertile woman in ancient times that loss was even worse, as pretty much her sole purpose in life was to have children and to nurture them. There are other types of barrenness in our lives, times when we feel that we have no purpose and when we feel like a failure. At such times we can question the value of our lives, and sometimes those feelings can be aggravated by the expectations of those around us. When we feel like that, this psalm ensures us that God knows all about our grief, that we are of great worth to him and that our lives can still make a difference to those around us (v. 9).