The scene remains vivid in my memory, though it is nearly 20 years ago now.
I am sitting in my bedroom at the side of our big old farmhouse, a teenager, listless at that time of the evening when anything is better than homework. It is a warm summer night and the cicadas are belting out their chorus like an army of protesters with whistles. Into my little Sanyo cassette player I insert a tape borrowed from a friend. The latest Christian singer-songwriter—well, ‘latest’ as far as Lismore was concerned anyway— Keith Green.
One song I replay several times. The chorus strikes a deep chord: “When I hear the praises start, I see no stain upon you, because you are my child and you know me. To me you’re only holy, nothing that you’ve done remains only what you do for me.”
I listen intently. “When I hear the praises start, I see no stain upon you”. I ponder how I might praise God in this way so that he would look on me so favourably. That fact that this salvation-by-praise is a little dodgy theologically doesn’t enter my head. All I’m interested in is how to make a start. Maybe I should go to the ‘prayer and praise’ night on Wednesdays at church and see how it’s done …
Thus began for one somewhat confused teenage Christian a preoccupation with ‘praise’ as a key aspect of the Christian life. Like most teenage preoccupations, it lasted a few intense months before something else took its place. While it lasted, I dutifully went to the prayer and praise night, where I discovered that the ‘praise’ part consisted of singing devotional choruses, usually with eyes closed and arms aloft. I read Merlin Carruthers’s books Prison to Praise and The Power of Praise, which encouraged me to repeatedly say ‘Hallelujah’ at my life’s problems in order to make them go away. I tried this on my little brother with limited success.
The thing which I never quite grasped as a fervent teenager praiser was exactly what praise was. For a long time I assumed that you praised the Lord by saying ‘Hallelujah’, until someone informed me that ‘Hallelujah’ was just the Hebrew word for ‘Praise the Lord’. This didn’t help me very much, because it meant that we were all telling each other to ‘Praise the Lord’ all the time (since we obviously weren’t asking God to ‘Praise the Lord’), but we weren’t actually getting on with the ‘praising’—whatever it was.
I then began to think that perhaps ‘praise’ was just another way of saying ‘sing’, since that’s we always did when the minister or leader invited us to ‘praise God’. Perhaps that’s what praise was—it was singing God a song. I still wasn’t too sure about this.
Although everyone seemed to agree that praise was a vital part of the Christian life, and that it had something to do with prayer, and that it probably should be sung, no-one ever actually told me how to do it. My experience in the intervening 20 years has done nothing to allay my confusion.
And so to the purpose of this article. What is ‘praise’ exactly? And how does one do it?
In answering these questions, we will look mainly at that book in which more than half of all the biblical references to ‘praise’ occur—the Psalms. (In our next issue, we will continue this look at the Psalms to see how praise relates to prayer, and at how the psalms can help us in our prayers.)
The importance of advertising
The Hebrew title for the Psalms (‘tehillim’) means simply ‘praises’, and certainly we cannot read many psalms without coming across the familiar call to praise (‘Praise the LORD’) or some other expression of praise (‘I will praise you, O LORD’).
In their original context, the Psalms were probably something like Israel’s hymnbook. Many, if not all, of them were accompanied by music, and it seems likely that the temple was the usual place where they were sung.
But if it is clear that music was often involved in Israel’s praise, it is just as clear that it was the accompaniment to praise, not the praise itself. Singing was often the mode of expression, and musical instruments were the accompaniment (‘I will praise you with the lyre and harp’), but what was it that was being expressed and accompanied? When the call rang out to ‘Praise the LORD’, what did Israelite in the congregation expect to happen next? What was the ‘praise’?
What is praise?
For many modern Christians, ‘praise’ is a personal encounter with God, usually strongly emotional in its tone, in which we speak or sing to him and tell him how much we love him, and honour him. “We praise you Lord. We honour you, we glorify you, we exalt your great and glorious name; praise you Jesus” and so on. Praise is usually seen as a special religious practice, normally to be conducted in church meetings.
Thanks largely to the charismatic movement, this is where ‘praise’ is often located in the modern Christian consciousness. It is usually uttered in the same breath as ‘worship’—as in the ubiquitous ‘praise and worship’ albums that litter Christian bookstores and car cassette cases. It is an experience of communion with God, where God’s presence is especially encountered.
However, as is so often the case with biblical words and ideas, the Hebrew word translated ‘praise’ describes a much more ordinary and mundane activity. Suppose we see a friend doing something excellent, or notice a fine quality or attribute in his character. ‘Praise’ happens when, having observed this excellence, we tell others about it. We might stand our friend up in front of his peers and tell them all, right in front of him, just what he has done, and how excellent it is. We praise him. We describe how noble is his character or how extraordinary his achievements.
Praise is this proclamation of how good someone is. It is advertising. In the Psalms, it is advertising about God. It consists of telling forth as loudly and widely as possible, the excellences of the God of Israel, that everyone might honour him.
Thus, when there is an exhortation to praise God in the Psalms, it is invariably followed by the praise itself—the declaration of his mighty character and deeds for the individual or the nation. Psalm 96 is a classic example:
Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples. For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96:1-6).
This public proclamation of God’s greatness in the Psalms covers the full range of God’s character and achievements. He is acclaimed for being the all-powerful Creator and sustainer of all things (Ps 74; 104), the Judge of the Earth (Ps 33:6-9,13-15; 11), who rules with righteousness (Ps 9:8) and acts with an unfailing steadfast love (Ps 136). The Psalms ring with the wonder that this mighty, righteous, good God has entered into covenant with Israel, that he has stooped from his heights to love them in their depths. He is Israel’s Redeemer, both corporately (Ps 105; 136; 89) and individually (Ps 22; 30; 32).
Praise, then, is essentially advertising, as odious as that comparison might seem. In fact, to tease the comparison out further, it is like advertising in three ways.
Praise and music
Like advertising, praise can be accompanied by music, although music is not the essence of it. Music is to praise as the jingle is to advertising. It can make it effective, memorable, even grand, but unless the product is actually described and promoted, the music is of little use.
In the case of praising God, it is of course most appropriate to make a noise about it—as in Psalm 150 where a veritable orchestra is assembled to accompany the praise. It is appropriate not only because of the joy and celebration that naturally well up in God’s people as they recall all God’s mercies, but also because it makes the advertising more effective. The music is not for God’s benefit, as if he likes a nice tune, or like Baal needs waking up by loud noise. It is more for those who hear, so that in the context of the temple gathering the proclamation of God’s greatness can have a grand effect.
Perhaps a modern psalmist would write: “Praise our God with a powerful PA system, and with the loudspeaker turned up to 11.”
Like advertising, praise can take different forms. Very often in the Psalms, it is in the third person—that is, it is spoken or sung about God, being addressed to those listening rather than to God himself. This takes place in God’s presence, undoubtedly, but it is addressed to those who are listening:
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised. The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the LORD. (Ps 113:3-9).
Sometimes it is in the form of a personal testimony:
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Ps 40:1-3).
And sometimes it is addressed directly to God himself:
I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. I will bow down towards your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stout-hearted. May all the kings of the earth praise you, O LORD, when they hear the words of your mouth. (Ps 138:1-4)
However, even when praise is addressed to God, it has the character of proclamation. The psalmist speaks or sings to God about all the things God is and has done, but he is doing so in front of others. God is ‘praised’ when others hear of the marvellous things he has done. Which brings us to the third respect in which praise is like advertising.
Praise is public
Just as one can’t conduct an advertising campaign in private, so one can’t ‘praise’ in private. The basic nature of praise is the public proclamation, acknowledgment and acclamation of God. Notice how the psalmist expresses this in Psalm 40:
I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, as you know, O LORD. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly. (Ps 40:9-10).
It is as if the act of rescue or deliverance is not for the psalmist alone. It is given to him that he might proclaim it to the whole community. To conceal it, to keep it to himself, is unthinkable. He must testify in the great assembly (cf. Ps 35:18).
This, of course, is not to say that in our private prayers we do not give thanks to God for who he is and what he has done. We express our adoration for his glorious character and works. Yet, if we are going to use biblical words we should use them in a biblical way. This personal, private thanksgiving is not ‘praise’ in the biblical sense. Praise always has the character of public proclamation.
Advertising and us
In the NT, praise has the same basic shape as in the OT. As Hebrews 13:15 puts it:
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Or as Peter expresses it:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet 2:9-10)
Praise is a confession, a testimony, a declaration of what God has done. Of course, for us, upon whom the end of the ages has come, praise is no longer focused on the physical temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Through Jesus, we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, and so praise takes place not in the cultic context of a temple gathering, but whenever and wherever we ‘confess his name’. When we declare his greatness to others, telling of how he has shown us mercy and called us to be his own people, then we are praising God.
In the New Testament, then, praise is somewhat similar to evangelism. It is the advertisement of God’s mighty saving deeds. Because of what God has done for us, we testify. It is not something that we only do in church, any more than we only proclaim the gospel when we gather together. It is not something that is only ever set to music.
This democratisation or expansion of praise in the NT mirrors the way so many OT categories are transformed in Christ—‘temple’, ‘worship’, ‘priest’, ‘sacrifice’, and so on. In fact, many of the errors and problems we face in church life stem from a failure to recognize this transformation.
In the case of praise, many churches fail to free themselves from an OT/temple way of thinking about how praise should happen. Praise is seen as a cultic, religious activity or experience, set to music, to be conducted in church. Just as God was seen to be specially present in the OT temple, so his special presence is manifest when songs of praise are sung, and a particular atmosphere is created.
But in Christ, the Father comes and makes his home within each of us through his Spirit. He is constantly present. Our spiritual worship is the sacrifice of our whole lives to him (Rom 12:1-2), and our praise, similarly, is the lifelong and lifewide confession before the world of what he has done for us.
It must also be said that many churches today fail to recognize the basic nature of praise, in the Psalms and in the NT. Praise is not making beautiful music for God. It is not a personal, mystical encounter with God. Nor do we praise God by saying, ‘We praise you God, thank you Jesus, Hallelujah’.
Praise is advertising. It is remembering and declaring who God is and what he has done. It takes place in his hearing, but it is done by telling others. It is boasting about God, speaking well of him, broadcasting his virtues and excellences. It springs from salvation, from what he has done for us. Praise is the testimony of the redeemed.
And in this sense, I suppose, Keith Green had it the wrong way round. He should have sung: “Because there is no stain on you, I want to hear the praises start” .