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April 7, 2013
Psalm 118:14–29 - Psalm 150 (Alternate)

This psalm is very popular in Year C around Easter time. It was also set for Palm Sunday and for Easter Day, as it is each year in the three year lectionary cycle.  It is an appropriate psalm of thanksgiving and celebration for the second week of the Easter season. The comments and suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship posted for Palm Sunday and Easter Day are appropriate also for this Sunday. Please see them.

Alternative Psalm: Psalm 150

Psalm 150 is seen as an alternative psalm for Easter 2. As a hymn of praise it picks up the general sense of praise in Easter. However, by its peculiar nature even as one of the hymns of praise it adds more than just an ‘ordinary’ psalm of praise might do. In its canonical place it stands at the end of the Book of Psalms. It also brings to conclusion the collection of hymns of praise found at the end of the book, namely Psalms 146 to 150. In the arrangement of the Book of Psalms, Psalm 150 carries an eschatological note. If we look upon the Book of Psalms as a journey through a life of faith with both elements of lament and praise intermingled, as one could argue, Psalms 146-150 represent the end of such a life: being lost in the praise of God that comes from creation itself and all its components. Psalm 150 is the great conclusion to even that praise. So as we sing the psalm in the context of the Easter season we are anticipating the purpose and end of all life, being lost in the praise of God.

Psalm 150 could be described as a hymn of descriptive praise. After an initial call to praise the Lord, v. 1 calls for the Lord to be praised in the sanctuary and in the mighty firmament, or sky or heavens. The sense is to call on all who worship the Lord in the earthly sanctuary and in the heavenly realms to praise the Lord. This reminds us of that part in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in the communion service where the minister says something like:

And so we praise you
with the faithful of every time and place,
joining with choirs of angels and the whole creation
in the eternal hymn ...
to which the congregation responds with the words of praise: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might," etc.

Verse 2 continues to call for the Lord to be praised but incorporates the reasons for that praise. Both the mighty deeds of the Lord and the Lord’s own greatness are cited. The deeds are not specified but given the position of the psalm one could presume that literally all the deeds of the Lord are indicated.

Verses 3 to 5 then give a brief catalogue of the ways worshippers praise the Lord. Apart from reference to dancing in v. 4, we have a list of musical instruments. These could have been the ones used in worship in ancient Israel. The list (NRSV) consists of trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, stringed instruments, pipe and cymbals. We read of most of these instruments elsewhere in the Old Testament, and have an idea of how some of them looked from archaeological finds, but the exact nature of some   remains unclear and the question of how they were played and sounded remains a puzzle.

These verses call the people to praise the Lord in ways that do not involve words. Our own praise is often expressed in music but that too usually involves words. What the psalm promotes is that the praise of the Lord can be effected by the playing of music and by dance. It suggests ways of praising God without words. This is praise that arises from our feelings and emotions as well as from our mind.

Throughout this section, even in vv. 1 and 2 and the beginning of verse 6, a rhythm is set up in the psalm. Each half line begins with Hebrew word halleluhu, ‘praise him’. A chant is created with only the last part of each half line differing. The chant may have been intended to go with the playing of the instruments mentioned in the psalm.

The Psalm concludes with two half lines which break the pattern. They do not begin with the familiar halleluhu. They do, however, conclude with a version of the divine name, Yah. In v. 6 there is the desire that everything that breathes might praise the Lord. Not only are the worshippers in the sanctuary and in the heavens called to praise but the psalmist imagines all creatures giving praise to the Lord. Their very life, and the living of it, is that which praises the Lord.

Psalm 150 is an extreme example of praise although it invites us to explore new opportunities for the praise of God. However, there is a danger in the use of this psalm. It is the psalm most open to abuse. It is pure summons to praise with little reason, and then only generally expressed. Because there is no real description of who the Lord is who is praised, there is the danger that in using this psalm praise can be offered without thought to how the Lord relates to the world in which worshipper lives. This psalm could be used in any context from those where the Lord is preached as a tyrannical God to those where justice and the care of God for the poor is paramount. Certainly, we should not sing this total summons to praise too quickly, but our reason for praise is not just supplied by the words of the psalm. It can be hidden in the unstated experiences of the people. Words alone do not create worlds.

While we need to be careful of the context in which we use Psalm 150, I believe we should still use it. Its shear exuberance with invitation to praise God in ways that move beyond the limitations of our thoughts and words is what should capture our attention. As one writer (Leslie Allen) comments on the psalm: ‘If all who hear and all who read (Psalm 150) are drawn to fill their hearts with a conviction of God’s praiseworthiness and to answer these strenuous calls to worship with equally fervent praise, this psalm will have accomplished its noble aim.’

Suggestions for the use of Psalm 150 in worship:

As a hymn of praise, the psalm could in its entirety be used as a prayer of adoration near the start of the service. Alternatively some of its verses (e.g. vv. 1-2, 6) could be used in a responsorial manner as the call to worship.

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