YEAR A, B, C: CHRISTMAS 1
Psalm 148 is another of the five psalms (Pss 146-150) which together form a concluding doxology to the Book of Psalms. Each begins and ends with the word hallelujah ‘praise the Lord’. Praise is the central concern of these psalms and the very response they seek to evoke. These psalms could be a response to Ps 145:21: ‘My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.’ The five psalms call upon individuals, Israel and Judah, the heavens and earth, faithful people, and ‘everything that has breath’ (Ps 150:6) to praise the Lord. All creation praises. One such psalm is, therefore, appropriate for the feast of Christmas when joy overwhelms God’s people.
Psalm 148 falls into two main parts, vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-13b. In these sections the heavens and the earth, respectively, are called on to give praise, as if we have two choirs responding to each other in antiphonal fashion. The psalm then concludes with vv. 13c-14. You will note that this break down is different to that in some English Bibles. Verses 1-6 call upon the heavens to praise the Lord. Eight times the imperative ‘praise the Lord/him’ is used. The angels, the heavenly host, the sun and moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens are all called to voice their praise. In this psalm we have to suspend our modern view of the universe and hear the voice of the psalmist of old who lived in a world where many heavenly bodies were considered animated, and the heavens were populated by all sorts of divine creatures. Some of those mentioned would even have been seen as rival gods to the Lord in the ancient world. The reason for the heavenly praise is that the Lord created all these things (vv. 5-6). He fixed their bounds, which is another way of saying that nothing in the heavenly realm, no matter how powerful, how awe inspiring, how beautiful, is beyond the control and realm of the Lord.
Verses 7-13b match the call to the heavens with one to the earth. The earthly choir consists of sea monsters, the deeps, fire and hail, stormy wind, mountains, trees, all animals, kings and peoples, young and old. This group, consisting of all sorts of creatures, animate and inanimate, join in the one activity – praising the Lord. The reason given for their praise (v. 13a-b) is that the Lord is exalted.
Verses 13c-14 conclude the psalm. Verse 13c reads in Hebrew; ‘Give thanks above earth and heavens.’ It clearly starts the final section and states what the Lord has done for his people. ‘He has raised up a horn for his people’ speaks of the dignity and strength he has given them (v. 14a). The next phrase in the NRSV could be a little unclear: ‘praise for all his people’. We could also translate it: ‘praise belongs to/is fitting for all his people’. In other words the praise of God is their dignity and strength.
The list of creatures which give praise to the Lord in Psalm 148 draws on Genesis 1 and its account of God’s creation of the heavens and earth. In the psalm the twin themes of the Lord as creator (v. 5) and as exalted one (v. 13) point to the Lord’s sovereignty over all creation. The praise that comes from creation, and particularly from the Lord’s people, stems ultimately from the Lord’s activity in their life. It is the creation’s response to the creator. That should be especially evident in this Christmas season as we celebrate ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, in Jesus.
Moreover, the psalm emphasises that all this praise is part of the one chorus. The praise of the Lord’s people in worship is not isolated from the world outside. Each part of creation makes its contribution to the total praise of the Lord. All creation is summoned in Psalm 148 to return praise to the one who gives it life even as in the Old Testament reading the people’s praise issues to the nations. In the psalm the praise of the vast cosmos finds its counterpart in the quiet, small voice of the faithful servant. The praise of the congregation finds its counterpart in the praise of creatures great and small. Only praise that is offered in both the heavenly and the earthly worlds, the seen and unseen, the animate and inanimate, is appropriate praise for the Lord. It is easy to forget about the praise that is offered the Lord beyond what we experience and hear in our own congregational worship. It is easy to mistake what we can hear for the total of the praise that is offered the Lord. But what we give voice to on Sunday mornings simply echoes what silently fills the spaces of the cosmos around us. In our ‘meagre’ hymns and prayers, we give voice to a reality that exists beyond our limited observations of the world. Christmas praise echoes throughout the cosmos all year round.
But one last question arises. How do the animals give praise to the Lord, let alone such things as stormy winds, hail and mountains. The problem is that we are accustomed to seeing praise in terms of a special offering – a prayer or a song. We relegate praise to a particular time and place, and to congregations of decreasing size. But the praise of the Lord in this psalm is more than what happens at a special time or place. Verse 6 is a clue to what is understood by praise in the psalm. The Lord established the heavenly (and earthly) things forever, and fixed their purpose and place in creation. In other words the stormy wind fulfils its task of praise by being a stormy wind. All creatures praise the Lord by being the creatures the Lord made them. This is true also of the Lord’s people, but they also have a special task. It is they (v. 14) who have been given the task of voicing this praise. One writer remarks: ‘In the praise of the people of the Lord, the name that is the truth about the entire universe is spoken on behalf of the rest of creation.’ (J.L. Mays) It is the name of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
Psalm 148 naturally lends itself to the call to worship and prayers of adoration. A call to worship could consist of the inclusio (the clause at beginning and end of the psalm: ‘Praise the Lord!’), followed by vv. 11-12, with the inclusio repeated at the end.
As a prayer of adoration a slight modification could be made to the psalm itself. The refrain in vv. 5a and 13a (‘Let them praise the name of the Lord’) could be used as a congregational response to the leader. In that way the prayer could echo the responsive nature of the psalm. A suggested adaptation is (with responses in bold italic):
Praise the LORD!Old Testament reading: Isaiah 63:7-9 (Year A) or Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3 (Year B) or 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 (Year C)
Let all creation praise the name of the Lord.
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all heavenly beings!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you planets and shining stars!
Praise him, highest heavens,
and you constellations of the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
all you creatures of the deep, sky and land;
praise him fire and hail, snow and frost!
Praise him mountains and hills,
desert, river and plain,
fruit trees and all eucalypts!
Leaders of the earth and all peoples;
young and old alike, praise him!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a Son for his people,
all who are close to him.
Praise the LORD!
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