The Psalms and Mission part 3: The Psalms, Praise, and Mission
Posted on: 1st February 2022
CMS missionary Nathan Lovell serves, with Diane, as a Bible lecturer at George Whitefield College in Capetown, South Africa. In this third in his series on the Psalms and mission, he encourages us to think of praising God as the essence of mission.
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
– Psalm 33:1
In this series of reflections on the Psalms and Christian mission, we have been bringing some common questions about mission to the Psalter. First, we thought about God’s kingship and the authorisation of mission. Then we looked at creation, idolatry, and God’s purpose to redeem created culture. In this reflection, I’d like to think through the relationship between mission and praise.
John Piper has famously quipped that “missions exist because worship doesn’t“. There is truth to this—God created us, as the catechism says, to “glorify him and enjoy him forever.” The Psalms use the language of suitability: it is ‘fitting’ or ‘seemly’ for us to praise God:
Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!
Although he’s correct, I don’t think John Piper goes far enough. It is not enough to say mission exists because praise doesn’t. In fact, praise is, by definition, missional. So actually, mission happens everywhere praise does.
Words of praise
There are a few different words for praise in Hebrew. You probably already know the most famous of them. The word ‘Hallelujah’ is the compound of two Hebrew words, hellelu and Yah. Hellelu is a command to ‘praise!’, and Yah is short for Yahweh. So ‘Hallelujah’ translates to ‘Praise the Lord!’ But as well, it’s a word that sounds like what it describes—think words like ‘bang’, ‘ring’, ‘thud’, ‘woof’ (onomatopoeias). They are words that sound like the noise they point to. In Hebrew, halal means to make a ‘la-la-la’ noise. From this same word we get tehillah: a praise song.
There are similar examples. The Hebrew word ranan is often translated ‘sing praise’ or ‘shout praise’. It means to make a ‘ra-na-na-na’ noise—it may be like the ululating trill you hear in some African cultures. And zamar means to sing a praise song, because the noun form, zimrah, is singing.
The thing that these words have in common, and others like them, is they make a scene. You can do them in private if you like. But if you’re going to make loud noises, clap your hands (Psalm 47:1), or lift them up (Psalm 63:4), bow down or kneel (Psalm 95:6), dance (Psalm 87:7), or shout (Psalm 66:1), then ideally you want to make a spectacle. Praise isn’t the sort of activity designed to be done in your bedroom with the door shut. Every culture in the world knows this better than we westerners who stand stodgily in church and sing without even making the slightest impact on the person next to us, let alone those down the street. It’s supposed to be a fuss!
Praise is public
Praise is not only public but confessional. After all, when I want to praise a student in one of my classes at George Whitfield College, I can’t just say ‘Praise Dudu’. I have to say something about her to do it. “Dudu is a wonderful student! Look how hard she studies. I expect great things in the future!” That would be praise. In the same way, if I want to praise God, I shouldn’t just say ‘Hallelujah! Praise God!’ I should say something about the type of God he is, or what he has done:
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty—
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
One of the most common words for praise in the Psalter is todah, which is often translated as ‘give thanks’ and sometimes just as ‘praise’. If you wander round Jerusalem today, you’ll hear people say todah (thanks). But it’s never used this way in the Bible. In the Psalms, todah appears to be a particular type of praise that we might call testimony. It’s when the Psalmist wants to make noise, sing and clap not only about who God is and what he has done in general, but what he has done specifically for the psalmist:
I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.
Sing the praises (zamar) of the Lord,
you his faithful people;
praise (todah) his holy name.
Although I’m sure that the psalmist was indeed thankful, these Psalms are not simply a statement about how they might feel towards God. Rather, the Psalmist is saying that they are going to tell of those things to people, and are in fact doing that as they sing:
Like your name, O God, your praise reaches to the ends of the earth.
– Psalm 48:10
Praise is public. It tells people about who God is and what he has done. And because of that, it is itself missional. The apostle Paul tells us that faith comes from hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17), and that by receiving it with faith we come to be incorporated into Christ (Ephesians 1:3):
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
– 1 Thessalonians 2:13
Since praise is proclamation with joy, it is the very power of the gospel to save and transform. The book of Psalms, of course, doesn’t talk like that. But it works like that. Because when we hear these words—these declarations of God and his goodness, these cries of terror or anguish (that we haven’t looked at in this series), these exaltations of joy and relief—if we were to take them with faith, and make them our own words, then they would shape us. Our spiritual lives, the very words we used to describe ourselves and our world to God, would take on a shape familiar to the Psalmist. It would transform us spiritually into someone that looked like the Davidic king who first wrote many of them. Or like the greater son of David, who used them so often to describe his own life.
One of the most remarkable things about the Psalms is the stubborn insistence of the New Testament authors that these words somehow suit Jesus even though they were written centuries before him and (with very few exceptions) are not predictive prophecy. Even so, the Psalms are more frequently quoted by the New Testament authors than any other book. Around 60 times, by my count, the New Testament uses them to describe something that happened to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus spoke the Psalms from the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark. 15:24, Luke 23:46; see Psalms 22:1, 22:18, 31:5).
This works from a biblical-theological perspective because the Psalms are divine words, given to God’s people, to say back to him:
My tongue will sing your word,
for all your commands are righteous.
– Psalm 119:172
So, when Jesus arrives as the fulfilment of what God’s people ought to have been, and as David’s greater descendant, the words suit his life even more richly than perhaps they did in their original context. Then, he invites us to sing along with him, as we also are transformed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:8):
Glorify the Lord with me;
let us exalt his name together.
– Psalm 34:3
As gospel-shaped words, they become, when proclaimed, the very power of God to save. When received with faith and used, they become transformative. They renew individuals and communities into gospel-shaped people. And we will pick up this thought in the next reflection.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
– Psalm 51:15
In recent years CMS has been developing a series of ‘mission thinking resources’ that take a deeper look into how mission thinking emerges from Scripture; how this informs missionary practise and assumptions in different locations. You can read consistently high quality articles from such contributors as David Williams on the Homogeneous Unit Principle, Greg Anderson on Humility in Mission with a focus on mission in North Australia, Simon Gillham on God’s Unchanging Plans for Mission, and further contributions from David Williams on Pleasure, Pain and the Secular Worldview and Identity and Mission.
The heart of mission is praise. Thank God for his character of love and his action in giving his Son. Pray that CMS missionaries, those they work alongside, and all who desire to glorify God will live and speak in praise of God.