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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Praise—Psalm 148

Praise psalms may fail to raise our political antennae, but when we stop to consider what praise entails, we discover that praise makes the most daring political claims of all.

The Psalms have much to say about politics. In Psalm 2 the kings of the earth take their stand against the LORD’s anointed ruler and are brought into full submission. In Psalm 3 the king is on the run from a usurper to the throne, his treacherous son. The Psalms of Ascent reinforce the consolidation of worship (and therefore political power) in Jerusalem.

In other psalms we read of full-scale military clashes, the intrigue of false accusations and political smear campaigns, and the corruption of economic systems. All these easily draw us away from the chimera of an airy-fairy faith to its groundedness in real-world problems and possibilities. The Psalms push us to consider the political implications of biblical faith.

Just when we think we’ve made it past the earthy poetry to a poetic sanctuary that will protect us from the mud-slinging in the trenches, we discover praise. Praise psalms may fail to raise our political antennae, but when we stop to consider what praise entails, we discover that praise makes the most daring political claims of all.

I first discovered the insidious nature of praise psalms with the help of Walter Brueggemann. He claims, “an act of praise is not an innocuous ‘spiritual’ act. It is rather a taking of sides for this God against all other gods.”[1]

He goes on to say, “hymns of praise are acts of devotion with political and polemical overtones … [and] acts of defiance of the world that is in front of us.”[2] Psalms of praise may seem positive, but they imply an emphatic negative: Yahweh is Lord! Marduk is not! These psalms have the audacity to articulate the hegemony of an unseen reality in which the so-called powers of this world are really nothing more than pawns.

As we reflect on the power dynamic in Psalm 148, remember that LORD (spelled with all capital letters) represents the four consonants of God’s personal name in Hebrew: YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh. This is no generic exaltation of whoever happens to sit on the throne. Psalm 148 recognizes the only truly exalted one: Yahweh.

Praise the LORD!

…and not Marduk or Baal or Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh!

Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

Unlike other gods, Yahweh is not limited to one territory or nation.

Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

In the divine council, only one member is praised by all the rest: YHWH!

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

The heavenly bodies are not the object of our worship, but join us in praising their Creator.

Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

There is no higher plane in which YHWH bows to another. He rules the highest heavens.

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.

As Creator, Yahweh is the only one worthy of praise. All else is subject to him.

He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

The laws of the universe are governed by his command. He brought order to all things and put them in their rightful place.

Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

Yahweh tames the chaos monster and claims allegiance of the scariest seas.

Fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

The weather turns at his command, a claim no earthly king can ever hope to make.

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

Places of pagan worship must bow to him; fertility and strength belong to him alone.

Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds,

All living things, whether domesticated or wild, are under his command. The symbols of every other god—bull, calf, lion, raven—are subjected to his superior rule.

Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

No human power outranks Yahweh. No authority rivals his.

Young men and women alike, old and young together!

We never outgrow our need to worship. Male or female, young or old, all must bow.

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven!

His fame is unequaled, his glory unmatched.

He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.

And now for the biggest surprise: the One who reigns over all condescends to share that praise with his faithful subjects, those who have entered into a covenant with him and live it well.

Praise the LORD!

Psalm 148 (NRSV)

The exaltation of Yahweh as the highest and most worthy of praise makes an audacious claim: every other possessor of power on earth and any potential rival in the unseen realm is a fraud unless they rule as a faithful ambassador of the One King.

Power that is not delegated from Yahweh is insurrection of the highest order.

And yet we live in a world where our declaration of allegiance to Yahweh may in some places be classified as defiance of human government. In some corners of our planet Christians are under the constant scrutiny of federal surveillance. If they are caught gathering with fellow Christians to sing praise to God, they could face frightening consequences. These brothers and sisters know well the political implications of praise.

In other corners of the earth, praise of God has been tightly knit with allegiance to a certain political party. Over time, the lines between party platform and biblical teaching become blurred, the distinction between the King of all and human leaders fades. In times like these, we stand in desperate need of praise psalms to remind us that Yahweh will not tolerate the worship of anyone else. He is bound to no human agenda and refuses to guarantee the rule of any mortal government that does not exalt him as supreme.

The implications of worship are felt keenly in the other lectionary passages today. Peter watches as the Holy Spirit erases ethnic boundaries, welcoming Gentiles into the covenant community (Acts 11:1-18). The New Creation breaks into John’s vision, as a holy city, administered by God himself (Revelation 21:1-6). Our citizenship in this holy kingdom is evident by the way we treat one another with love (John 13:31-35).

Praise is what unites and makes possible these radical transformations, inaugurating a new kind of community under the rule of our gracious king.

Praise Yahweh!

[1] Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 42.
[2] Ibid., 46–47.

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