Praying Your Praise With Psalm 146

For the past many weeks, Trinity Church has been walking through the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. And it’s been quite a bit different from our normal way of sitting under God’s word. Usually, we work verse-by-verse straight through a book—from the very beginning all the way to the end.

    And we do that for good reason. With a lot of books in the Bible, in order to understand one piece, you’ve got to understand what leads up to and flows out of that text. So we try to preach in a way that teaches how to read, interpret, and apply God’s word faithfully.

    But with the Psalms, we haven’t walked through them numerically. We’ve been jumping all over the place. And that’s because the Psalms are a very different kind of writing. Most books of the Bible have a distinct order to them, like a perfectly crafted five-course meal, where every dish is connected to all the others. But the Psalms are more like a buffet. There’s an enormous amount of variety—every kind of prayer you could imagine. But in the midst of all that variety, you begin to notice that certain Psalms have a lot of characteristics in common. They’re the same kind of food, but with their own distinct flavor.

    During our time in the Psalms, we’ve been sampling each section of the buffet. We’ve been taking one Psalm from each of the major categories and listening to it very closely. We’ve been trying to figure out how we’re supposed to approach and pray each kind of Psalm as Christians. And the goal is for our church’s worship to grow with all the richness of these different prayers and for each of us personally to be able to go to any one of the 150 Psalms and have a framework for making sense of and praying that Psalm to God.

    But there’s one kind of Psalm we haven’t tasted yet, and that’s the Psalm of praise. The final section of the Psalter (Psalms 146-150) is completely devoted to praise. Every one of the final 5 Psalms both begins and ends with the word “Hallelujah”—“Praise the Lord.”

    Now if you’re reading this and don’t believe in the Christian God, that probably sounds really arrogant and close-minded to your ears because it’s an open command to every person to submit their life in worship to the God of the Bible. Really nothing could be further from the spirit of our age. But even if you’re a Christian, your heart may preoccupied and dry, and words like “praise the Lord” sound almost impossible to you.

    But regardless of who you are, Psalm 146 has something to say to you because it’s going to show us not only how much we need to praise God, but also how God can bring us by grace to a place where we can praise him.

The Call to Praise

    Psalm 146 begins with a straightforward command: “Praise the Lord!” This is the Psalmist’s call to every person in every time and every place to praise the one true God.

    But it’s also a call from God himself. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the very word of God. So when verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord,” God himself is commanding us, “Praise me!”

    Now, for a lot of people, the idea that God would command us to to praise him is offensive. It makes him sound self-absorbed and even insecure. C. S. Lewis felt that way. Here’s what he wrote in 1958:

“I found a stumbling block in the demand…made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.”[1]

Lewis writes that the Lord’s calls for praise are “hideously like [God] saying, ‘What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.’”[2] So for Lewis, the Psalms of praise made God look like a narcissist; they made the church look like a bunch of yes-men; and that was repulsive.

    And this objection is still a concern for modern people. In a 2007 interview with Parade, Brad Pitt (who’s probably a fair spokesman for American pop culture) said,

I grew up believing in [religion]…but it didn't last for me. I didn't understand this idea of a God who says, 'You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I'm the best, and then I'll give you eternal happiness…’ It seemed to be about ego. I can't see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”[3]

For him, the call to praise was egotistical and oppressive. But the Bible challenges us here. It gives us a new framework for understanding and receiving the call to praise.

The first thing the Bible shows you is that you’re already praising something. You may be the most irreligious or secular person you know, but you’re still praising something or someone as your source of life. You’ve tied your happiness and meaning and identity to something. In your story of the world, something has ultimate value, and it’s worth seeking and pursuing and holding onto. It’s the thing that, if you get it, you’ll finally be complete. And because it’s your source of life, you’ve set your love on that thing, you’ve put your trust in that thing, and you’ve sworn obedience to that thing—you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

    That’s worship, and it’s impossible to avoid. Praise is as inescapable as breathing. So you’re not an objective, neutral party. You’re a worshipper down to your very core. You’ve never met a truly irreligious person.

    But what you’re praising can’t cut it. Listen to verses 3-4: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

    In the ancient world, there was really nothing more obviously powerful than a royal ruler. If you can get connected to the prince, you’ve got access to provision, security, and even significance, and that makes him a pretty attractive object of worship.

    But the Psalmist essentially says to us, “Wake up.” There’s no salvation there. They can’t possibly save you because they can’t even save themselves. They die, their plans die with them, and you’re left completely vulnerable because your source of life wasn’t really a source of life.

    Every society has its princes. Every society has its “lords.” We may not put our trust in a literal ruler, but we still praise things that perish: politics, approval, fame, acceptance, money, power, success, comfort, pleasure, control, education, safety, your children, your spouse, the romantic partner you wish you had. We worship these things (and so many more) like they’re the answer to all our problems. We tell ourselves we’d be truly human if we could only find them. And we believe that if we could grasp them, even if only for a moment, we’d be whole; we’d be justified; we’d finally know that we matter. Psalm 146 says to us in essence, “Those things will perish; they’ll never give you the life and security you’re looking for. There’s no salvation there.”

    And this warning is a gift, because when what you praise can perish, your life will be a mess. All sorts of problems inevitably arise when you praise things that are too weak to deliver. Instead of fullness, assurance, security, and joy, you’ll end up with envy, uncontrollable anger, bitterness, cynicism, lust, greed, hopelessness, and anxiety. All of these are the knee-jerk responses when our praise is fixed on something unstable.

    Take a quick survey of your life. Pretty much every issue that you have is going to be related in some way to one question: What are you worshipping? That’s not to say that there aren’t other factors involved, but worship is a crucial one.[4] A lot of the most basic problems in our lives are pathologies of praise. They’re worship disorders. And you won’t really understand why your life is disintegrating until you see the problem underneath the problem—the worship problem that’s fueling the dysfunctions in your life and relationships. Growing as a Christian involves growing in your ability to diagnose the worship malfunctions that are at the root of our issues.

    So why do we keep going back? If misplaced praise leads to disintegration, why do we refuse to worship God and keep returning to lesser lords? At the most basic level, it’s because a lesser god allows us to maintain the illusion of control. We don’t want to praise God because that’s a recognition that he’s the only rightful authority over my life. And if God can demand my praise, then he can demand anything from me.

    As long as I decide what created thing gets my praise, I’m on top. But it’s only an illusion. It’s a mirage, because you’re not in control. You’re hypnotized by what you’re praising. Your lord is your master, and your whole life will be controlled by the pursuit of that idol.

    Do you see the picture that’s emerging? The only one who can grant you an identity, security, and significance that can’t be stripped away is God. So the call to praise isn’t the raving of an insecure, divine ego-maniac. It’s the exhortation of a loving God who wants you to experience the fullness and salvation that your heart’s longing for. The call to praise isn’t for God’s good, like he’s incomplete without it. It’s for yours, because you are incomplete without it. This isn’t an oppressive call; it’s a liberating call that says, “Be free from the false gods that are destroying you.” 

    Yes, it’s a command. We’re required to praise the God who’s infinitely worthy of worship. But it’s also an invitation into a life of rest and satisfaction from the only person who can actually give it. That’s what C. S. Lewis discovered, so at the end of his reflection on praise, he wrote, “In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”

    The longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m convinced of the truth of the Christian story of the world. The Bible rings true to life. It points out things about the inner workings of my heart that I didn’t even know were there—things that no one else can adequately explain.

    Just consider, the Christian story tells you why you have to praise—because you were made to worship God. It tells you why you’re disappointed by praise—because you trust things that can’t save. It tells you why you refuse to give God your praise—because you naturally hate the idea of submitting your life to God’s authority. And it tells you why your heart can only rest when it’s praising God—because he’s the only one good enough and glorious enough to give you an identity and make you whole and keep his promises to you no matter what.

The Price of Praise

    After warning us about the dangers of worshipping the wrong things, Psalm 146 points us to the only object of worship who can actually deliver the salvation we need: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.”

    If your hope and help are in perishing things, you’ll find yourself on the steady path of disintegration. But if your hope and help are in the Lord—if he’s the one you’re giving your trust and praise—you can finally experience true blessedness: happiness and rest in fellowship with God.

    But there’s a problem here. How can God be our help? How can people like us possibly get the blessing of God’s presence? We’ve forfeited that. We chase after other gods and pour our praise out on them and act like they’re the givers of life we’ve been waiting for. That’s cosmic treason, cosmic adultery. We’ve given our love to countless lords, and we’ve cast God aside like he’s nothing. And even when we seek after God, our praise is always tainted, and it’s usually pretty short-lived.

    We don’t deserve favor and blessing; we deserve God’s righteous anger. We don’t deserve his helping and healing presence; we deserve to be banished from his sight. We don’t have the right to approach God at all.

    So if we’re going to be invited back into fellowship with God, something’s got to be done about our sin—our worship failures. Someone’s got to pay the price if we’re going to be able to approach God in praise.

    Psalm 146 leads us to the gospel. It points us to the one who paid the price so that we could praise God as our help and hope. The Father sent his only Son to take on flesh and walk in our shoes and restore us back to the Triune God. But how?

    Jesus praised God perfectly where you failed. His life showed us what human existence looks like when it’s saturated with true worship. Even though he could’ve trusted princes to save him from death, he refused to hope in Pilate or Herod or Pharisees, and he trusted God—he worshipped God—all the way to the cross. And if you look to him in faith, all your idolatry gets covered up in his perfect praise, and God treats you as if your worship never wavered.

    But at the cross, Jesus also took the punishment for false praise. Jesus went to the cross like a spotless lamb. As a flawlessly righteous human being, he was able to die as a substitute for sinners. Our idolatry deserves anger, but Jesus took God’s anger so that we could get God’s favor—his grace. So if you trust Jesus, not only are you covered in his perfect praise, but the penalty for your imperfect praise has been paid in full.

    And there’s more: Jesus makes possible your praise. When Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the Bible tells us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. That curtain—that veil—separated the presence of God from people who were stained with sin. But when Jesus died as our representative, he ripped the veil to shreds because now sin had been dealt with, and there was nothing that could keep us from having fellowship with God. Jesus was exiled from the Father at the cross so that we could brought in. The only reason, Christian, that you can approach God in praise is because Jesus tore the veil and welcomed you into his presence.

    He makes your praise possible in another way, too. When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to overcome our spiritual deadness, to give us new hearts that trust and love God, to dwell within us, and to keep on sparking us with God’s word so that our hearts burn in praise of his grace. You can enter God’s presence in praise God because Jesus gave himself at the cross, and you have a heart that’s alive in praise because Jesus gave the Spirit to animate your soul in worship.

    But after all this, Jesus purifies your praise. A common question among Christians goes something like this: “I’m really aware of my mixed motives and the ways that idolatry is creeping in to my worship of God, so should I stop worshipping until I can praise him rightly?” To put it plainly, if you wait until your heart is perfect to offer God praise, then you’ll never offer him praise, because until Christ returns and renews all creation (including his people), everything we do is going to be mixed in some way with sin.

    But the Apostle Peter offers a profound comfort here. In 1 Peter 2:5, he tells us that Christians are a “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). Jesus doesn’t just cleanse you; he cleanses your worship, too. Your sin-stained, sometimes half-hearted, worship is acceptable to God through Jesus. So don’t let the remnants of sin in your life convince you that God rejects your praise—your feeble worship is a delight to God because it goes through the blood of Christ on its way to his ear.

    Every other religion in the world says, “Worship hard enough and well enough, and you’ll get to God,” and that makes worship an incredible burden. Maybe you heard that in Brad Pitt’s interview: “I didn't understand this idea of a God who says, ‘…You have to say that I'm the best, and then I'll give you eternal happiness.’”[5] But that’s not Christianity.

    Religion says, “Praise me and get life.” Idols say, “Praise me and get life.” But in the gospel God says, “I’ve given you life, so praise me.” He says, “I gave up my Son to bring you to myself so that you can find your highest joy in praising me.”

    The gospel is the complete opposite of every other religion because Jesus paid the price of praise so that you could belong to God and worship him. You can call upon God as your hope and help because of Christ’s work on your behalf. And when you see worship in that light, it won’t be a toilsome burden; it’ll turn into an awesome privilege and a profound joy.

The Discipline of Praise

    Psalm 146 begins with a call for everyone to praise the Lord, but right after that call, the Psalmist starts talking to himself. “Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being” (emphasis mine). So this Psalm is both a corporate song of praise to God and a believer’s internal dialogue with his own heart.

    Why? Because the Psalmist—like every single Christian—has to remind himself that God is more satisfying than his idols, that God is more worthy of his worship. If he’s going to praise the Lord as long as he lives, which means in every kind of circumstance throughout life, he has to talk to his heart and call himself to see the weakness of his false lords so that he can run to the one true God in praise.

    Now in one sense, praise is the natural outflow of a heart that’s gripped by the glory and grace of God. So as you grow in your appreciation of the gospel and your understanding of God’s character, you’ll probably find yourself spontaneously praising him more than before. But if you’re always waiting for circumstances when worship of God comes easily, you’ll spend most of your life worshipping something else.

    That’s because every circumstance brings new obstacles to our praise. In the sunshine—when everything is perfect—we slip into self-sufficiency and forget the Lord. In the storm—when life is hard and painful—we slip into anger or despair and believe God can’t possibly be with us. No matter what’s going on, something’s always pushing against our praise.

    So yes, praise is sometimes the natural response of our hearts, and those are beautiful moments, but in another sense, praise is a discipline. It’s something we have to intentionally pursue. Like the Psalmist, if we’re going to praise God in everything, we have to develop the discipline of calling our hearts to see and respond to the greatness of God.

    And this Psalm shows us exactly how to do that: Psalm 146 is an exercise in the discipline of praise. It’s not enough to make a decision. Your willpower by itself isn’t strong enough to drive you to worship God. The discipline of praise requires taking your heart back again and again to the life giving promises of God.

    That’s precisely what this Psalm is doing. It’s bringing God’s character and promises and works to the forefront so that his grace can fuel our worship. The gospel is the power for praise, and we’ve got to consistently be tapping into that power if our praise is going to be sustained. Only when you cultivate the habit of regularly putting God’s goodness in front of your eyes will your heart be able to praise him through anything. Just listen to the way the Psalmist preaches to his heart:

    God is the creator “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” My idols are created things—they die and they fail. But the Lord is the holy, powerful, sovereign, invincible maker of heaven and earth, and he even made me so that I could share in the joy of beholding his glory. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the promise-keeper “who keeps faith forever.” My faith is often fragile and weak, but God’s faithfulness to his promises can’t be broken. And all I have to do is look at the cross to see how far God’s faithfulness will go, because there he gave up his Son so that he could bind himself in covenant love to me forever. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the judge “who executes justice for the oppressed.” His loving justice sent Jesus to the cross to pay the price for my rebellion, and his loving justice will right every wrong, wipe away every tear from our eyes, and sweep us up in his glory forever. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the provider “who gives food to the hungry.” Every good gift I’ve ever received has been straight from the Father’s hand. But he doesn’t just meet my physical needs; he satisfies the deeper hunger in my heart, too. He sent Jesus, the bread of life, to be broken for sin and to offer spiritual nourishment to my starving heart. And I know that no matter what happens to me—even if I die—God will provide for me and bring me safely into his presence. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the liberator “who sets the prisoners free.” My sin makes me a slave. The lords I think I’m controlling actually end up controlling me. But Jesus made himself a slave and was crushed by sin so that I could be freed from my idols to find a better joy in God. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the healer “who opens the eyes of the blind.” His Holy Spirit overcomes my spiritual blindness and gives me eyes to see and savor the glory that radiates from the cross of Christ. And he guarantees me that one day every kind of sickness and brokenness that plagues his world physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually will be healed. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the exalter “who lifts up those who are bowed down.” When I’m crushed in my sin and wallowing in guilt and drowning in shame, God lifts my head to see that Jesus already took those for me. So even though I deserved to be pressed down, God exalts me in Jesus and calls me his child. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the gracious Lord “who loves the righteous.” I’m not righteous, but God’s love sent Jesus to live as my righteousness and die as my sacrifice. And now, with that hope, I can seek to walk in the righteousness that pleases my Father as I follow my Lord—the whole time knowing that God’s unfailing love is upon me. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the defender “who watches over the sojourners.” I may feel alone and exposed in a cruel world, but the cross promises me that I’m part of God’s kingdom, that his kingdom is coming, that God’s Spirit is with me, and that nothing can separate me from God’s love until I finally see him face-to-face. Praise him, O my soul.

    And God is the sustainer “who upholds the widow and the fatherless.” My strength fails, and in the darkest moments I feel like I can’t possibly keep trusting, obeying, and worshipping God. But because of the cross, I know that God will never let me fall out of his hand. The presence of his Spirit and the promise of his grace uphold me—they give me the strength to keep pressing on in faith—when my heart has no strength left. Praise him, O my soul.

    Do you see what the Psalmist is doing? It’s like he’s hunting, and he doesn’t quite know how to aim, so he takes a shotgun that will spray over a wide area so that perhaps one piece will hit the target. Psalm 146 is a shotgun shell loaded with God’s character and promises, and it’s aimed straight at the Christian’s heart so that one of those promises can hit dead center and propel you into praise. That’s part of the discipline of worship. You’ve got to spray the promises of God’s grace into your soul until something hits the mark.

    Psalm 146 is the self-talk of a man who’s convincing his heart all over again that God is worthy of his praise. So let me ask: Which of these promises does your heart need today? What are you afraid of? What are you anxious about? What’s dominating your thoughts? What’s making you angry? What pathology of praise, what worship malfunction, is showing up in your heart? One of these dimensions of the gospel—one of the pieces of this gospel shotgun shell—will address the idol that your heart’s holding onto. One of these promises will offer you true rest and start prying your heart finger by finger from your idol’s grip and free you to praise God for his grace. We’ve got to develop the discipline of praise, spray our hearts with God’s promises, and refuse to give up until one of his promises hits the mark.

    And we need all the resources of the gospel, we need all the ammunition of Psalm 146, because chances are that tomorrow you’ll be faced with different circumstances and a different idol that’s making different promises, and you’ll need a different dimension of God’s gospel to speak to your heart and prompt your praise.

    We have to cultivate this discipline personally and individually, but we also need to practice the discipline of praise together. We need to call one another to praise God the same way we have to call ourselves out of our idolatry. And as the gospel meets us with grace in every situation, we need to share our praise with each other. In a world where everyone’s worshipping something, the church is the community that worships the one true and Triune God because he’s rescued us in Christ and met our every need. So praise can and must be a staple of the everyday conversations that happen in the give and take of life. “Here’s what I’ve been praising God for lately.” “What are you seeing about God’s character that you haven’t seen before?” “How can we give thanks to God for his grace today?” That’s what the discipline of praise sounds like in community.

    And as this happens among us, our worship will actually grow richer and deeper. Your worship will minister to others, and their worship will minister to you. Some people in this church are dealing with the exact same idol that you are. And when they hear you praising God for the way Jesus is better, your worship will draw their attention to an aspect of God’s grace that they desperately need and weren’t able to see on their own.

    On the other hand, there are people here who are dealing with temptations and idols you don’t identify with at all. And when you hear them praising God for the ways he serves them in the gospel, their worship will help you see God in a new light. It will expand your vision of his goodness so that you can praise him in new ways that you never saw before. A community that’s practicing the discipline of praise individually and together will grow in it’s praise of all that God is for us.

    And though we may not realize it, every time we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, the discipline of praise is forming us for worship. The weekly worship of the church is a discipline that reveals our idols, pushes us to repentance, and walks us through the blessings of the gospel so that we can praise God as we see new implications of Jesus’ work at the cross. Each time we gather corporately, we’re practicing worship for the rest of life. We’re practicing what it looks like to lean on Jesus so that we can worship him no matter what happens. We come together to hear God’s word, to sing his works, to see our need, to taste his grace, to behold his glory, and to praise his name so that this rhythm of worship will spill into all the other ordinary parts of life.

    So while praise can be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart on fire, most of the time praise is a discipline where we have to rehearse God’s promises and stay there until we can delight in the glory of his grace. If we’re going to praise the Lord as long as we live—in every twist and turn of life—that’s a discipline we have to learn together. We’ll be able to confess together, “I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being,” and we’ll know that the worship we’re offering now will extend and keep on growing out into eternity, because by the power of Christ’s resurrection we’ll live and have our being forever in the presence of God.

    Praise the Lord!

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 90.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Dotson Rader, “Interview with Brad Pitt,” Parade, September 18, 2007, accessed February 2, 2015, http://www.parade.com/50120/parade/interview-with-brad-pitt/.

[4] Of course, in a world tarnished by sin and brokenness, life is complex, and there are often a number of components contributing to our dysfunctions. People sin against us; our bodies break down and don’t function properly; tragedies occur unexpectedly; we bear the scars of a painful past. Each (or even all) of these may play a role in the particular issues we’re facing, but the point here is that there’s always a heart element—a worship element—at work as well, and if we’re going to truly address our problems, we can’t ignore this dimension.

[5] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 97. Emphasis mine.