< December 27, 2015 >

Commentary on Psalm 148

 

Psalm 148 is classified, along with Psalms 8, 19, 65, and 104, as a Creation Psalm.

While the Creation psalms in general reflect on and celebrate God’s sovereignty over the created world and the special place of human beings in the world (see, for example, Psalms 8:3-8 and 65:2-5), Psalm 148 is an unbridled cry to ALL creation to “Praise the LORD!”

The words “Praise the LORD!” link Psalm 148 to the psalms surrounding it; it is the third of the five “Final Hallel” psalms (Psalms 146-150) that the reader encounters at the close the book of Psalms. Each of the psalms begins and ends with “Praise the LORD!” (in Hebrew, “hallelujah”), and the phrase occurs twelve times in Psalm 148, calling on the heavens, the angels, the sun and the moon, the stars, the sea monsters, the fire and hail, the fruit trees, kings, young men and women, among others, to join in the praise.

Psalm 148 may be divided into two distinct sections, each calling upon a particular realm of creation to praise the Lord. First, verses 1-6 call upon the inhabitants of the heavenly realm to praise God: angels and hosts, sun and moon, stars, the heavens of heavens, and the waters over the heavens.

The sun, the moon and the stars were considered by other people groups in the ancient Near East as individual gods -- the god of the day and the god of the night. The words of the psalmist in Psalm 148 reflect the biblical creation theology of Genesis 1; in Genesis 1:6, we read, “God made the two great lights -- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night -- and the stars” (NRSV). The sun, the moon, and the stars are not gods to be worshiped but objects created by God and are called upon, here in Psalm 148, to worship God. Joshua 10:12-13 relates a similar admonition. Recall that there, in the midst of a battle Joshua spoke these words, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” And we read further, “And the sun stood still and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on the enemies” (NRSV). Joshua calls upon the so-called gods and admonishes them, “Just watch. See what the creator God is about to do.”

The phrase “highest heavens” in Psalm 148:4 also occurs in Deuteronomy 10:14 and 1 Kings 8:27 and most likely reflects the ancient Near Eastern concept of the world in which the heavens were separated into the heavens above the dome (in Genesis 1:6, often translated as “the firmament”) and the heavens below. The heavens below the dome was the realm of earthly existence (the atmosphere); the heavens above the dome was the realm of the gods. In Psalm 148, the heavens above the dome (the realm of the gods) is called upon to praise the God of Israel.

In like manner, the phrase “the waters above the heavens,” which also occurs in Genesis 1:6-8, refers to the ancient Near Eastern concept of the waters above the dome of the earth and the waters below the dome of the earth. The waters below the dome were the source of springs, rivers, and seas. The waters above the dome, which apparently lay between the heavens below and the heavens above were the source of rainfall.

The singer of Psalm 148 calls on all elements of the heavens to praise the Lord, and in verse 5 provides the reason. Why ought creation to praise God? Because, the psalm singer says, at God’s command all was created, the same word used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creative activity (Genesis 1:1, 21, 27).

In verses 7-14, the focus of the psalm singer’s call to praise shifts from the heavenly realm to the earthly realm. Using language reminiscent of both Job 38 and Genesis 1, the singer calls sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying things, kings, and men and women, old and young to join in the praise. Every element, every aspect of creation is to join in the praise.

Verses 13 and 14 is a summary statement, a final call to all creation to praise and, as in once again provides the reason for the praise. “For his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven” (v. 13). Name was a very important concept in the Old Testament. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak into being. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. In that encounter, Moses replies to God's command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" (3:13). Moses asked for God's name. What is the nature and character of the God who is requesting such a thing? God replies with self-naming words of existence, "I am that I am." “His name alone is exalted.” The word “glory” is, in Hebrew, kavod, and means, “weightiness, heaviness.” Psalm 148:13 reminds us of the weightiness, the great position of God over the heavens and the earth.

Psalm 148 is an invitation for all of creation and its inhabitants -- the heavens and the earth -- to join in the praise of God. All are included; none are excluded in the call. One commentator observes, “Though moderns tend to think of worship as the response of rational creatures to their God, this psalm rather regards worship as virtually inherent in the world’s structure.” All creation, animate and inanimate, can participate in celebration of the God of the creation. St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) wrote a hymn he titled “The Song of Brother Sun.” Its words, adapted to the modern hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” were inspired by the creation psalms of the Hebrew Psalter: “All creatures of our God and King … thou burning sun … thou silver moon … thou rushing wind … ye lights of evening … ye folk of tender heart … O praise him.”