Psalm 148 is part of the Psalter's concluding section that offers and calls for praise to the Lord.
Psalms 146-150 are linked by the words "praise the Lord" that appear in the first and last verse of each psalm. Psalm 148 focuses on God's control of the created order as reason for praise. But verse 14 also hints at God's salvation of Israel as reason to celebrate God's might.
Psalm 148 does not say that the Lord "reigns" or that the Lord is king, but this is implied throughout the psalm. In fact, God's universal rule is really the motivation for the psalm's call to praise. With this emphasis on God as divine sovereign Psalm 148 helps conclude the Book of Psalms with perhaps the Psalter's most important theological claim: "the Lord reigns" (NRSV, "the Lord is King;" Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). The claim is important because it was uttered and written in the Psalms in the midst of a theological crisis. During the exilic (587-539 B.C.E.) and post-exilic periods God's people were defeated and dominated by the great empires of their day. It must have seemed at times that God was not in control.
The many complaints throughout the Psalter appropriately express such doubts (Psalms 44, 74, 88, 89). But the Psalter's final word is not doubt, but hope: "Praise the Lord." Psalm 148 is therefore well-suited for the first Sunday of Christmas. The birth of the Messiah is the source of hope and joy in the midst of trouble and woe and is appropriately addressed with words of praise.
Psalm 148 begins by calling for praise from the heavenly realm, from the place God is enthroned as king over the universe (verse 1; see Psalm 115:3, 16). The first six verses then expound on that initial call to praise. All those who dwell in the heavens as well as the heavens themselves-- both creatures and inanimate things -- are called to praise. The word translated "angels" could also be rendered "messengers" (verse 2). Such beings have the basic role of communicating God's intentions to humans. This term is paired in verse 2 with the word "host" (tsbav). The heavenly host has a military connotation (the word appears in 2 Samuel 3:23 for example clearly referring to the army). The verse assumes God has around the heavenly throne a multitude of beings ready to be sent out with divine missions.
Verses 3-4 catalog the inanimate objects of the heavens as it calls them to praise the Lord. "Highest heavens" in verse 4 renders an unusual expression in Hebrew that woodenly reads "the heavens of the heavens." It may refer to the highest point above the earth (as NRSV and NIV seem to understand it). Or, the expression may connote the entirety of the heavenly realm. "Waters above the heavens" refers to the waters the psalmist believed provided rain for the earth. Such waters were restrained by a vault that could be opened to provide rain (Genesis 1:6-8; 7:11).
As verses 5-6 declare, God created and apportioned all these elements as part of God's sovereign act of creation. The main point here, as in Genesis 1:6-8, is that God made boundaries the waters could not pass. Thus, God made life on earth possible for humans and land animals.
Verses 7-12 proceed in the call to praise downward from the heavens to the earth and sea. Verse 7a is identical in form to verse 1a: "praise the Lord from the earth" (verse 1, "from the heavens"). Then verses 7b-8 call for the sea and its creatures to praise God in a comprehensive way, much like verses 2-6 include the heavenly beings and elements of the heavens. "Sea monsters" refers to the great mysterious creatures that in some other texts are viewed as symbols of chaos and thus a threat to the order God wishes to establish (Psalm 74:13). In Psalm 148, however, they are simply creatures God made, as in Genesis 1:21. As verse 8 lists inanimate objects under God's control it echoes Psalm 147:15-18 both in the list of objects and in its emphasis on God's word.
The inclusiveness of praise in Psalm 148 has important implications for our understanding of our relationship to the rest of creation. As verses 9-12 make clear, human beings stand in alongside other animals and the inanimate objects of the earth to praise God. This suggests that the human exercise of dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28) is intended to be a partnership for the good of creation and ultimately to give glory to God.
Francis of Assisi composed his Canticle of the Sun with this point in mind. In this song based on Psalm 148, Francis calls to the sun, wind, and fire as brother and to the moon, waters, and earth as sister. Although humans have unique responsibilities to oversee the rest of the creation, they ultimately are called to praise God, like everything else God created.
The ending of Psalm 148 is also important for understanding the nature of praise God's people are called to voice. Verse 14 turns from the praise of God throughout the universe, from all God's creation and because of God's mastery of the cosmos, to praise of God for God's saving acts on behalf of Israel. Terence Fretheim thinks this verse should be read along with Psalm 22:3, "Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel." Psalm 148:14 thus indicates that "God has made God's people strong, indeed has made them a praise in the earth, for the purposes of the universal praise of God."
Indeed, Psalm 148 will not allow praise of God that turns into praise of self. It will also not allow the people of God to remove themselves from the rest of creation. God's saving deeds on their behalf is intended to give particular expression to the work of God in creation.
1J. Clinton McCann, Jr., "The Book of Psalms," in the New Interpreter's Bible (eds. Leander E. Keck et. al; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 1272.
2Terence E. Fretheim, "Nature's Praise of God in the Psalms," Ex Auditu 3 (1987), pp. 29-30.