< April 11, 2010 >

Commentary on Psalm 150

 

The celebration continues! On this second Sunday of Easter, the sound of trumpets still echoes in our sanctuaries and is joined by the Hallelujah Chorus of Psalm 150.

"Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!"

This last of the psalms is a doxology of doxologies. The editors of the Psalter organized the collection into five "books," each of which ends with a summons to praise (see Psalm 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48). The last of these summons is Psalm 150 itself, but this doxology serves double duty; it ends not only the fifth "book" (Psalm 107-150) of the Psalter, but also the Psalter as a whole.

This closing doxology has begun already in Psalm 146, with its opening summons to "Praise the LORD!" Likewise, each of the last five psalms in the Psalter begins and ends with this phrase, "Praise the LORD" (in Hebrew, hallelujah!) But in the last of the psalms, the word hallelujah is used repeatedly; it becomes an insistent drumbeat that rises steadily to a crescendo of praise. The word hallel ("to praise") is used over and over again in Psalm 150, thirteen times in just six verses!

To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel ("to praise"). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means "Y'all praise Yahweh!" It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community. Indeed, it is a summons to "everything that has breath" (150:6): Praise Yahweh!

It is fitting that this psalm, which is filled to overflowing with the sound of praise, should end the book of Psalms. The Hebrew title for the book, after all, is Tehillim, "Praises." It may seem at first an odd choice of names for a book that contains so much sorrow and lament. Indeed, the first "book" of the Psalter (Psalm 1-41) is composed mostly of laments:  "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?" (Psalm 13:1) "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1). Lament is not the whole story, however. Praise erupts in the middle of the laments (see the end of Psalm 22) and, gradually, through the course of the whole book of Psalms, the laments give way to praise until finally, at the end, "hallelujah" is all that remains.

Eugene Peterson writes of this movement of the Psalter and particularly of the last five psalms:

       This is not a 'word of praise' slapped onto whatever
       mess we are in at the moment. This crafted
       conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers
       are going to end in praise, but that it is also
       going to take awhile. Don't rush it. It may take
       years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive
       at the hallelujahs....Not every prayer is capped off
       with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter
       is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying
       life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always
       reaching towards praise and will finally arrive
       there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry,
       doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then
       struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150,
       on our feet, applauding, "Encore! Encore!"1 

Prayer (including lament) leads to praise. It is the movement of the Christian life. It is also the movement of the high holy days we have just observed, from the laments of Good Friday ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!") to the joyful hallelujahs of Easter morning. But note: the praise does not negate or ignore the lament. If anything, the praise is made more real, more robust, by passing through the lament. Easter hallelujahs are sung most profoundly by those who have known Good Friday.

Psalm 150, with its expansive summons to praise, ends a biblical book that plumbs the depths of human sorrow. The Psalter is matched in the Bible only by Job and Lamentations in its exploration of loss and grief. But this book of honest and gut-wrenching prayers ends with praise, and calls us (and indeed, "everything that has breath") to join in. And what praise it is! Trumpets and harps! Tambourines and cymbals! Dancing feet and lifted voice! All are employed in praise of the God who created heaven and earth, the God who saved Israel through his "mighty deeds" (verse 2), the God who, as we proclaim in this Easter season, defeated sin and death once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so we join in the hallelujahs. "We are an Easter people, and 'Alleluia' is our song!"2  "Alleluia" not as an escape from the realities of a life often touched with tears and grief. "Alleluia" not as a refusal to face the truth. "Alleluia" not as a denial of lament. (The Psalter bears ample witness to the power of lament). No. The "alleluias/hallelujahs" of Psalm 150 are the response of ones who know full well the power of death, but who know even more fully still the power of the God who brings us and all creation out of death into life.

We are an Easter people, and 'Hallelujah' is our song! With the psalmist, with doubting Thomas, with John of Patmos, and with all who have known pain and sorrow, we rejoice in the triumph of the God of life and we join in the chorus: "Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary...Praise him with trumpet sound...Praise him with clanging cymbals...Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Hallelujah!"



1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.
2Sometimes attributed to St. Augustine, this sentence was spoken by Pope John Paul II in a speech in Harlem, October, 1979. The full speech can be read at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1979/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19791002_usa-neri-america_en.html