Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

We are enjoined to take up the songs we have learned from the Psalter and sing them out in the world

February 5, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Psalm 147 is the second of five “Alleluia” hymns that close the Psalter. Each of the last five psalms starts and ends with the imperative, “Praise the Lord!” (Hebrew, halelu; Greek, alleluia). Together, these psalms put a final exclamation point on the book that the Jewish community calls, “Praises” (tehillim). In other words, the Psalter closes with an extended call to praise that is directed at the Psalter’s audience.1 More on this call to praise below.

The psalm itself conforms to the standard pattern of the hymn of praise. The psalm has three stanzas (verses 1-6, 7-11, 12-20), each of which opens with a call to praise and then continues by recounting reasons for praise. The lectionary for this Sunday includes only the first two stanzas.

The call to praise is iterated four times in the psalm—once at the start of each stanza and once at the very end:

verse 1 “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises . . . and a song of praise is fitting.”
verse 7 “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.”
verse 12 “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!”
verse 20c “Praise the Lord!”

What should be noted about the call to praise is that it, quite literally, calls for a response. The audience is called to open our mouths, lift up our voices, and join in the psalmist’s joyous song. The fact that the book of Psalms ends with five psalms that include calls to praise, and with a final psalm (150) that is nothing but an extended call to praise, means that the audience is enjoined to take up the songs that we have learned from the Psalter, and to sing those songs out in the world.

In general, we tend to think of the purpose of singing in worship as something we do as part of our relationship with God, as something we do for God. But the direction of the call to praise at the end of the Psalter is a little different. We are enjoined here to come to worship, to learn the praise of God, and to go out into the world and sing these songs (these psalms) out there. And the praise that this psalm calls for has a specific content: it is testimony about God.

Speaking in a general sense, there are two types of praise—on the one hand, there is praise sung to God; on the other hand, there is praise sung about God. Praise that is sung to God generally uses the second person. For example, “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord” (145:10). Praise that is sung about God generally uses the third person. For example, “The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground” (147:6).

Psalm 147 is exclusively praise of the second type—praise that is sung about God. The purpose of this type of praise is testimony. As Patrick Miller has written, “The purpose of praise [is] … to bear witness to all who hear that God is God.”2

The content of the testimony of Psalm 147 ranges between two poles—creation and redemption. In terms of creation, the psalm bears witness to God as the creator and the sustainer:

He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. (verse 4)
He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. (verse 8)
He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry. (verse 9)
And so on … (see verses 15-18)

Focusing on God as creator, the psalm emphasizes both the initial act of creation, but also the ongoing, sustaining actions of the creator—providing food, sending rain, and so on.

In terms of redemption, the psalm bears witness to God’s acts of blessing and redemption in Israel’s history—especially the act of restoring Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile (verses 2, 13). Here, the psalm attends to the scandal of election.

In the New Testament, the scandal of the good news is found in the proclamation of the incarnation of God in one human person (Jesus of Nazareth) who was crucified and died. In the Old Testament, a similar scandal is found in the proclamation that God chose one nation to be blessed as a blessing to all the other nations—Israel.

The psalm calls for us to lift up our voices and sing of God’s history with that nation—rebuilding Jerusalem, healing the brokenhearted, strengthening the gates of the city, granting peace, declaring the divine word and commandments to Israel (verse 19). The scandal is summarized in verse 19: “He has not dealt thus with any other nation.”

But because God did choose Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, healing and reconciliation and blessing have flowed out through Israel to reach all of us.

Praise the Lord!

1See Beth Tanner, “Rethinking the Enterprise: What Must Be Considered in Formulating a Theology of the Psalms,” in Rolf Jacobson, ed., Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 139-150.
2Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 68.