Commentary on Psalm 148
Psalm 148 poetically reflects on the essence and expression of praise.
In a poetic flourish of word images readers and hearers are invited into complex worlds of thought where everything from inanimate to animate life are encouraged, incited, invoked, or commanded to praise God. The content of this praise is unspecified other than it is praise of and to and for the God for and by whom all existence exists.
The writer explores an eternal now that is alive with singing, sighing, and swaying with winds and sounds of praise. The author reflects on common or unrecognized things and beings that make up a range of worlds with a poet’s hope that somehow words spoken or written can soar and take flight. It seems the author is expressing a hope for a few words patterned in rhythmic pulse to carry on their wings human minds into worlds of what might be possible, already exists, and may have always existed from the foundation of creation itself. It isn’t a flat or easily determined praise that is invoked, but one that permeates all existence and is embedded in time and space.
I am convinced that poetry — psalmic poetry – has a capacity to inspire human minds to consider familiar and unfamiliar terrains of human experience. It can provoke reflection on the activity of God in the world and beyond the world from the heights to the depths and everywhere in between. It can broaden horizons and lift spirits beyond the mundane to the sublime. The poet has a capacity to break through well-ordered thoughts and sprinkle them with raindrops of inspiration. Simple words combine to swiftly turn into torrents that flood everything one thinks they know and cuts new courses through well-managed mental landscapes to form patterns of thinking unknown previously.
Psalm 148 poetically interrupts dark night minds with fireworks of color and sound. It is a call to remember who we are and who we will be. It is an incitement to reflect on the moment in which one exists and in the stream of time where one exists. People can hear or read the words of the psalmist. It is an invitation for reflection about existence itself as owed to God. This is not just about individual human existence, but pertains to all of existence as owed to God. That alone is cause for praise. But that isn’t the only reason for this praise. The Psalmist breaks it down to the core — God creates and preserves that which God has created forever. Verses 5-6 interrupt the invocation river of praise like a boulder around which the river flows. It is a resting place for thought, but not a conclusion to thinking. Instead it serves as an orientation marker — on the river from the sky of praise down to the earth of experience where praise moves with human and non-human hearts in an ever-flowing stream.
The Hebrew word for praise that is used by the psalm writer is Hallelu. It is from the Hebrew root Halel. This word can be translated into English as praise and could be understood as something that is infused with gratitude, honor, and reverence. Perhaps one might be able to say that this is something that is embedded in the molecular structure of all things. People share much with the created order at the atomic and subatomic levels. Carl Sagan stated in the series Cosmos, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”1
The Psalmist reflects on the textures of creation as the realm in which praise might be present. The subtle to the not so subtle can embrace praise and give rise to praise. Any thing can be the locus for praise: a drop of wasp venom, a grain of sand, a whirling electron, a quite moment, a rivulet of water coursing down a 100 year old window pane that is thicker at the bottom than at the top due to the steady pull of gravity, a human hand holding 10,000 grains of sand, a child’s laughter, or an old person’s resolve. The things and the movement of things can be sites of praise for God has made all that moves, all that doesn’t move, all that breathes, all that whirls in solar systems, galaxies, and atoms across spans wider and smaller than the human eye, computer, or imagination can go. There is something greater in the psalmist’s words that cannot be easily touched. It can be spoken about. It can be written about. New songs of praise may be created in response to it. Yet, all are derivative. All are echoes or reverberations with a ubiquitous praise that already resounds in gravitational waves and permeates dark matter. It bounds over soaring peaks and falls with winter snow.
Perhaps what the Psalmist is after here is a wake up call to human perception. That which can be perceived by human senses is only a fraction of what is presently occurring at any given moment. The sound of radio waves and microwaves coursing through the air and through our bodies cannot be easily discerned yet it is there. The sound a dog can hear exceeds human hearing. The sight of an eagle which can spot minute details over a mile away is evident, but not perceived because the human eye cannot see the same sights. Human senses are themselves sites for praise. Not just praise for their existence, but to the worlds of existence they can open to human minds. Even more the axon-dendrite trails of thought that fire in different regions of the brain can be loci for praise. As you read these words the trails of electrical impulses course though your brain like an electrical storm on a hot summer night.
As verses 5-6 can serve as a boulder in a flood of praise, verses 13-14 can serve as focus for all praise. The God who was, is, and will always be is a creating God whose very being or splendor is beyond human capacities to understand and yet can be recognized in part because people have been created by this very same God. This psalm places the faithful ones close to the heart of God. Perhaps this is a reminder to the people of Israel to not loose sight of their special place in the order of the universes that God has and is continuing to create. Humility can rest at the place where pride may want to reside when one sees their place in the bigger scheme of God’s creation and the rivers of praise that rumble and turn, slide and bubble, and seep deep into human consciousness.