Commentary on Psalm 150
Psalm 150 is the last of the five “Hallelujah (praise the LORD)” psalms that close the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150).
It, like the four psalms that precede it, begins and ends with “Praise the Lord,” but in Psalm 150 the word “praise” occurs thirteen times, forming a resounding doxological close to the Psalter. The first two verses of the psalm describe the God to whom the worshipers are called to offer praise; verses 3-5 describe the method by which the worshipers are to offer praise; and the final verse of the psalm includes all of creation in the praise of God.
The temple in Jerusalem was viewed by the Israelites as the dwelling place of God (or the name of God) on earth. In verse 1, the singers of Psalm 150 refer to the temple as “the sanctuary,” literally “holy place.” While the basic meaning of “holy – qadosh” is “be set apart,” in the act of worship, the sacred, that which is set apart, and the mundane, that which is the daily ordinary, meet and commune, and for a holy time the boundaries between the two are transcended. Verse 2 offers the reasons for this meeting of the two in praise — God’s mighty deeds and exceeding greatness.
Verses 3-5 detail the method by which the worshipers are to offer praise to God. Music and dancing were an integral part of worship in the ancient Near East. In Exodus 15, for example, after the Israelites safely crossed the Red Sea, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand” and all the women followed, “with tambourines and with dancing.” In 2 Samuel 6:14, we read that when the ark of the covenant was being brought into Jerusalem, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” According to 1 Chronicles 25:4-6, David appointed temple musicians like the sons and daughters of Heman, who were “under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.”
While in Psalms 146-149, the worshipers announce their intent to sing and make music to God (see Psalms 146:2; 147:1, 7; 149:1, 3), Psalm 150 depicts the realization of the that intent, with details of the types of instruments to be used in worship — trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe, clanging cymbals. Richard Clifford describes the array as “a full symphony” in which “every instrument of the orchestra joins the human voice in giving praise.” Verse 6’s call to “everything that breathes” to praise the Lord echoes the proclamation by the singer of Psalm 145:21 that “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever,” and provides an envelope structure around the final doxological words of the Psalter.
The book of Psalms begins with the wisdom words of Psalm 1, calling on the faithful to delight in and meditate on the Torah and with Psalm 2’s admonishment to acknowledge God’s role in providing a ruler for the people. The book then chronicles humanity’s joy and sorrow, wonder and skepticism, gratitude and anger either directed to or about the God we worship. Each word of the psalms is part and parcel of the fabric that makes up the saga of this journey through life.
We find words of awe and wonder in Psalm 8:3-4:
When I look at your heavens, the works of your fingers…
What are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Words of utter despair in Psalm 22:1, 6:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…
I am worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
Words of longing for God in Psalm 42:1:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Words accusing God in Psalm 74:1:
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
and words of confident trust in Psalm 97:11:
Light dawns for the righteous
and joy for the upright in heart.
The multitudes of human emotions expressed in the psalms reflect the ebb and flow of human life. We move often, in our daily lives, our daily walks, from feelings of hope to ones of despair, from questioning to assurance, from awe to doubt. The book of Psalms echoes that ebb and flow. We do not find in the book a tidy grouping of psalms of despair followed by psalms of hope followed by psalms of awe and wonder. Rather it is a seemingly “messy mix” of psalm types, reflecting, I maintain, the human condition — a psalm of hope gives way to one of despair, one of awe to one of doubt.
Only after the whole range of expressions of the human condition have been articulated, heard, and pondered upon may the psalm singers offer the final hallelujah praises to God, culminating in Psalm 150’s emotive cry to “let all that has breath praise the LORD.” In the gospel reading for this second Sunday after Easter, after the resurrection, Jesus suddenly appears and stands among the disciples. Imagine their rejoicing when they realized who he was. And also imagine the feelings of hope and despair, joy and sorrow, questioning and assurance, wonder and doubt they experienced during their journeys as Jesus’ disciples. Their joy and wonder at the sight of the risen Jesus came at the culmination of the life they shared with Jesus, with all of its ebbs and flows.