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This semester, I have the good fortune of teaching a class on the Psalms. Last week, the class was discussing Psalms of Praise, those lofty hymnic psalms that direct our attention to the majesty, the goodness, and the power of God.
During our discussion, one of the students noted that while the psalms of lament and even the psalms of thanksgiving seem quite personal and intimate, the psalms of praise seem more formulaic, more liturgical, further removed from the psalmist’s experience of God. In many respects, the student was right. Rather than being prayers voiced to God in moments of profound distress or thanksgiving, the psalms of praise read like creeds, articulating general convictions about God.
As I reflected further on the student’s observation, however, it occurred to me that while these psalms may not be as intimate or emotive as their counterparts, they are deeply personal—not because they reveal something personal about us but because they require something personal of us. They demand that we be all in, that we give our loyalty, trust, commitment, without compromise, to the Lord as the true king and true lord over all the earth. In these psalms, there is simply nothing else in all the earth, not Baal or Marduk, not earthly leaders, not the pursuit of prosperity, not militarism, not power that is worthy of our allegiance and praise except the Lord God.
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . .
For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. . . .
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” (Ps. 96:1, 4-5, 9-10)
The Lord reigns. Indeed, the Lord is king. And if that were the end of it, being all in wouldn’t seem that hard. But these psalms don’t typically stop there. Many of them go on, spelling out what the Lord’s reign looks like as it takes root in our social reality. In Psalm 146, for instance, we read:
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
And gives food to the hungry . . .
The Lord watches over the foreigner
And sustains the fatherless and the widow. (Ps. 146:7, 9)
Or consider Psalm 113:
Who is like the Lord our God,
The One who sits enthroned on high . . .
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the ash heap;
He seats them with princes,
With the princes of his people. (Ps. 113:5, 7-8)
Even in a cursory reading of these psalms, it’s hard to miss their distinctly political bent. As Brueggemann notes, “Wherever this God goes, these sovereign concerns are annunciated . . . . wherever this God is named, social possibility is envisioned. Wherever this God is remembered, political processes are pushed in specific directions.” (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 120).
To sing these psalms, then, is to commit ourselves not just to the idea of a God who is good and powerful and just and worthy of our praise, but to how God exercises these qualities in tangible ways in our social reality. In other words, to be all in is to join with God in supporting his work to right a world that has gone terribly wrong. To commit ourselves to overturning social systems that oppress, to welcoming the immigrant, to advocating for the poor, to seeking justice for all.
In a few days, many of us in the US will go to the polls for midterm elections. As we do, we who sing “Praise the Lord” in church on Sunday morning, would do well to remember that our declarations of praise, our allegiance to God, has political implications. Praising God entails a commitment to vote with God’s priorities in mind – to vote on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the widow, the foreigner, and the poor.
So, praise the Lord! In our song and in our deeds and in our voting, let’s all praise the Lord!