The first Hallelujah

“Hallelujah!” It’s a two-word Hebrew phrase meaning “Praise God!” We’re most used to singing it as part of a hymn. But we probably say it only rarely outside of that context. When we do, it’s in response to good news and is often said wryly, as shorthand for, “Finally! Something good happened for a change.”

The biblical usage, of course, is a tad less snarky.

As you might expect, hallelujah is used primarily in the Psalms. What you might not expect is how far you have to read in the Psalms to find it. The Psalter is traditionally divided into five “books,” and hallelujah doesn’t appear until nearly the end of the fourth book, at the tail end of Psalm 104. (In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, it appears at the beginning of Psalm 105. There are, I think, good reasons to prefer this placement, but that’s another story for another time.)

In our survey of the Psalms thus far, we’ve spent some time with both Psalm 1 and Psalm 119. Each is foundational in its own way. Psalm 1 establishes the basic vision of two opposite ways of life — the way of righteousness versus the way of wickedness — and in a sense, the rest of the Psalter is commentary on this vision. Psalm 119 then expands on an idea that is only briefly mentioned in Psalm 1: the centrality and beauty of Torah, or God’s instruction. And as we’ve seen, it does so in a way that introduces shades of grey into Psalm 1’s more black-and-white worldview.

We will eventually be spending quite some time with psalms of praise and lament. After all, many of us turn to the Psalms for comfort when we’re experiencing difficulty. We readily identify with the psalmist’s cry of “How long, O Lord?” Such texts seem to give us permission to feel the impolite negative emotions that might make others uncomfortable to be around us.

But we’ve begun with Psalms 1 and 119 for a reason. To read the psalms rightly, we can’t just “import” them into our emotions and our ways of seeing the world. We need to inhabit, to the extent that we can, the psalmist’s way of seeing the world.

What is it like, for example, to see life as a choice between righteousness and wickedness?

What is it like to so adore God’s instruction that you would want to meditate on it day and night?

And when the psalmist cries “Hallelujah,” why? What is it that causes the psalmist to burst out in praise?

Again, as we’ll see in the psalms of praise and lament, sometimes the psalmist rejoices in God’s salvation — in the divine intervention that rescues the psalmist from the schemes of evil enemies or pulls the psalmist back from the brink of death.

But more fundamentally, the first hallelujah in Scripture is for the splendor of creation, and the God who created it. We’ll begin exploring that splendor in the next post.

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