From exultation to exaltation

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.
(Ps 57:11, NRSV)

Exaltation. It’s not a concept we use much. At its root, it means to lift someone or something up, to raise or elevate it in some way. When we put someone “on a pedestal,” we exalt them; when we praise someone with superlatives, we exalt them.

And in a sense, this is also what we do in worship when we raise our hands to God. We implicitly think of God as higher, as above us. We lift God up, we exalt him with our praise, and raise our hands heavenward.

Raising hands in worship, of course, is neither a requirement nor a guarantee of any deeper spiritual meaning. Some decry it as too “touchy-feely,” preferring to worship God with their minds. To each his or her own. But speaking for myself, as one of the more intellectual and less touchy-feely types: there have been many times when I needed to raise my hands to be able to worship with my whole being. For me, it can be a matter of letting go of any concern about what others see in favor of what God sees, to let the worship of God penetrate every part of my person, and not just my mind.

Maybe that won’t be everyone’s experience. But I suspect something similar was true of the psalmist.

. . .

The refrain above, exalting God, seems to be the main theme of Psalm 57; it occurs at both verse 5 and verse 11, and is the final note in the song. The psalm contains many of the expectable elements of a lament: the complaint, the plea, the praise for God’s actual or anticipated intervention. But all of these occur against the background of the exaltation of God, addressing him as the Most High.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the psalmist celebrates the real-world experience of God’s hesed and emeth, God’s steadfast covenant love and faithfulness. The psalmist exults in God’s intervention, responding with loud and joyous song. That exultation becomes exaltation:

I will give thanks to you, my Lord,
    among all the peoples;
I will make music to you among the nations
because your faithful love
        is as high as heaven;
    your faithfulness reaches the clouds.
Exalt yourself, God, higher than heaven!
    Let your glory be over all the earth!
(vss. 9-11, CEB)

Earlier, I suggested that the psalmist envisions God sending forth his hesed and emeth from on high, as a king might send forth emissaries. The psalmist has experienced God’s steadfast covenant love, truth, and trustworthiness in real time here on earth:

But the imagery then rebounds heavenward. The psalmist imagines God’s hesed and emeth (“faithful love” and “faithfulness” in the passage above) reaching back into the sky, up to the clouds and beyond:

We might even go back to creation songs like Psalm 8 and imagine the psalmist’s praise continuing to expand into the furthest reaches of space, to the moon and stars. There is, in other words, nowhere outside the reach of God’s love and faithfulness. As a consequence, there is nowhere outside the reach of the psalmist’s praise and exaltation of God.

. . .

Sometimes, the world may seem to close in on us. We are surrounded by problems and challenges. Our options seem limited. We know God is exalted in being, and we may sing accordingly: For Thou, O LORD, art high above all the earth; Thou are exalted far above all gods; we exalt Thee. But we may be exalting God with a colorless obedience that lacks exultation; we mouth the words of praise even when we don’t feel like celebrating or even worshiping.

We need psalms of lament to remind us that this is how the life of faith will sometimes be.

And we need songs like Psalm 57 to remind us that it needn’t always be that way. There will be moments in which our horizons open back up, when we see God at work, and begin to perceive his love and faithfulness permeating our lives and blanketing our world.

Those are the moments in which we will praise him to the skies.

Indeed, we may not be able to help it.