Obedient praise

Okay, let’s do a little exercise in what’s known as “free association.” I’m going to mention two words, one at a time. “Association” refers to any thoughts, feelings, or images that come to mind when I say the word. “Free” means don’t overthink it; it’s not a test, and there are no right or wrong answers. Just let things pop into your mind. Ready? Here’s the first word:

Sacrifice.

What came to mind? Ponder it for a moment. Now here’s the second word:

Praise.

What came to mind this time? And do the associations you had to the two words have anything to do with each other? If not, then what can the Bible mean by a “sacrifice of praise”?

. . .

Spurred by Psalm 40, we’ve recently been considering the meaning of that phrase from the book of Hebrews, and the similar phrase “sacrifice of thanksgiving” from Psalm 50. In Psalm 40, the psalmist declares that God doesn’t want sacrifices and burnt offerings, and implies that what God wants instead is for him to speak openly to the congregation about God’s salvation, about his righteousness, love, and faithfulness.

I suspect that for many of us, the word “sacrifice” means something painful, giving up something you need or want. We sacrifice our time and energy to care for friends and family, to participate in worthy causes; we sacrifice financially in order to tithe, even when we feel the budget is tight. And if the truth be told, we often want other people to recognize and say “Thank you” for our sacrifice. Sometimes, we go as far as to lay a burden of guilt on the recipient of our generosity: See how much I’ve sacrificed for you?

But in the context of the Psalms and prophets, the word seems to connote something that has become so routine as to become devoid of spiritual significance, religious behavior done for its own sake. Often, in the prophetic literature, the tension isn’t between offering sacrifice and not offering sacrifice; the fact that people would bring their offerings is taken for granted. Rather, the tension is between empty, rote behavior and gifts brought with a heart of gratitude. Righteousness is not religiosity; righteousness is wanting to be more like the God we love.

Put differently: the language of sacrifice in these contexts is not a matter of painful giving but of right obedience. Indeed, Psalm 50 seems to deflate any idea that we should take pride in the size of our offering, because it all belongs to God anyway (cf. Ps 50:8-12). No: what God wants instead is “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (vs. 14) — our obedient praise.

Depending on your associations to the word “praise,” “obedient praise” may sound like an oxymoron. Isn’t praise spontaneous? Perhaps we come into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, burdened with the anxieties of the past week. Then the music begins. At some point, we feel lifted up by the melody and the beat, by the enthusiasm of those around us. And suddenly — surprise! — the burdens fall away, and are replaced by a feeling of gratitude for God, for this place, for these people.

Sound familiar? I’ve experienced that myself. I’d guess that you have too. And who knows — that’s probably part of the reason that so many of the psalms were set to music in the first place.

But again, in the Psalms, praise is not merely a spontaneous response of gratitude, but an obedient act of gratitude. In Psalm 61, for example, ends with these words: “So I will always sing praises to your name, as I pay my vows day after day” (vs. 8, NRSV).

The Hebrew word for “vow” is used nine times in the Psalms (including twice in Psalm 61). Every time, it’s associated with praise. Psalm 22:25, for example, reads “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.” We’ve seen the phrase “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” in Psalm 50:14; this is followed with the command to “pay your vows to the Most High.” Psalm 56:12 says, “My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.” Nor are these purely private acts, as Psalm 40:9-10 and 22:25 suggest. As the psalmist says twice in Psalm 116, “I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people” (vss. 14 and 18).

We no longer bring thank offerings before God in the way the ancient Israelites did. But it’s worth pondering, I think, what might make for a proper “sacrifice of praise.”

We may need to broaden our understanding of praise beyond the realm of spontaneous individual emotionality. God doesn’t just want individual responses of gratitude, but a grateful community, a grateful people. Again, to be clear, to be a people of praise does not mean discouraging or punishing lament and complaint. Far from it.

But unless we can, as a group, hold the tension between lament and praise, unless we can hear and learn from each other’s stories of what’s gone wrong, what’s gone right, and where God is in the midst of all of it, we will not become the people God wants us to be.

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