Back in the 19th century, Lewis Carroll, the man who gave us Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published The Hunting of the Snark, a whimsical, nonsensical poem about a crew of ten characters trying to find the mythical creature known as a snark. The poem opens with one of the characters, the Bellman, crying out, “Just the place for a snark!” He says it a second time, and then a third.
Then comes one of the most famous lines of the poem: “What I tell you three times is true.” The saying has become proverbial, and is particularly relevant in today’s world of electronic news and social media. Statements and claims, well-founded or otherwise, get tweeted and posted, then re-tweeted and re-posted again and again and again. The truth of a matter can get lost in the sheer repetition; if everybody’s saying it, mustn’t it be true?
Obviously, that’s not to say that something is false simply because it’s been repeated numerous times. Repetition serves other functions, such as focusing the worshiping community on an attribute of God. In the Psalms, the attribute that probably gets the most attention is God’s steadfast love (in Hebrew, hesed or chesed). In Psalm 103, for example, God is said to crown us with steadfast love (vs. 4). God abounds in steadfast love (vs. 8). His steadfast is as great as the heavens are high above the earth (vs. 11) and is from everlasting to everlasting (vs. 17).
Because of this, the psalmist says “Bless the LORD” a full six times; in no other psalm is the word “bless” used as often. The psalm both begins and ends with “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” said three times (vss. 1, 2, 22), as he calls himself to a posture of worship. But the rest of creation is also called to participate in worship, including the angels (vs. 20) and the entire heavenly host (vs. 21), as well as “all his works, in all places of his dominion” (vs. 22). What I say six times is for everyone: bless the LORD!
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The language of blessing, however, may not be natural to modern speakers of English. We might automatically say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes, without being conscious of wanting to wish them good health. We might ask someone to “bless the food” before we eat, regardless of whether we have any consciousness of God’s involvement in the mundane affairs of our everyday lives. (Being the snarky person that I often am — just the place for a snark! — if someone asks me to bless a meal, I might reply that I’m happy to ask God to bless it instead.)
The Hebrew word translated as “bless” (barak) is used over 300 times in the Old Testament, with a wide range of meanings. It can be translated as “kneel,” as when Abraham’s faithful servant made his camels kneel in the moments before he met Rebekah (Gen 24:11). By extension, the word can then suggest whatever it is that people do from that position, including prayer or blessing someone (including, of course, God) in an act of gratitude or adoration.
Blessings weren’t necessarily special acts of devotion, but part of the psalmist’s social world. Blessings were exchanged in greeting when people came together and when they left each other’s company. Today, we might say “goodbye” without any consciousness of the original meaning of “God be with you” as a blessing, just as people once bid each other “farewell” without the sense of wishing them to fare well.
When the psalmist summons his own soul and indeed all of creation to bless God, I don’t think he’s thinking of a special worship service or something out of the ordinary. He’s not telling everyone to put blessing on their daily schedule or to come to an event. In a sense, the summons is akin to the injunction that was repeatedly given to God’s people: Don’t forget.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote that we used to live in a world in which we knew without question that God was active and present; now, however, we have to intentionally remember God as we go about our daily lives. But even in the psalmist’s day, there was always the danger of getting so wrapped up in one’s daily affairs that God’s steadfast love is taken for granted. To bless God in that context might mean not only to remember to bow the knee in thanksgiving, but to live in an ongoing posture that is oriented in gratitude to the God who sustains and blesses us.
Bless the LORD: don’t forget God’s providence and care. Bless the LORD: don’t forget all that God has done for you. Bless the LORD: for his steadfast love is forever and reaches higher than the heavens.
What I tell you three times is true.