Praise both ways

Psalm 145, as we’ve seen in recent posts, is a beautiful example of both poetry and praise. It’s not easy to stay within the confines of the acrostic structure (each line must begin with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order); poets sometimes have to resort to compromises and shortcuts to make the structure work. But the psalm reads like a coherent, organic whole, a free but thoughtful expression of praise.

What’s more, one might say that the psalm gives us praise two ways, or with the psalmist facing in two directions. On the one hand, the psalmist faces God and praises him directly; this is praise offered to God. On the other hand, the psalmist also seems to face an audience, perhaps a community of worship, speaking words of praise about God. Praise to God, praise about God: these are like the two sides of a single poetic coin, and the psalmist effortlessly alternates back and forth between them.

Thus, the psalmist opens by speaking directly to God:

I will extol you, my God and King,
    and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
    and praise your name forever and ever
. (vss. 1-2, NRSV)

God is king, and as such the psalmist lifts him up through blessing and praise. Then it’s as if the psalmist turns to face a congregation to draw them into the act: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable” (vs. 3).

Back and forth the psalmist goes. In verses 4 to 7, the psalmist speaks directly to God again, saying how the stories of God’s great and wonderful deeds will continue to be retold throughout the generations, in celebration of his goodness and righteousness. Then, in verses 8 and 9, he turns and speaks to the congregation about God, giving them reason to worship:

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

All of the faithful, and indeed, all of God’s works will tell of God’s might and splendor, the psalmist then declares to God the king. “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,” he says, “and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (vs. 13a). Turning back to the congregation, the psalmist continues to expound God’s grace and compassion:

The LORD is faithful in all his words,
    and gracious in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all who are falling,
    and raises up all who are bowed down
. (vss. 13b-14)

The psalmist speaks gratefully to God for his God’s providential care for all (vss. 15-16), then declares that care to the worshipers in what reads like a crescendo of praise:

The LORD is just in all his ways,
    and kind in all his doings.
The LORD is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
    he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The LORD watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy
. (vss. 17-20)

The closing line of the psalm sums up: “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,¬†and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever” (vs. 21). What the psalm itself demonstrates, though, is that speaking God’s praise includes both speaking to God personally and speaking about God to others. The back-and-forth rhythm, together with the acrostic structure of the poem, suggests that these two ways of praising God are part of the fullness of praise.

. . .

Praise is an expression of worship; it is giving God what God is due. But this is both an individual and a corporate act. We praise together, we worship together — and we encourage our mutual embrace of worship by the words of praise we speak to one another. Others need to hear our praise, and we need to hear theirs.

That’s not to say that we should ever use words of praise to drown out the voices of suffering and lament — not if we’ve learned anything from the Psalms. That would foster a congregational culture in which people fear being rejected if they dare to suggest that things aren’t “fine.” We rob ourselves of the depth of praise if we cannot also enter into deep and honest lament together.

But if we are confident that we’ve listened well and with godly compassion, and have left ample room for lament, we shouldn’t be reticent to say what we have learned personally about the goodness of God. In a broken world such as ours, people need to hear it.

So don’t be shy. Give your praise to God directly, then find ways to give the gift of praise to each other.