At the age of 8, I joined the parish church choir in my home town which met for 1½ hours each Tuesday and Thursday and then sang at the 11.15 am and 6.30 pm services on Sundays. We even deputised occasionally for the Guildford Cathedral choir during August when the choristers were on holiday. Small wonder then that I knew many of the psalms by heart before I reached my teenage years. When my peers were humming ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’, my head was full of ‘Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.’ Psalm 33.
I didn’t understand everything I sang in those days, but the words and the tunes and the general themes of the psalms went deep. Strangely, I did have a problem with the whole idea of praising God. My teachers and my parents did praise me when I did something exceptional and that seemed right to me but I neither looked for nor needed constant praise like some Kim Jong-un or minor celebrity with their sycophantic fans. I couldn’t see how God would want that either.
The Psalms seemed to be full of people telling others to praise God. From 150 psalms, there are over 60 mentions of the word Praise in the simple concordance at the back of my Bible. ‘Sing to Him, sing praise to Him ’, Psalm 105, ’Let every creature praise his holy name forever and ever.’ Psalm 145. Words are put in God’s mouth, ‘He who offers me thanks and praise, he honours me’ Psalm 50, which seemed to me to be saying that God wanted me to tell him He is good and great. Reverence towards God, obedience to God, gratitude to God – all these I understood but how could someone as small and insignificant as me possibly be able to praise God Himself.
Slowly, slowly, things got clearer. The more psalms I sang, the more I saw that, in praising God with others, in worshipping Him, He communicated with me, revealed Himself to me. God wasn’t craving my praises like a vain person wanting compliments. No one wants approval from people giving it for the wrong reasons. But our own enjoyment of anything frequently turns into praise. Reading a good book leads to praise of the author and a search for more of their works. A beautiful view seems more complete when we can express our joy in it to a friend (how we’ve missed that during lockdown!). We praise good food, good weather, pretty flowers and faithful dogs and in doing so increase our own enjoyment of them. C.S. Lewis says ‘…praise seems to be inner health made audible.’ And when we spontaneously urge others to join us in praising – ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’, ‘Wasn’t that a good goal?’, – we are echoing what the Psalmists are saying when they urge everyone to praise God. The more we learn to enjoy and to love God, the more we will want to praise Him. We are only learning to praise God here on earth, but the day will come when we will be lost in praise of God with the angels and we will see just how feeble our earthly praises were. We need to keep practising praise!
So how do the praise psalms help us to pray and to get nearer to God? I believe they give us a pathway and a pattern. The first 5 verses of Psalm 66, for example, tell us to shout and sing our praise, to tell God what He means to us and to urge others to see God for themselves:
1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth!
2 Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious.
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power
that your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you,
they sing the praises of your name.
5 Come and see what God has done,
his awesome deeds for mankind!
Can you find your own way to explain to God how ‘awesome’ He is to you?
Our British reserve probably means that we don’t often ‘shout for joy’ but it is possible to raise our inner voice as we tell God in prayer just how much we want to praise Him. Even a physical action like punching the air can strengthen the power of our praise in private prayer. Try it!
In this psalm, which is not the most obvious psalm of praise in the book, there is a shift from corporate praise, to which the whole earth is invited, down to the thanks and praise of one single worshipper, who speaks of God who is not only worldwide, but also personal. This person praises God for His intimate care.
16 Come and hear, all you who fear God;
let me tell you what he has done for me.
17 I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on my tongue.
18 If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
19 but God has surely listened
and has heard my prayer.
20 Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me!
Think about an occasion when you were grateful to God for His answer to a prayer of yours. Does that fill you with praise? How do you show and tell God what this means to you? Does it involve sharing your praise of God with others?
Just as the psalms teach us how to praise God, then so do many of the hymns we sing. As psalms are disappearing from much of our worship, hymns are becoming the better-known vehicles of praise. As you read the words of this well-known hymn, inspired by Psalms 47 and 103, know that by praising God, you are enjoying Him and that, by enjoying Him you are learning to love Him more. And if you want to, just sing it out loud!
Praise to the Lord, the almighty, the king of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is your health and salvation!
Come, all who hear; brothers and sisters draw near,
Praise him in glad adoration!
Praise to the Lord, above all things so mightily reigning;
keeping us safe at his side and so gently sustaining.
Have you not seen, all you have needed has been
met by his gracious ordaining?
Praise to the Lord, who shall prosper our work and defend us;
surely his goodness and mercy shall daily attend us.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
who with his love will befriend us.
Praise to the Lord – O let all that is in me adore him!
All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him!
Let the “Amen!” sound from his people again;
gladly with praise we adore him!
ALM St Peter’s Belmont