Sunday, September 21, 2008

Offering the “High Praises”

The expression “high praises” occurs only in Psalm 149:6. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.” The word in Hebrew is romemot, the plural construct form of romam, high or extolling praise. The Hebrew verbal root for the word is rum (pronounced “room”), with the basic meaning of “rise, be exalted.” A similar expression, derived from the same root, is found in Psalm 66:17, “I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled (romem) with my tongue.”

Note that the word is plural, not “high praise” but “high praises.” This suggests that the focus is not on the concept of exaltation or praise, but on the actual activity of praise as performed repeatedly and simultaneously by a group of people gathered together for this purpose. The “high praises of God” are not offered by an individual worshiper, but by an entire worshiping community in festive assembly.

Psalm 149 is an interesting expression of the power of spiritual warfare. Through the “high praises” of God” and the “two-edged sword” of his judgment, the enemies of his rule are subdued. The “two-edged sword” could be taken literally as the enforcement of the precepts of God's law upon the order of society. But, as we know, the “two-edged sword” is also a biblical metaphor for the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12, cf. Revelation 1:16; see also “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” Ephesians 6:17).

Psalm 149 thus combines two central elements of biblical worship: the free and enthusiastic corporate offering of praise to God, and the proclamation and enactment of his Word. The language of the psalm reinforces our understanding that Christian worship is an action of spiritual warfare. Through our gathering together to exalt the name of the Lord in “high praises,” and to rehearse the judgments pronounced in Scripture against everything that opposes his kingdom, we are taking part in the battle against the forces of darkness and evil.

The psalm is therefore a paradigm for strong, vibrant worship that celebrates the majesty and integrity of the living God. It is an exuberant worship marked by a certain holy abandon in the presence of the Almighty, an exercise in “high praises” including great rejoicing and gladness, the “new song” (which may be free-form singing “in the Spirit”), the use of festive instruments, and even the movement arts such as dance or procession.

Psalm 149 leaves no place for an insipid, sentimental kind of “worship” that focuses on how we feel, or caters to our preferences and our hurts. What passes for worship in many churches is, I fear, a “celebration” of the faith of the worshiper, rather than a celebration of Him to whom that faith and worship are directed. There is, of course, a place for reflection and self-examination in the Christian life, and our gatherings can make a place for these things where appropriate. But the victorious worship-warriors of Psalm 149 are not concerned with themselves, but with the judgments of God against an ungodly world. They go forth armed not with their own resources but with the weapons of God, which they take in their mouths and in their hands. They do battle not as isolated individuals, but as a community bonded by their common concern for the exaltation of God, his enthronement upon the praises of his people (see Psalm 22:3), and the enactment of his justice in the face of the evil structures of world cultures. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”