In this sixth article, Canon John Udris explores the significance of praise in the psalms and why blessing God throughout each day brings us many blessings in return
Psalm 150 begins and ends with ‘Alleluia!’ The whole Psalter in the Jewish tradition is called the Tellihim which means the Book of Praises. It highlights that praise is actually the undercurrent throughout this Book. It bursts out in particular places, early on in Psalm 8 ‘How great is your name O Lord our God through all the earth.’ It finds voice in psalms that begin ‘Give thanks to the Lord for he is good’ and in the shortest Psalm 117. But these praises reach a crescendo in the last five psalms of the Psalter building to the last line of Psalm 150, ‘let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ And the very last word is fittingly ’alleluia!’ as if to say that praise is where our lives are orientated ultimately and what our hearts are made for: the praise of our God which is our everlasting destiny. Moreover, the praising itself contains the power that propels us forward through life.
And just as the final psalm begins and ends with ‘Alleluia’, both Psalms 103 and 104 are framed in the expression ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul.’ Psalm 103 expresses the enjoyment of all created things and between its beautiful lines is the sense that praise is not only the appropriate response to all God’s gifts, it’s also the way we best appropriate those very gifts. There’s a powerful line from the Talmud that says, ‘If you enjoy something in this world without saying a blessing, it is as if you stole it.’’ Hence the importance of grace before meals. So we might say that Psalm 103 is one long Grace by which the psalmist, in blessing God for all created things, finds himself only increasing in his enjoyment and appreciation of each of those blessings. The daily ambition of every orthodox Jew is to pray a hundred blessings. To bless the Lord for the bed you get out of in the morning, for the water in which you wash, to literally bless your way through each day. This is the spirituality of the psalms.
So Psalm 103 is one long litany of appreciation by which we come to articulate and acknowledge the full extent of God’s gifts. By which we learn that blessing the Lord continually for these gifts also unleashes an avalanche of those blessings upon us. This is one of those laws of the life of the Spirit and of all who walk in the Spirit. Take friendship, for example. Blessing the Lord for our friends is the best way to keep them. It’s the way they stay as his gifts. It’s the way we savour the blessing of these special relationships. It’s the way we not only prevent ourselves from taking them for granted, but it’s how we stay open to wherever that friendship will lead us next in God’s loving plan.
When we bless God we get blessed. It’s the same word barak to describe what we do and what God does. In other words ‘bless and we will be blessed.’ The theology of the psalms celebrates this inextricable connection in between blessing God and being blessed by him.
‘O come bless the Lord all you who serve the Lord’ begins Psalm 134 and it ends ‘may the Lord bless you from Sion he who made both heaven and earth.’ In the Canticle of Daniel with its endless invitations to bless the Lord, it calls on the Sun and Moon and the stars of heaven to bless the Lord. That litany of benedictions is like a lightning conductor for us to be blessed anew by those very things. The more we bless the Lord, the more it sharpens our openness to the countless ways he is constantly blessing us.
The liturgy of Benediction itself makes this clear when we first bless the Lord in the Divine Praises ‘Blessed be God’ and ‘Blessed be his holy name’ etc. Then the Lord blesses us in the monstrance and that pattern is repeated in the liturgy of our lives: the more we bless, the more we will be blessed, and the more we will be a blessing. Praise will shift our perspective.
As we do bless we discover one further mystery: the more we bless the Lord in that way, the more we realise that the ability to bless him, is itself an experience of the Holy Spirit. It was the same with Jesus. Do you remember in the gospels (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21) where he is described praying ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth’. As it was the Spirit who made Jesus cry out ‘I bless you, Father!’ so it is the same Spirit, as St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, who makes us cry out ‘Abba! Father!’
But the psalms teach us something even deeper: to praise God always and everywhere, not just when we’re conscious of things to be grateful for, but even when we’re not, and even in the midst of the mess we find ourselves in at any given moment. The psalms don’t undo our mistakes and failures but they do redeem them which is exactly what King David discovered when he composed the psalms in the first place. Again Jesus teaches us this when he prays, ‘I bless you, Father’ because he prays it in the face of his own failure. His first mission around the towns of Galilee has just been a total flop, but rather than allow himself to be discouraged he chooses to give his Father thanks and praise. He will not be intimidated by the evidence in front of him. Likewise at the Last Supper, even as his passion looms large Jesus chooses to take bread and bless God for it. It’s this trust that praising expresses which triggers the miracle of the paschal mystery, which causes the earthquake and resurrection.
The Venerable Ignatius Spencer, a Passionist and ancestor of Winston Churchill his great nephew, and Princess Diana his great, great, great niece, has a beautiful image of the power of praise. He says imagine taking a hammer to a piece of stone. He says the first stroke doesn’t appear to have any impact at all. But he says if you keep at it then maybe at the hundredth stroke that stone will shatter. Such he says is the power of praise and thanksgiving. Whatever it is we are worrying about, whatever the difficulty we are dealing with, says Spencer, take the hammer of praise to it, thank God in the face of it. Indeed as he puts it so powerfully, ‘Let us thank God in anticipation.’ That is in anticipation of a breakthrough. In anticipation of whatever God’s providence is preparing in all this. It was the psalmist that taught Spencer and all the saints this. The psalms teach us to thank our way through each day. To praise our way through the problems we face, to pray our way into the Lord’s loving providence. To experience the transformative power of alleluia in our lives and and to establish it as a deliberate strategic approach to each new challenge. To bless our way to blessedness.
Let’s end with a reminder of the ‘alleluia!’ that must have been on the lips of the Lamb of God himself on Easter morning. And the exultation which is the supreme end, aim and orientation of the psalms. Alleluia indeed.
Music: Handel’s Messiah – the Alleluia Chorus.