Psalm 111 is the first of the great Egyptian Hallel (meaning “praise”) praise psalms celebrating the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt through the institution of the Passover. We can learn a lot about true praise from the first inspired Hallel.
Consider the call to praise in Psalm 111:1: “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.” We are presented with the character of true praise in Israel. The psalmist expresses his love to gather with the company of the upright, in the congregation, and express his thanksgiving with a whole heart to God. The entire congregation is summoned to praise the Lord with all their faculties (mind, will, and affections), appreciating the peculiar blessing that the world does not have when the saints gather together for worship.
American Praise Music
American Christians are challenged by this description of praise. We have been trained by the broader culture that how we feel when we come to worship is determined by the success of the instrumentation to create a good feeling. The assumption is that praise is created by the success of the musicians, as if we have to achieve concert quality music to truly praise God. This has led many to view their church music as the one aspect to their church that they perceive as not very good. What we need is a young, hip musician up front, graphic T, with a band behind him, who will bring us into a state of true praise. This has become the de facto standard of achieving true praise in American churches.
Those churches who do not mimic this model often find that their congregants view their music as mediocre, tolerating the sub-standard approach, believing that most other churches down the street do it better. For a variety of different reasons, they are willing to remain with the church, but they have given up hope that the music will ever get better.
Further, for most church shoppers, their entire church attendance is based on this question: how uplifting is the music? If the church music doesn’t achieve the status of elevating people to the rated quality of expected feeling, many people will disregard that church altogether, regardless of how faithful the ministry of the Word may be. The question is whether such an approach to praise is correct, and whether the church itself is to bear the weight of the responsibility to create what people assume is fulfilling praise. There may be variation in the circumstances of praise, but the question has to do with how true praise is accomplished.
It might be shocking to the reader to hear that much of what is so called praise today in worship is not received by the Lord. God certainly turns his ear away from not just vain repetitions, but also empty hearts due to empty theology. It should be self-evident that our feelings have to arise to something higher than animal instincts to truly praise the Lord.
The Biblical Corrective
This is why Psalm 111 is a corrective as it describes what constitutes true praise. The psalmist is led to the most sincere expression of true praise. Notice the first two characteristics that are described of true praise: 1) it is done with the whole heart, and 2) it involves the entire congregation.
But there is a third and most important aspect of true praise captured in verse 2 that makes the first two characteristics possible. Verse 2 states, “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” Third, God’s wonderful works must be sought out and praise is the response that follows.
Historically, Christians believe that true worship requires a proper kind of preparation that the “whole person” may worship the Lord properly. This is why the Jews had an entire day of preparation before Sabbath worship. But preparation is not for merely gathering for worship, it also belongs to offering praise in song that is sincere.
The Psalmist says that true praise is a result of considering the great works of the Lord. In fact, the psalmist says that the works of the Lord are studied or “sought out” by those who delight in them. This is the basis for offering true praise.
Here we arrive at the question of why so many complain that they just don’t feel joy or lack spiritual life in their Christianity. Frequently, the blame is placed on the church’s failure to bring forth praise that, as it is assumed, will create more joy and a vibrant spiritual-filled life. Churches certainly fail in offering true praise. But what is rarely discussed is the responsibility of the churchgoer in offering true praise.
The point of the psalmist can’t be missed: proper praise and of worship God comes in an overflowing heart that is taken by the works of the Lord. From here, Psalm 111 rehearses all of the mighty deliverances of the Lord to the people of Israel. The Lord provided them food in the wilderness, he gave them his law, he fulfilled his promise in giving them the land, and, ultimately, he gave them the Passover to make an everlasting memorial for his deliverance from Egypt. All of these mighty works speak of Christ and his deliverance and care for us.
The psalmist is calling God’s people to “seek out” these wondrous works from the Word. After the truth of these works has penetrated into the heart and mind to be “studied”, appreciated, celebrated, only then can the “whole heart” offer true praise. There is an overflow of praise resulting from a mind that has been renewed by God’s great salvation.
Try singing an appropriate psalm after the Word has been preached, the experience is much different than if the same song was sung before the message. The truth has been brought to bear on the heart and conscience in such a way that creates a natural overflow of praise, from the heart. Paying close attention to the sermon is really important! And preparing the heart with the Word before worship is very important! Understanding, that has affected the faculties of the person, results in and prompts true praise. Proper preparation for praise requires that the churchgoer engage the mind with God’s word to delight themselves in his works.
True praise in worship doesn’t come cheaply. Praise is not: “1,2,3 let’s go” as the band jams for twenty minutes. Praise is not created by a hip worship band and leader up front manipulating emotions to bring people into an ecstatic state as the congregation watches, mostly in silence, the great performance. People who live by this kind of intoxicating approach to praise will never find true satisfaction in God’s worship. The experience will never be high enough, the churchgoer will be tossed back and forth by every wind of “feeling.”
True praise that God loves comes out of a whole heart, in the gathered assembly, as all the voices of the people together are raised, because the marvelous works of the Lord have been sought out, comprehended, and believed. People who have delighted themselves in Christ and his steadfast love shown to them in his wondrous work won’t have to ask about how to achieve true praise. Great pleasure and delight has followed this pursuit of understanding. The whole heart is being exercised. Here praise has its proper place and its proper effect.
If you are finding the praise of the Lord in your church unfulfilling, there might be a variety of questions to ask about how your church is conducting its music, but a good place to begin is to ask how much you are really given to study the marvelous works of God’s salvation. God’s wonderful works must first overtake the mind and heart for the worshipper to offer a whole heart in the sincere praise of Christ.