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“Praise; A Vocabulary of Praise”

Psalm 150:1-6 and others
Bob DeGray
November 28, 2004

Key Sentence

The greater your vocabulary, the greater your praise.


I. Praise by Blessing God (barak) - Psalm 103:1-13, Psalm 95:1-7
II. Praise by Magnifying God (gadal) - Psalm 34:1-3
III. Praise with a Song (zamar and shir) - Psalm 108:1-5
IV. Praise with a Joyful Shout or Song (ranan) - Psalm 98:1-9
V. Praise by Giving Thanks (yadah, towdah) - Psalm 111:1-5
VI. Praise by Celebrating God (halal, tehillah) - Psalm 150


        Anything a number of people are very interested in tends to develop a special vocabulary. Take the Internet, for example. The World Wide Web only came into existence a little over ten years ago, but now many of us glibly use terms like blog, bandwidth, browser, cookie, cyberspace, DNS, firewall, gateway, HTML, IP address, router, search engine, spam, spyware, URL, virus, worm and World Wide Web itself. The vocabulary developed because of interested people’s need to communicate.

        Sometimes someone creates the vocabulary for you, as J. R. R. Tolkien did for The Lord of the Rings. Long before the movies made them popular dedicated Tolkien fans could tell you the name of Gandalf’s sword, the difference between the Quenya and Sindarin elvish languages, Bilbo’s age at every point in the story, and the lineage of Aragorn son of Arathorn back to the First Age. True Tolkien enthusiasts don’t set out to learn this stuff - it is just naturally acquired as part of their enthusiasm.

        Often such vocabularies communicate fine shades of meaning. When I was a mechanical engineer, if you asked me to check a pressure vessel, you might describe it as a BEM tubular exchanger with rolled tubes, flanged and dished heads, and tubesheets extended as flanges, fabricated from SA-516-70 steel with double penetration welds 100 percent radiographed and full replacement nozzles. It’s amazing how that stuff comes back to me. And it’s meaningful - it finely describes a given pressure vessel.

        The point is that you learn how to use an elaborate vocabulary for something you’re interested in. And you can tell what someone is interested in by studying their vocabulary. So if you study the vocabulary of the Old Testament you should be able to figure out what the people of the Old Testament were interested in. Several things would come out, but one I think would be outstanding is the conclusion that the people of Israel who wrote and used the Old Testament were extremely interested in worship. It’s hard to get an exact count, but certainly dozens of words in the Hebrew vocabulary were used for different aspects of worship, and probably twenty or more are translated by the English word ‘praise’ in some verse in some translation. But that’s a problem, because the English word praise just means ‘praise’, to speak well of somebody, and that’s not the only emphasis of these twenty Hebrew words. If we look at the use of these words in the Hebrew text we find that they have clear differences of meaning. As a result, if we study and apply those meanings, we can expand our vocabulary of praise. So we’re not going to have one neon Hebrew word today - we’re going to have six or eight, each of which shows us a different emphasis of praise, because the greater your vocabulary, the greater your praise.

        The first Hebrew word we’re going to look at this morning is ‘barak’, which is translated praise, of course, but even more often translated ‘to bless’. As such it is most often used of God blessing us - ‘the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you’. But with some frequency the word is turned around and used of blessing God. For example, here’s the beginning of Psalm 103: Bless the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, bless his holy name. 2Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. What does it mean for us to bless? Certainly we can’t confer a blessing on God, or give him something he doesn’t have. Can we? Maybe we can. Maybe the very act of recognizing his blessings blesses him, just as a father is delighted by the delight of his children when he gives them a gift. That’s what this Psalm teaches ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits’. You bless God by remembering and delighting in what he has done.

        The rest of this Psalm lists benefits. I’m just going to read this with a verbal emphasis on the benefits he gives: 3who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5who satisfies your desires with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. 6The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. 7He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: 8The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.

        God is blessed when we recognize him with mind and heart as a forgiving, healing, redeeming, crowning, satisfying, righteous, self-revealing, gracious, patient, loving, forbearing, compassionate Father. He has blessed us in these ways, and removed our transgressions from us through Jesus because of his compassion for us. We have to bless him with praise when we remember all his benefits.

        But the word has another sense which makes it an even richer. Psalm 95, verses 1 to 7: Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
        let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
        2Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
        3For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.
        4In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.
        5The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
        6Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
        7for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

        This is a great Psalm of praise, and we’ll be looking at some of these praise words this morning: sing for joy, shout aloud, give thanks, extol. But the one we’re currently looking at, bless, is not obvious in this translation. It’s in verse 6: Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. ‘Barak’ is translated kneel, which is legitimate because the verb is derived from the noun berek, which means ‘the knee’. In Isaiah 45:23, for example, God says that ‘before me every knee will bow’. The context here points to that act of worship: kneeling is parallel to bowing down. The implication is that we kneel to receive God’s blessing, and that we kneel to delight in God’s blessing, which blesses him. Like several others, this praise word calls us to physical worship: kneel, shout, sing. The testimony of Biblical history and church history is that worship is, at least partly, a physical act, done with the body and the voice, in the assembly of the faithful. Bless the Lord, O my soul! Kneel to worship him. Is this part of your vocabulary of praise?

        Let’s move on. A second Hebrew word for praise is ‘gadal’, from a word that means ‘to make great’ often translated ‘magnify’ or ‘glorify’ Psalm 34:1-3 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. 2My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. 3Magnify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together. Notice again how the Psalmist tends to use many of these words together: bless, praise, boast, exalt and magnify. What does it mean to magnify the Lord? We’ve talked about this before. It means literally to make him great in our eyes, just as a telescope magnifies a distant object, and makes it greater in our eyes. Lot, escaping from Sodom tells the angel of the Lord that he has magnified his lovingkindness by this rescue. J. I. Packer, in the book Knowing God we talked about last week, says the way to learn to know God’s greatness is to compare him to things you consider great - in other words, to magnify him. ‘You created the mountains, but you are higher than the mountains, you created the stars, but you are greater than the stars. You created kings, but you are the king of kings.’

        Perhaps the best way to learn the meaning of this word is to sing a song David Jackson taught us a while back called ‘Be Magnified’ ‘I have made you too small in my eyes; O Lord, forgive me. And I have believed in the lie, that you were unable to help me. But now, O Lord, I see my wrong. Heal my heart and show yourself strong. And in my eyes, and with my song, O Lord, be magnified.’ Let’s pause for a minute and practice this vocabulary of praise, to magnify and to bless God.


        The next two praise words we want to add to our vocabulary are specifically associated with acts of worship. The first reminds us that we are to ‘sing for joy’ and praise him with music. It’s the Hebrew word ‘zamar’ and it’s often used together with the Hebrew word ‘shir’ which means sing.

         Psalm 108:1-5 My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul. 2Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. 3I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. 4For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. 5Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.

        Praise is associated with music and singing. The Old Testament is full of Psalms like this that promote the use of song to praise God. Here the Psalmist says ‘I will sing’ - that’s the word ‘shir’ - and ‘make music’ - that’s the word ‘zamar’ - I will ‘shir’ and ‘zamar’. He will make this music on the harp and the lyre, and to do it publicly ‘I will sing praise to you among the peoples. And that model is pervasive in the Old Testament. Many of us love the story of Jehoshaphat and his prayer when his country was threatened ‘we don’t know what to do but our eyes are on you.’ But do you remember what Jehoshaphat did do? Instead of sending out his elite troops at the head of the army, he sent out the worship team - those who sang and praised before the Lord. And that public praise led the people to victory.

        In the New Testament this pattern begins with the Christmas songs in the Gospel of Luke - Zechariah’s; Mary’s; Simeon’s - and continues into the early church, where Paul urges believers to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thanksgiving, and concludes in Revelation with it’s series of marvelous scenes of worship in heaven. These have often been set to music, as The Messiah’s ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ or Kemper Crabb’s ‘Revelation 4'. Martin Luther said “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God in music.”

        I’ve often said there are two kinds of people in the world - the kind with music playing in their heads as the background of their lives, and the kind without. If you’re the kind without, stay tuned, the next words are for you. But if you’re the kind whose heart expresses itself through music, I say invest some energy, some time, even some money in making sure the music is honoring to God, that it is the music of praise.

        But if you’re not musical, why not shout? There are two words associated with shouting in the Hebrew vocabulary of praise, one of them more musical, and one less. They are both used, along with many of the other words we’ve mentioned, in Psalm 98:
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
        4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6with trumpets and the ram's horn– shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
        7Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

        Sing to the Lord a new song, that’s ‘shir’ ‘zamar’ that we just talked about. But ‘shout for joy’ to the Lord is the Hebrew word ‘rua’ and burst into jubilant song is the Hebrew word ‘ranan’. Both are very common, and both involve joy. Praise is supposed to be joyful, and it’s supposed to get your blood flowing. Why? Because of what God has done: “his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” He is to be praised with a shout because he’s the Savior. He’s made his salvation known, revealing his righteousness - neon word from three weeks ago; revealing his love - neon from two weeks ago, so the ends of the earth see the salvation of our God.

        This is a prophetic psalm, and it looks forward to Jesus, in whom God’s righteousness and his love were displayed. His righteousness required a just penalty for sin. Jesus paid that penalty. His love desired to rescue sinners. Jesus expressed that love. The foundation of all praise and thanksgiving is the good news that though every person has sinned and separated themselves from God, he has shown us his love. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. And not just for the best of us, or for those who do certain works, but for everyone who cries out to God and trusts Jesus as their Savior. The Bible says “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. This is the salvation now revealed to the nations. This is the reason this Psalmist wanted to shout. In fact all of creation shouts and sings and roars. The sea thunders, the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout. This is a universal language of praise, everything in its own way praising God for his salvation.

        So if you can’t sing, but you are saved, shout joyfully. Do you think you can do that? I’m going to turn off my mic, and then lead us in a shout of praise, and Jonathan will come and lead us in a couple of songs of praise, before we look at the last two words. So stand and shout as we worship, using Psalm 136. I’ll read, you respond:
        Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.
2Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.
3Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.
4to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.
5who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.
6who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.
7who made the great lights– His love endures forever.
8the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever.
9the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.
        Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.


        The vocabulary of praise. The greater your vocabulary, the greater your praise. This week we’ve been celebrating, Thanksgiving. Our next Hebrew praise word, ‘yadah’ is often translated ‘give thanks’. It’s one of those action words, because it comes from a verb that means ‘to throw’ and it pictures throwing up your hands in praise. Praise is very active: we kneel; we stand; we shout; we sing; we throw up our hands. I’m not sure we always do it well, but the Bible sure encourages us to.

        Why then, do the translators choose ‘give thanks’ for this praise word? Only because in context you find that the word is used where people are recognizing what God has done and praising him. Psalm 111:1-5 Praise the Lord. I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. 2Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them. 3Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He has caused his wonders to be remembered. The Lord is gracious and compassionate. 5He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.

        God is worthy of our praise, our gratitude, our thanksgiving. For years I’ve wondered how you can have Thanksgiving without a God to thank. I wasn’t surprised this week to learn how far this has gone. Last Friday the University of Maryland’s site featured an article by Laurel Lunstro: “Maryland public school students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the celebration of Thanksgiving __ as long as it's not God. And that’s how it should be, administrators say. Students across the state read stories about the Pilgrims and Native Americans, simulate voyages, hold mock feasts and learn about the famous meal that temporarily allied two very different groups. But what teachers don't mention when they describe the feast is that the Pilgrims not only thanked the Native Americans for their peaceful three_day indulgence, but repeatedly thanked God. "We teach about Thanksgiving from a purely historical perspective, not from a religious perspective," said Charles Ridgell, St. Mary's County Public Schools curriculum and instruction director.”

        What a bunch of hokum. You can’t teach history by re-writing it - though it’s done all the time. The Pilgrims celebrated that feast to give thanks to one person and one person only - God, who had saved and sustained them. Thanksgiving doesn’t make sense unless it’s a form of praise to God. The Psalmist knew that. Great are the works of the Lord; Glorious and majestic are his deeds; He has caused his wonders to be remembered; He provides food for those who fear him. That’s Thanksgiving.

        So, the vocabulary of praise: bless God; magnify God; sing praise, shout joyfully, give thanks. How adept are you at these things? I’ve saved for last the Hebrew word ‘halal’, the one that is almost always translated ‘praise’ in the English versions, and from which we get our word ‘hallelujah’. I looked very carefully at the definitions in the Theological Wordbook and elsewhere, and tried several synonyms in context to see how else we might translate. Here’s the result, substituted into Psalm 150:
Psalm 150:1-6 Celebrate the Lord.
Celebrate God in his sanctuary; Celebrate him in his mighty heavens.
2Celebrate him for his acts of power; Celebrate him for his surpassing greatness.
3Celebrate him with the sounding of the trumpet, Celebrate him with the harp and lyre,
4Celebrate him with tambourine and dancing, Celebrate him with the strings and flute,
5Celebrate him with the clash of cymbals, Celebrate him with resounding cymbals.
6Let everything that has breath celebrate the Lord. Celebrate the Lord.

I like it. I think the idea of celebration is a central part of praise, perhaps the high point of praise. But we use the word celebrate two ways, and I want to emphasize the distinction. Sometimes, maybe mostly, we celebrate a good thing that has happened to ourselves or someone else, a milestone in life. So we have birthday celebrations and graduation celebrations and victory celebrations. But mixed in with some of these celebrations is the celebration of a person. The milestone is an excuse, but we’re really celebrating who he or she is, and what he or she has done. Even funerals can be this kind of a celebration. I think Paul Christiansen’s funeral, and David Casselberry’s and Ed Lewis’s were celebrations of the person. And it is that kind of celebration which a great way to understand this Hebrew word ‘praise’. Look at the psalm: celebrate the Lord; celebrate God; celebrate him. The Hebrew form of the verb makes it impossible to just translate this ‘celebrate with tambourine and dancing’; it is explicitly ‘celebrate him’, and express yourself through those things. That’s praise - the celebration of God for who he is and what he has done.

        I want to end with a video clip that I consider a tremendous example of celebrating the person - who he is and what he’s done. Most of you have probably seen this movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and if not I’m going to give away the ending. It’s this scene where after a long career as a music teacher, music has been de-emphasized, Mr. Holland’s job has been eliminated, and he’s packing his bags and leaving the high school for the last time. But all those people whose lives he’s poured himself into over the years - they want to celebrate him. There are two specific links I want you to notice. First, remember that Philippians tells us that we are God’s masterpiece; we are His opus. And second remember that Psalm 150 tells us to celebrate him with the harp and they lyre and these other instruments.
        Clip starts at 2:06:09
        Clip ends at 2:16:29