[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for June, 2020.]
Both the Old and New Testaments call on us to be a people who are always ready and willing to praise God. To that end, the main purpose of the Scriptures is to teach what we are to believe about God, so that the praise we give Him is informed and accurate, and not something that springs out of our imagination. That only results in idolatry. And when we understand just who God is, we understand why ALL people should be commanded to give praise to God (e.g. Ps 100), and not just Christians.
For the unregenerate, the refusal to give proper praise to God is just one more proof of the perversity of sin. But Christians have the highest of reasons to celebrate the amazing love and grace of God. He has makes it personal! He, the sovereign lord of all that is, delights in us! He comes to the lowly, who have nothing, and He gives everything—for this life and forever and for His glory (v.4b)! So why should we have to be commanded? Sadly one of the effects of sin is that despite God’s amazing grace, we do not always love or do what we should, or if we do, we tend to find it a burden.
We recognize the verbs “praise” and “sing” in this Psalm as imperatives but the words “let us…” and “let them… be” are to be read as commands. The first are exhortations, commands in which the speaker includes him- or her- self. The second are commands in general that the speaker wants obeyed by everyone. But we must be careful. It is unfortunate that the sense of triumph in verses 6 to 9 has at times been taken out of context and used to justify coercion and persecution in the name of the Church. And where this has happened it has left long shadows over world history. We do not need to persecute others to build the Church. Yes the Lord will have the victory and will bring righteous punishment for all to see (v.9) on those who reject Him and assume they are not accountable to Him for their use of authority (v.8). The New Testament assures us that while State powers have their place (Rom 13:1-4), the Church is not to be built by worldly weapons (2 Cor 10:4). Our ‘weapons’ are spiritual and the true ‘two-edged sword’ is the Bible (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12) which the Lord wields through us.
We can understand commanding actions, but how does one command joy? It seems contradictory. The difficulty disappears when we realize that the joy spoken of here is the joy of the redeemed. As Isaiah put it, “the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and glad-ness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is 51:11). The command to be joyful, then, is a command to seek the Lord in repentance and faith, to look to him for the forgiveness of sins and to delight in to the grace that grants us citizenship in the everlasting Zion, the New Jerusalem (Rev 3:12; 21:2,10). And this joy is only granted and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, so that we are told, “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
So Christians are to be a singing people. Why? Because the Lord knows that there is something about the poetry and action of singing that takes us beyond the same facts written in prose. Nor is it just for this earth; there is much singing in the presence of God in heaven! But what if we sometimes cannot sing outwardly? We will miss it, BUT we can know that we are able to make acceptable melody in the heart (Eph 5:19).
It is a high honour to be the Lord’s (v.9) and it is an amazing fruit of His love for us that He should actually take pleasure in us despite all our faults (v.4a). It is also an honour (and should be a delight) to live lives that others see as an invitation to follow Christ. True praise will do that.