Number 57. Our Forgotten Praise
Tom Hamilton


The idea of many people today of what praise is about is that of a congregation of people singing songs containing words such as "Hallelujah", "Praise the Lord", "Thank you Jesus" and "Glory". These are, of course, valid expressions of praise taken, mostly from the Psalms. However, for many people such words, although undoubtedly well intentioned, are many times being offered by those in whose lives are feelings of confusion, strife, turmoil, guilt and condemnation. Many times these words are not the real words which would, if allowed freely to form upon the lips of these same people, say an entirely different thing. Perhaps also, if we were to walk into a congregation of saints who could perceive just such a liberty to express the words truly arising from within their hearts, we would hear, instead of sweet choruses repeating carefully-edited words deemed worthy of being considered "praise" - complaints of all kinds, questions and questioning, doubts, anguish of soul, bitter grief, and other such. It would be quite a contrast; and yet, these are the very things which were deemed worthy of being included in the Tehillim of Israel.

Any honest assessment of what we know by the name Psalms, would conclude that probably 75-80% of them are no less than Laments, Complaints, Songs of imprecation, intercession and grief. These were indeed no less the "praises" of Israel. Then why is it that we find no such songs in our chorus books and hymnals today?

The following is an attempt to answer such a question, and in order to do so, we must realise two things which have largely affected our concept of what praise is. These are:-

1. The influence of philosophies and ideas alien to Christianity, arising from heathen sources.

2. The loss of a Hebrew context and setting for the New Testament and our understanding of it.

If we can isolate these philosophical ideas and recognise them, and also re-construct the Hebrew back-drop to the New Testament (and our subject of praise in particular), then we not only may see some interesting things, but may also become open to what perhaps is another facet of what the Holy Spirit is seeking to do in our midst in these exciting days and, finding this, become free from the restrictions which have had us bound for many, many years.

The first of the ideas which has shaped our thinking about praise, and which is alien to the New and Old Testaments is the idea of positivity and negativity. The way in which we divide between the two is not according to Scripture. It has particularly affected how many charismatics have taught such subjects as faith, prosperity, healing, prayer and others. This, in turn, has affected our idea of what praise is. New Age thinking (just old ideas in modern clothing) says that we can control our own destiny and circumstances by using thoughts. If we can control our thoughts then, by thinking only good (positive) thoughts, we can create the reality of the "positive" things we desire. By the same token, if we allow fear to control our thoughts, we will create the reality of the negative things we don't desire. These are called spiritual laws. These thoughts are then expressed through words, and thereby we have derived the expression "you can have what you say". The use of the word spiritual, however, has allowed the charismatic "faith" movement to justify similar renderings of such scriptures as Mark 11:23 and James 3:5-8 (on the power of the tongue) as being the true interpretations of these verses. Some have thus claimed that these are "spiritual laws", available for us to use, even using the new-agers as examples of those who manipulate such spiritual laws to their own evil advantage. The implication, then, is that we should be more highly trained in such skills as these adepts. By the same token, Moses may have been imitated by the sorcerers of Pharaoh who were able to do similar miracles as he did. Does this mean that both Moses and these sorcerers were using the same magic? Of course not! Moses performed miracles by the staff God gave him; the source was entirely different from the magicians of Pharaoh.

Furthermore, our faith is wholly different from the "positivity" and use of apparent "spiritual laws" by the new-agers. These actually are not spiritual at all - they are psychological (Gk - psushikon) which, according to James 3:15 are no less than demon-inspired, and are none other than the lying-wonders taught by fallen angels to men in the days of Noah long ago manifesting themselves again. Just because Greek philosophers (who knew not God) used the word "spirit" does not mean they were speaking of the same thing as Paul, a Hebrew, was speaking of when he used the word. Paul insisted that truly spiritual things could not be discovered by philosophy but only by revelation by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). How then could these heathen philosophers have found them out?

The "twin" philosophy, akin to that of positivity and negativity, equally hideous, is that of success and failure. We have nothing to prove, shall have nothing of which to boast in the last day, and nothing which, called in our own strength to do, we can fail God in. It is never recorded that God said to anyone "Don't fail me", but that, many times, He said to people "Don't be afraid, I'll never fail you or forsake you". Where there is no possibility of success, there can be none of failure either. However, much is made of the two words in our world today, and the church has often assumed a thinking akin to this, striving to be seen to be "successful". This success is itself often measured by worldly standards. Much of our lives, if we are not circumspect, can be influenced by such a thinking.

The Hebrew Thought

To the contrary of the positivity/negativity concept of heathen philosophy, the Hebrew thought allowed for a wholeness of personality to be expressed in praise to God, which apparently neither offended nor disappointed the Lord Most High.

The employment of laments and songs of intercession were as natural as breathing. Nor were they mere dirges, as though the songs were an inverted form of self-pity. These laments and songs of intercession had an imprecatory value; For the worshipper (through solidarity with the Levitical priethood and the temple ministers of song) truly poured out his/her complaint and heart before God, Who heard their cry. To take this a little further, these very real cries from the worshippers, weren't cries merely saying "I'm upset" (as though requesting sympathy), they were, at times, apparently saying "It's your fault!" So much so, that it has been said that the Hebrew worship was based upon the criticism of God.

To some, this may be hard to reconcile with images of offended deity, however this is largely because our own concept of what God is like has often been far from the truth, together with our having had a warped idea about praise. We should only need to take a closer look at those such as Abraham and Moses who often said apparently very bold criticisms of God1. Having had these men as examples of faith, it was natural for the Hebrew worship to have developed along these lines. The point here also is that Abraham's faith didnít develop by the avoidance of a confrontation with God through His questions, doubts etc, but that it was developed within the context of these. Without an open correspondence with God, faith cannot be developed.

The values of Suffering, Pain and Sorrow

Clearly in the Old as well as New Testament, these things are considered as being of greater value than gold. It is, according to Scripture, the final scenario that counts. Job is a case in point. If we hold to the idea that suffering and pain are negative and therefore evil, we shall be forced to find a justification for Job's suffering, for he was, apparently, a righteous man (Job 18). Did God bring this evil upon him? In just this way, some have claimed that he brought his suffering upon himself by not adhering to the aforementioned "spiritual laws" of positivity and negativity. He feared the evil things (suffering etc.) and therefore they came upon him. They claim it was not God's will at all for him to have suffered, and yet none can find any verse where God either indicates that it was his fault, or where God had forewarned Job about the use of his thoughts and tongue. Moreover, if this were the case (that Job suffered through his own fault), would the book not contain some sort of explanation, or a warning for others? Although it is not my purpose here to enter into a full discourse about Job, suffice it to say that this is nothing other than an invention which betrays a complete lack of understanding of Job's story. All that was done was done under the hand of God, even though the source of the suffering was not Himself. Satan instigated the trial, questioning Job's integrity (Job 1:11). Even Job himself perceived that it was a trial (Job 23:9,10), and knew that it would have an end and that he himself would "come forth as gold" through it - and he did.

It is the final outcome which counts, the past only has a value in its effects upon the present. Every tear is "kept within a bottle" by the Lord. Every sorrow remembered.

In a very real sense, it is only through trial that we can come into the Kingdom of Heaven (John 16:33). Gold, in order to be certified pure, has to be put through the trial of fire. Fire does not destroy gold, but purifies it. God, if He were afraid to allow us to be tried, would show Himself to be in doubt as to whether what is in us is really faith. He is not afraid to allow gold to be put through the fire to be purified. Confident in Jobís integrity and faith, He therefore (although not by instigation) allowed Job to be tried. The person whose faith has been tried is stronger in faith. He is therefore better for it, not worse, for no trial lasts for more than a season2. The fruit it yields is of incomparable and eternal worth, and yields in the present the fruit of peace. The wicked, in contrast, may have all the riches in the world, but have no peace.

Ephesians 1:12.. That we should be to the praise of His glory...

These words from Ephesians point to the fact that it is our being which God has chosen to glorify Him. It is humbling in the face of Someone so great to accept and acknowledge ourselves as being accepted as we are. It is sometimes easier to allow condemnation upon us (or to condemn ourselves, even though He has declared us to have been accepted Ephesians 1:6), and then to try harder to be different - or even to pretend to be so. But this is true humility - to so accept His own gracious acceptance of us, and to admit our weakness and need of His grace. We only change through a recognition of His grace (Colossians 1:6) and by beholding Christ as in a mirror (2 Corinthians 3:18) - not through striving to be different. God chose our being to glorify Him perhaps in order to show us that what in man's sight is low and imperfect (our own rightful self-estimation) is in fact the very thing which, by His grace, He has chosen to be the perfect reflection of the glory of His Son and to reflect more perfectly His work of grace. In this way, even our horrible past is not something we should think it necessary to forget! (being seen in the end to have contributed to the final and resplendent outshining of the glory of His grace). Were it a sacrifice or the building of a temple or altar, it would perhaps have been easier for us to have been able to see how these could be to God's praise than to simply offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1,2). Yet even our good works has God ordained beforehand for us to walk-in (Ephesians 2:9), and called us "His workmanship" - leaving nothing for the sweat or the ego of man to contribute or claim for himself as a merit.

In this way everything in my life must be sacred to Him, and included in this are all the things which make me what I am - things which are common to all men such as sorrow, pain and toil upon this earth.3 As such, whilst I stand in the grace of God, this grace reflected in me is what glorifies Him. We have, on the whole, overemphasised sacrifice to justify our lack of fruit. In fact this is diametrically-opposed to what should have been. What we should have done, is to accept how we were and lament. If, in this way, we could lament, then in our lamentation and frankness before God, we would find grace (Hebrews 4:10-16), and discover even in our lamentation a source of joy (like a springing-well - John 4:10-15) which was deeper than our sorrow.

It is not faith to remain silent while our hearts are full of questions. When we are only sharing in the sorrow common to all the sons of Adam (excepting that which concerns sin), we do not glorify God by pretending to smile while our heart is sad. This actually becomes a root of hypocrisy, and a just cause for the world to have mocked us. This hypocrisy, though perhaps a mild form, brings condemnation upon the believer, who feels condemned because of how they feel. On the contrary the peace of God brings about a wholeness, whereby we are not trying to be something different, but are happy to acknowledge the work of God in us, recognise that He will finish the work in His own way, and thereby be at one within ourselves, instead of all the time striving to become more acceptable. The re-discovered book of Jashar (referred to in Judges and Samuel) has a worthy saying:-

"While the eye weeps, the heart rejoiceth"

The Tehellim

Having already mentioned the fact that the majority of these Psalms were laments and songs of intercession, it is interesting to notice that the proportion of these complaints and weeping-songs to those of thanksgiving is approximately four-to-one.

Surely this should tell us that the majority of the time it would be natural for the worshipper to weep, question, ask and complain (to name a few of the different laments among the Psalms of the Old Testament). If, furthermore, we can't weep for ourselves, how can we weep with those others who are weeping?

Through the Psalms (TEHILLIM) the Holy Spirit inspired the Levitical psalmists (including David who was not a Levite) - those of the household guilds of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun - with songs which would enable them to minister on the behalf of those who came to the temple, burdened with various troubles. Without this feeling of solidarity felt by the Levitical priests with the worshippers, they were not deemed worthy of being a priest (see Hebrews 5:1-2). This empathy felt by these temple ministers of song is reflected in a much greater and more perfect way by our Great High Priest Jesus. Indeed, He was "taken from among men" (Hebrews 5:1) for precisely this purpose - that He might, firstly, suffer Himself (Hebrews 5:8,9), and so become a faithful and merciful High Priest4. Notice that He first suffered Himself (Hebrews 5:7) experiencing "strong crying and tears". There is something expressed in another verse of this same book which somehow "bridges the gap" between what we could easily relegate as being now past (i.e. His past suffering), and the present. Let me explain a little more, as with this Scripture I shall try to conclude all of what I have, up till this point, written. If we think of Christ's suffering as being past (some two thousand years ago), it would be easy to think of Him as being now in Heaven and therefore as having somewhat forgotten what it is like to be here on earth - indeed, as having forgotten His own past suffering. We may thus fail to recognise the relevance of His being our High Priest now.

Hebrews 4:15,16...For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched (1) with the feeling of our infirmities (2); but was in all points tempted (3) like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we might obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (4).

Notice, first, that the passage in vs.16 refers to a time of need. In note (4) the use of the Greek word KAIROS means a season or portion of time (i.e. with a beginning and an end). This season is, in a sense, unavoidable. Jesus, The Great Shepherd, is leading us, and into seasons of need we shall go. There is, however, an unbroken bond of solidarity which we share with Him. For note (1) informs us that He indeed can be touched with the actual feeling of our "infirmity" (not a memory of it). The word ASTHENEIAS in note (2) means weakness of any sort. Finally, the use of the perfect participle in the verb in note (3) means that the suffering He experienced once upon earth in some way continues now in solidarity with us - that He actually feels the same thing we feel.

On the basis of this Scripture, many times the word "boldly" has been taken to mean "brashly", or as though we were coming to claim some kind of right. The word PARRESIAS actually means "to speak openly/frankly". The meaning is thus - because of the fact that our Great High Priest Jesus not only has Himself suffered tears in every way like ourselves (in the past), but now also jointly-shares the feeling of our "infirmity", the believer is exhorted to come with frankness and openness to the throne of grace, knowing that his reception is from a sympathetic, merciful and understanding Saviour, and not from One distant and removed.

What Then of Our Praise?

Why not a lament? Why not, as Psalm 38, a "sickness-cry"? (note vs 3-5). Why not a complaint, as Psalm 35? (note vs 17).

In any congregation of saints, there will always be those grieving, perhaps through bereavement; those facing rejection, perhaps at school or work; those under financial pressure; those facing sickness or lack; those having sorrow in their hearts. How does God receive the praise expressed through songs having not a trace of sadness, or grief, or sorrow, or questioning, or complaints? Songs, furthermore, which suggest that it is not proper or fitting to offer these "negative emotions" to God? Which portray a God who seeks only words mentioning His own name and greatness (as if He still has an ego to be satisfied). What then has hindered us from singing laments, songs of intercession, imprecation, complaining and questioning? These songs would include, as the Laments of the Psalms did, verses and refrains which reflect confidence and our faith in God, but would also allow for the troubled cries of the worshippers to come frankly before God.

What is glorifying to the Lord is not pretence (e.g. pretending to be joyful when we are sad) but what His grace has made us in Him, and what we shall become through this same grace. Feelings which are common to all the sons of Adam included. Nothing excluded.

If there is a purpose to suffering, if there is neither positive or negative nor success or failure, then we can begin to find, within the seasons of need into which God will bring us, the grace and mercy provided for us in Christ. Finding this, we shall find great liberty in our praise to Him. This liberty will enable us both to express songs of lamentation and intercession during our trial, and, just like the psalmists, who sang these same laments, to give thanks to God. These laments and songs of intercession would themselves become the vehicles through which the worshipper receives the grace and mercy because of the frankness they allow in our correspondence with God.

It will be a 'praise truly in harmony with that which is our true praise, the offering of ourselves - sometimes a song of thanksgiving, sometimes a song of joy. More often than not, however, a lament, a question "why?", a weeping-song.

In the end, all Israel shall be saved. Then what of all their suffering? And why? What of the tears and the laments? It will all be seen to have been woven into the fabric of their story of redemption, woven by the God Who, sometimes for long periods of time unknown by themselves, has nevertheless and with faithfulness been carrying them through the dark periods of their history when sometimes their only praise was a song of lament.

Notes

1. See, for example, Exodus 9:29-31; Exodus 32:9-14.

2. Note the use of the Greek word DOKIMOS, meaning to prove through trial, as used in Rom 5:3-5

3. We need to make a distinction here between things common to all men which God allows us to jointly-suffer, and those He has expressed, generally-speaking, a desire to redeem us from, e.g. sickness. It has not been my purpose, here, to discuss these, which demands a great deal more discussion.

4. The word mercy refers to those feelings which the Son of God has towards us, which arise as a result of our misery, pain and suffering, as distinct from the word grace which has more to do with that which concerns sin and forgiveness.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 3, Prayer, Autumn 1995)