The Splendour of God
27/08/2006 at 9.30am / 11.15am
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Jonathan Pryke
Can you hear with your eyes? When you look at what God has made, what do you hear?
If you’ve been around for the last couple of Sunday evenings you’ll have noticed that there is a massive crescendo of praise to God at the end of the book of Psalms. It’s not that this is something new for the Psalms – praise runs right through the whole book – but here at the end all the forces of the orchestra are going full pelt. Each of the Psalms from 146 to 150 begins and ends ‘Praise the Lord’, just in case we don’t get the point.
Put all of those Psalms together, and you get a kind of rounded portrait of praise. So, as we saw two weeks ago, Psalm 146 makes it clear that the praise of God is an act of the will. Verse 2:
I will praise the Lord all my life;That’s a decision. But that doesn’t make praise a dour dull duty that we just have to grit our teeth and get on with, like cleaning the bathroom. So Psalm 147, next, sees the praise of God as a delight. Verse 1:
How good it is to sing praises to our God,This evening we’ll be putting the spotlight on the next Psalm, number 148, in which praise is clearly both a command to be obeyed and a calling to be followed. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
But in the following Psalm, 149, praise as an act of the will that is also a delight finds expression in a song of joy. Verse 1:
Sing to the Lord a new song…That’s what praise is – a song of joy that takes many different forms. It might be literally sung, or it might even be a silent song of joy, as we’ll see from Psalm 148.
The whole sequence – and indeed the whole book – comes to a climax in Psalm 150. I love those symphonies when right at the end everything the musicians can lay their hands on is given multiple bangs – hopefully in harmony – as all that’s gone before is summed up in a few thrilling chords. That’s how I see Psalm 150 – and especially the final verse:
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.In fact our Psalm this evening makes it clear that it’s not just everything that has breath, even, that needs to be praising God. If you can’t breathe, you’re still not let off the hook! So, now that we can, I hope, see how Psalm 148 fits in the sequence, let’s zoom in on that. It’s there on p 633. Make sure you can get a look at it.
My title, as you can see from the outline on the back of the service sheet, is The Splendour of God. The phrase is taken from verse 13 which declares that God’s splendour is above the earth and the heavens. And you’ll see that I simply have two headings that I hope encapsulate what this great Psalm is driving at. First, the calling of all God’s creatures is to draw attention to the splendour of their Creator. And secondly, the calling of all God’s people is to draw attention to the splendour of their Saviour.
First, THE CALLING OF ALL GOD’S CREATURES IS TO DRAW ATTENTION TO THE SPLENDOUR OF THEIR CREATOR
The Psalm begins and ends: ‘Praise the Lord’. ‘Hallelujah’ is the Hebrew word for that. Let me take a moment so we can think about what it means to praise. To praise is to say, ‘Look at that, that’s great!’ It’s not only to draw attention to something but to make it clear that it’s wonderful in some way. If you’re half way up a mountain on holiday and you need a breather, and you want to buy some time, the thing to do is to shout up to those ahead of you – way ahead of you, possibly – ‘Hey, stop a a moment. Turn around. Take a look at the view. It’s fantastic!’. The opposite of praise, then, is to avert your eyes from something revolting, or at least unattractive, and to keep quiet about it so as to spare others from seeing it. Praise draws attention to something good.
Praise, therefore, is outward looking. It is self-forgetful. You get caught up with thinking about what you’re praising, so you haven’t got the mind-space to think about yourself. That’s great for a start – it’s so good for us to stop thinking about ourselves.
But it’s clear that if anyone is going to take our praise seriously enough that they listen and in the end join in themselves, then our praise has got to be from the heart: sincerely meant. Praise that’s insincere is just flattery or flannel. And it’s got to be for good reason: well founded. Praise something when no praise is really due, and people will see that it’s hollow. And praise has got to be rightly directed. Misdirect your praise when the credit is really due elsewhere, and you’ll dishonour the one who is worthy of praise and puff up the pride of the one who is wrongly on the receiving end of the accolade.
What this Psalm makes abundantly clear is that praise is, first, a calling. It’s what we’re made for. When God’s creation is truly praising him, all’s right with the world. Praise is our calling.
Then, secondly, praise is a command. We praise as a matter of obedience, not as a whim or to please ourselves, or when we feel like it. When this Psalm cries ‘Praise him’, it’s not expecting excuses or a polite ‘no thanks, not today’. This is not a Psalm that will take ‘no’ for an answer. If we don’t praise God then we’re not giving God his due, and we are malfunctioning badly.
And, thirdly, what you can’t miss when you read this Psalm is that praise is a calling of all God’s creatures. There are no exceptions to that. And since this is a major theme of the Psalm, it’s worth dwelling on this to see just how completely comprehensive this call to praise really is.
Praise is to come both from the heavens and also from the earth. Verse 1:
Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above.And verses 1-6 are a call for praise from the heavens. Then verse 7:
Praise the Lord from the earth.And verses 7-12 are a call for praise from the earth.
Praise is to come both from the angels and also from mankind. Verse 2:
Praise him, all his angels, praise him all his heavenly hosts.And verses 11-12 call on all humanity. We ought to be aware of the angels. We don’t see them – just a very few have been given privileged glimpses. But we know they are there by faith because God tells us so and we believe him. And their primary purpose in life is to pour out praise. Take encouragement from them.
Praise is to come from both from the inanimate and also from the animate. So verse 3 says:
Praise him, sun and moon, praise him you shining stars.But, for instance, in verse 10 it’s living creatures that are summoned. How can lumps of rock praise God? We’ll come on to that.
Praise is to come from the expanse of the sky and the depths of the oceans (look at verses 4 and 7).
It is to come from the wind and from the rain – verse 8:
lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding…So weather is called to praise God – the blazing sun in a clear blue sky that drains your energy and burns your skin, as well as the drenching rain and the crash of the thunder that follows the flash that lights up the night.
And praise is to come both from the mountains and also from the valleys where the fruit trees grow – that, I think, is what lies behind verse 9:
you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars…But the trees also contrast with the next verse – so praise is to come both from plants and also from animals:
fruit trees and all cedars,And that means from big beasts and also from little beasts:
wild animals and all cattle, small creatures…So it’s not just that majestic and rather scary bull in the field that’s on the route of your quiet countryside stroll – it’s also the wasp that interrupts your cream tea, the rabbit that gets caught in your headlights, the ants marching in a line carrying loads ten times their size.
And praise is to come from the birds as well as the beasts – verse 10 goes on:
small creatures and flying birdsTwo encounters with birds in Cornwall on our recently holiday come to mind. Driving down a narrow lane between towering hedgerows, just in front of us a bird of prey – probably a buzzard we decided later from the field guide – swooped down trying to take a hapless pheasant, tallons extended, hooked beak threatening, wings flapping violently and feathers flying. The pheasant put up a brave but desparate show and at least temporarily escaped.
Then on another occasion we found ourselves in an ancient church porch being dive bombed by house martins expertly flitting past us to feed the gawping mouths of their young all in a hungry row around the parapet of their little nest up in the porch roof. Not just those anchored to the earth on four legs, but the flying birds are called to praise God.
And then the Psalm moves on to the praise that all humanity owes to God. So praise is due from powerful politicians and ordinary people – verse 11:
kings of the earth and all nations,And praise is to come from all nations. That means wherever a nation is, whatever its history and culture, whatever its religious, social or political make-up, whatever its economic success or degree of development, whatever its linguistic or racial mix – every single nation on the face of the earth from the UK to China to Iraq to the Sudan to North Korea to the USA is called to bow down before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and sing a joyful song of praise.
And what is true of all nations is true of all individuals. Whether male or female, whether young or old, there is not a single person alive who is not subject to this call to praise the true and living God. Verse 12:
young men and maidens,Praise is a completely comprehensive calling of all God’s creatures.
Let me come back, though to that question I put earlier: what does it mean for a lump of rock to praise God? Or for a bird or a beast come to that? There are three things to say on that.
First, creation is not dumb. It might not be able to speak English or Spanish or Mandarin. But it isn’t dumb. Psalm 19.1-4 puts it very eloquently:
The heavens declare the glory of God;Creation by its very existence does draw attention extremely noisily to the glory and greatness and majesty and splendour of its Creator. And the angels, we could say, sing the descant to creation’s chorus. Just occasionally the curtain is lifted to what goes on behind the scenes and the angels’ song breaks through on to human ears. That’s what happened, for instance, when Jesus was born. Luke 2.13-14:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest…”Creation is by no means dumb.
Secondly, creation’s song of praise is frustrated by the fall of man and mankind’s subsequent rebellion against God’s rule with all the consequences. The apostle Paul is quite clear about that in Romans 8.19-22, where he says:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.So in some sense that we don’t fully understand, creation’s song of praise is hampered and shackled for now. But one day it will burst out anew with full force when the day of freedom dawns.
Thirdly, mankind is deliberately deaf to creation’s praise (at least until the Holy Spirit opens our ears). So back in Romans (this is 1.20-23) Paul says:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.Instead of joining in the song of creation in praise of God, then, mankind has seen fit to shut its ears to it. Instead, we have grotesquely set up the creature in the place of the Creator and directed our praise in completely the wrong direction. That is the essence of our disastrous idolatry. We need Jesus to rescue us from that and redirect our praise to where it belongs: Godwards.
Creation, then, is not dumb. Animate or not, human or not, it is quite capable of answering the call of Psalm 148 to praise God.
Jonathan Edwards is an example of someone who ‘heard’ (so to speak) nature’s song of praise to God. This is not the Jonathan Edwards from round here who’s famous for what he describes as his hopping, skipping and jumping. This is the 18th century American pastor who wrote about the Great Awakening and revival that they experienced back then. Here he is writing of what he experienced as teenager:
“I walked … alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; and awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.
“The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet … appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, and moon, and stars; in the clouds and sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature… I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the meantime, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”
Creation is continually pouring out a song of praise to God, if only we have the eyes to hear.
And all God’s creatures have good cause to praise him. Creation’s reasons for praise are expressed here in verses 5-6:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.Why praise God? Because of his powerful word; his creative work; and his eternal purposes. And then there are yet more reasons down in verse 13:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendour is above the earth and the heavens.So we can add as reasons for praise God’s exalted name and his uniquely glorious splendour. All of that is associated with the splendour of God as our Creator. And then to cap it all, to God’s creative work is added redemption. And that brings me to my second and final heading. We’ve seen in the main body of the Psalm that the calling of all God’s creatures is to draw attention to the splendour of God who is their Creator. But the final verse of the Psalm indicates that there is more. So:
Secondly, THE CALLING OF ALL GOD’S PEOPLE IS TO DRAW ATTENTION TO THE SPLENDOUR OF THEIR SAVIOUR
Mankind’s rebellion has marred and put in jeopardy God’s creation. But God adds glory to glory and piles splendour upon splendour with his plan to rescue a people for himself. That last verse of the Psalm says this:
He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to his heart.What does that mean: ‘he as raised up for his people a horn’? In the Old Testament that is metaphorical language for a strong deliverer and ruler. That God raises up a deliverer of course implies the need for God’s people to be delivered. We need rescuing. What from? From sin, Satan and death.
Who is this strong deliverer, this rescuer? From the perspective of the New Testament, we can see more than the Psalmist. We can see that this strong deliverer sent by God is Jesus – the suffering servant Saviour and King. He is the supreme revelation of God’s splendour. And in him we see greatness stooping low out of the deepest love. Jesus is the ‘horn’ raised up by God, who is ‘the praise of all his saints, of Israel’.
Those who believe in Jesus are the heirs of this description of God’s people. And do you see the wonderful final phrase: ‘the people close to his heart’. God’s people – the church, the body of believers – are the people close to the heart of God. We are close to the heart of God in the sense that God loves us. Such love could be from a distance. But this love has not stayed at a distance from us. So we are also ‘close to his heart’ in the sense that he has brought us close to himself through the blood of Jesus. Our majestic Creator has become our Saviour.
That is indeed good cause for a river of endless praise to flow from the church and to add to the song of all creation. The calling of all creatures is to draw attention to the splendour of their Creator. We need eyes that enable us to hear their praise. The calling of all God’s people is also to draw attention to the splendour of their Creator – but to do more than that. God’s people have a particular calling, because we have been on the receiving of God’s redeeming grace. We are called to draw attention to the splendour of the one who is not only our Creator, but also our Redeemer.
This Psalm is an extraordinary, all-encompassing call to praise the Lord. My prayer is that we will be a church that wholeheartedly responds to that call.
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