Psalm 97

How to Praise

Just because we’ve finished our series on Revelation doesn’t mean our visions of God must come to an end.

Psalm 97 hearkens to a more primitive time for the Hebrews, when they contended with the notion of other gods around Yahweh and them. And yet, amid this ancient concept, there is a notion of something to come, something that will spread salvation and holiness far and wide, something we experience today.

The vast majority of this Psalm is simply praise in its purest form, a declaration of who God is. The psalm is one in a series declaring God’s kingship. Associated with that declaration are images fitting the ruler over all: dense smoke and fog to conceal his deadly purity, a mighty throne, and fire falling like lightning to consume whoever opposes this great king.

The Psalm calls us to ask ourselves a serious question as we gather in worship. Can we truly say, “The Lord reigns!” It goes on to speak of idols and “ungods,” to quote Robert Alter’s translation. Ungods now would be those things, forces and people other than God who would set themselves up as being of primary importance in our lives. Our idols seldom take the form of statues made of wood or metal anymore, but we have them, just the same.

Also implicit in all of this talk of consuming fire is a call to holiness, to a kind of conformity so unpopular these days, even within the church.  As Christians, we of course like to emphasize God’s love, but in the process it is easy to forget God’s desire for our thoughts and actions to be a miniature reflection of his. We are, after all, made in his image.

We cannot earn salvation or holiness—yes, faith in Christ is what saves us from sin—but as saved people we have to acknowledge that our thoughts and actions often need correcting and shaping. Just because we think it or want it doesn’t make it right.

To quote the German theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

I’ve stood in the spot in Flossenburg, Germany, where the Nazis hung Bonhoeffer for his opposition to the great evil that had consumed both his nation and his church. To actively plot against such evil, knowing the kind of death those actions could bring and did eventually bring, required tremendous grace and discipleship.

Thank God for the Bible, where God’s will is revealed through study! Thank God for the Holy Spirit whispering to us in confirmation of what is written in the Bible, strengthening us to contend for the truth!

Let me suggest a question to ask ourselves before we pass through the door separating the narthex from our dedicated worship space. “What in my life is separating me from God?” If we find we have a specific answer, it does not mean we have to turn and leave. After all, grace calls to us.

It does mean we need to put that sin aside in our hearts right there. Then enter and acknowledge who God is, praise him mightily, and leave ready to do whatever else is necessary to eliminate this idol. “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”

Much comes from such introspection and confession. We are made ready for all sorts of changes, including new life with God. “Light is sown for the righteous,” we are told.

We can hear that verse in so many ways. Christ’s burial was light being sown, and on Easter Sunday that light burst forth. Eternal life was once again available to even the worst of sinners. Light truly does overcome darkness.

And light was not merely sown for a moment in time, but in all time, including our time. We’ll talk more next week—Pentecost Sunday—about the direct experience of God, and what is sown in us when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

In the meantime, let us continue to praise God, in the process growing into the people and church God would have us be. The Lord reigns!

The featured image is Hai Knafo’s “Starlight Sower,” 2013, inspired by Psalm 97:11. Made available for general use under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.