Having just completed an article on this psalm for our in-house journal here at Melbourne School of Theology (called Paradosis, and due out…sometime), I thought I’d sing its praises. It is particularly carefully crafted in the Hebrew, with not a word out of place, and sound-plays (consonance and rhyme, etc.) interweaving with number symbolism, parallelism and careful ordering to produce one of the greatest psalms in the book of Psalms. In my article I called it the ‘pinnacle’ of the Psalms, and if that stirs debate, well and good. It is as rich as a black forest cake. Here is a synopsis of the psalm itself:
One of my favourite musical renditions of a biblical psalm is the version of Psalm 148 performed by our local Melbourne group, the Sons of Korah. Its virtue is a good match of musical movement to the content of the psalm. The song begins with calm dignity, “Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights above…” It is stately, serene, taking its time. This is appropriate: the early part of the psalm repeats the term we know in English as ‘hallelujah’ at the beginning of every poetic line, twice per verse. Perhaps not surprisingly, besides the initial “praise the LORD,” there are seven more hallelujahs in the first block of the psalm, verses 1–4 concerning the heavenly realms. Then in verses 5–6 they are offered a motivation for praise—their own creation and the sheer authority and permanence of the decree of God that they should be.
Verses 7–12 begin the same way, with a call to the earth, but then the pace quickens. The ‘hallelujahs’ are left aside. Earthly entities are called to praise in a sudden flood of names, twenty-three in all, beginning furthest from where humans live, in ocean depths and high in the atmosphere. The following movement is towards the centres of human life, via landscape, plants and animals wild and domestic, humans in high authority, and then the common people of all kinds that we find nearby. The Sons of Korah song captures these verses well with a sense of ascending tension achieved through an incremental ascent in pitch. It’s striking, then, that this deliberate build-up, this list of the thirty praising entities of creation, ends in the child.
The psalm finishes in verses 13–14 by once again offering motivation for praise, but this time it is not for the reality of creation. It is first for the sheer splendour of the name of the LORD, his innate majesty, and then for his redemptive work for Israel, “the people close to his heart.”
The Psalms never, to my knowledge, bid us (or nature!) to praise the LORD without offering us reasons why we should. If our praise or prayer life is running out of steam, perhaps we can allow Psalms to remind us of why God is so worth it. A good reason to begin would be his grace in allowing we “who once were far away” (Eph 2:13) to become, like Israel here, “the people close to his heart” through his mercy extended to us through Christ.