Monday, 12 January 2015

Obedience and Praise

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:1-2

Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness...
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD.
Psalm 150:1-2, 6

The book of Psalms opens with a promise that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, those in covenant relationship with him, those who delight in his instruction and live by it. Readers take this call and its assurance with them into the rest of the book.

Then, as Psalm 1 provides an introduction, so Psalms 146-150 seem to form a conclusion to the book, with psalms of praise, culminating in the unfettered adoration of God in Psalm 150. In that sense, the Psalms are – as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it – ‘bounded by obedience and praise’.

And the sequence could well be important. Loving obedience initiates praise, praise is the culmination of obedience. Only those who begin in Psalm 1 can honestly end in Psalm 150. We don’t stay in Psalm 1 – that’s only the beginning – but nor do we rush too quickly to Psalm 150 – praising the Lord without taking account of his loving demand on our lives. Our adoration of God is bound up with our observation of his revealed will. Obedience is embedded in worship. The whole Psalter witnesses to a movement from piety to praise.

Of course, that move is not without its struggles! The world doesn’t always seem to go the way Psalm 1 suggests it should – with the righteous prospering and the wicked getting their comeuppance. We get to Psalm 150 in the end, but we don’t do so unscathed. Nor does Psalm 150 necessarily obliterate the despair and doubt, fear and failure that have been expressed along the way. It’s precisely in the ‘stuff of life’ that we discover our ultimate purpose in glorifying and enjoying God forever.

The psalms take account of the reality of sin and suffering and shame and setbacks, and they do so with brutal honesty; they also testify to moments when God works to bring us through those periods and renews our hope. And through it all, we come to understand that God doesn’t just exist safely at either end of the Psalter, but is found in the middle as well, in the midst of suffering and hope, in the midst of a life bound by obedience and praise.

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