Praise, Worship and Prayer
Sabbath School: Saturday 24 May 2003
Hallelu-Yah - Praise Yahweh! or Praise the Lord! - is a familiar expression in both the Bible and in both Jewish and Christian worship. All religions offer praise and worship to their gods and do so in a variety of ways. But just as there is only one Way, one Truth, and one genuine Spiritual Life, so also there is only one true form of Praise, one true form of Worship, and one true form of Prayer that spring from a common source. People have been worshipping, praising and praying from time immemorial both to the true God, Yahweh-Elohim, as well as false ones and even human beings, animals, and idols. Our purpose today is to understood the core meaning of praise, worship and prayer as expressed in the Bible. Whatever we may have seen, or heard, or experienced must for the next three-quarters of an hour be laid alongside what the Word of Yahweh has to say on these matters, and compared.
When we 'praise' something or someone in the English language we are doing a number of things. In praise we express commendation and admiration, as well paying homage and showing gratitude. When we praise a person or God we proclaim the glorious attributes of that person with respect and thanksgiving. To praise is to esteem highly. And when we praise we involve our feelings or emotions. Praise is not merely an intellectual exercise but involves our hearts too. But more than that it also involves our voices or - if we are unable to speak - our pens. Thus the Hebrew word for 'praise' is hálal, which comes from a root word meaning 'making a noise'. Another Hebrew word connected with praise is yáda which is associated with bodily actions and gestures which accompany praising. And finally we have the word zámar which is associated with the playing or singing of music. When the Greek-speakers translated the Hebrew and Aramaic New Testament books they chose the word eucharistein which means 'to give thanks' implying that there is an intimate relationship with the person being praised. This is to be contrasted with the more formal, less emotional eulogein which means 'to bless' from which we get our English word, eulogy.
The whole of the Bible is punctuated with outbursts of praise rather like a tap suddenly being turned on and water gushing out. We see much of this in the Psalms. These outbursts of praise arise spontaneously from the 'basic mood' of joy which always marks the life of the people of Yahweh. Praise is rarely premeditated - you can't plan it. True praise is always spontaneous. If it is something you ritualistically do or out of reflexive habit it isn't true praise because true praise springs not from a premeditated thought but is an emotional eruption which is generated by awareness of the presence of God. Just as there are counterfeit spirits as we have seen, so there is counterfeit praise. And just because it is emotional doesn't mean it is true praise either.
I am sure you have all heard of the cult of personality wherein a human being is virtually worshipped as a god. Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, the Virgin Mary, and many, many others have been praised and worshipped with religious devotion. When you praise someone as though they were the highest being, or otherwise displace the True Creator to one side, you are committing idolatry, and giving to mortals that which belongs solely to the Immortal One.
True praise is an emotional response to the true Ruach (Spirit). It is not blind, however, nor is it dissociated from intelligence. Much emotional response is the result of disconnecting the mind and simply opening oneself up to deep psychic feelings without really knowing what one is doing. The charismatic wave of the last century illustrates this well. However, what we cannot afford to do is to deny or repress emotion - Christianity, whilst solemn, is simultaneously joyful and emotionally expressive but always under personal control. If the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets then so are the emotions that are released by that same spirit.
I suppose the best way we can examine praise is by looking at what delights Yahweh Himself. There is plenty in the Bible to guide us in that regard. We observe in Genesis how He takes supreme delight in His works of creation (Gen.1; Ps.104:31; Prov.8:30-31) which He unabashedly declares to be 'good'. There is a good starting point for us - to connect to, and appreciate, nature, something which city life invariably destroys. I remember how when I lived in Oslo, or commuted there, observing people - their eyes were always horizontal or to the ground - they never saw the sky above their heads. In that concrete jungle one of my morning joys was to look up at the seagulls, and this would often spontaneously elicit praise from me. And it happens that whenever I study the intricacy and beauty of a flower praise is not long behind. As a result of Yahweh being pleased with creation, we read in Scripture that the angels, and indeed all Creation, express their joy in praise (Job 38:4-7; Rev.4:6-11). We learn that man was created to rejoice in Elohim's works (Ps.90:14-16) and we fulfil that purpose by accepting His gifts to us (Ecc.8:15; 9:7; 11:9; Phil.4:4,8).
So there is your first clue as to possessing the true Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit): She will cause you to praise the God of all Nature and to rejoice in every gift that nature gives us. Because the Creation naturally excites the wonder of those born-again. If nature appears dull and uninteresting and does not cause you to praise Him, then a vital connection is missing.
The second great cause of praise in the sons and daughters of Yahweh is the coming of the Kingdom of God into our world. The whole theocratic way of life, which is being gradually restored, ought to be the subject of great inner happiness. For me this is a great key for I meet so many Christians who are repelled by the idea of a theocracy for whom their joy is best expressed as a result of the freedom they have got ... or think they have got. For them their joy correctly stems from being released from the shackles of sin and then somehow gets shunted into an anarchistic and Torahless spirit that leads them to believe that they can do practically whatever they want. Their joy and praise move gradually from being Spirit-filled to being psychically led until they reach a point when they cannot tell the difference. When joy and praise are the fruits of lawlessness you can be sure at once it is counterfeit.
The theocratic Kingdom of God announced by Yah'shua (Jesus) represents a challenge to anarchy and solo-Christianity because it is an announcement that henceforth the highest goal becomes the Community of the Redeemed and not just self. And whereas we may legitimately be filled with praises for the liberation of self that come through the blood of Christ that is not the end but the beginning: thereafter the whole drive must be communal. Yah'shua's (Jesus') last great prayer in Gethsemane revolved entirely around this drive for echad oneness between the redeemed. He never once talks about 'personal' salvation but only of 'group' salvation. When you have a body of the redeemed whose one joy is coming together as a single mystical bride of the Messiah then you know you have found not only the highest joy but also the purest praise. For as Kingdom-seekers we find our fulfilment in theocracy - the rule of God on earth as an organised community or nation. Our highest goal is therefore New Covenant Israel in its perfect restoration as one Nation under Christ. If that causes you to praise Yahweh then you have connected to the grand consummation of His purpose (Is.9:2; Ps.96:11-13; Rev.5:9-14; Lk.2:13-14).
The temple of the Old Covenant was a foretaste of this perfect joy and praise. We can read of the sheer joy that the people experienced within its sacred precincts of the redeeming presence of Yahweh (Dt.27:7; Num.10:10; Lev.23:40) and from it we can get insights as to how true New Covenant worship should be. This was no artificial praise either - the people were genuinely connected to the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). What we have to do is merge with them but instead of seeing the types, connect with the anti-type, namely Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). The whole of temple worship has been transferred within us in the New Covenant so that in place of animal sacrifices and other ceremonial offerings we are doing all of these things within our minds and hearts whilst connecting as a Temple of living temples in our assemblies to the Sacrifice. This connection will always be based on the pictures of the Temple otherwise we will start connecting to other things. Very often - far too often - people end up worshipping their feelings. Our appreciation of the fulfilment of the Old Covenant types in Christ causes us to render praise to Yahweh on earth for the works both of creation and redemption (Ps.24; 136) as an echo of the praises that come from the angels and the redeemed in heaven (Rev.4:11; 5:9-10).
Praise is a mark of the people of Yahweh (1 Pet.2:0; Eph.1:3-14; Phil.1:11) and it is a mark of the heathen that they refuse to render it (Rom.1:21; Rev.16:9) because the act of praise implies the closest fellowship with the One who is being praised. People who do not have a relationship with Him - even if they claim to be Christians - show that they remain heathen. As C.S.Lewis rightly observed:
"Therefore praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation ... In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him" (Reflections on the Psalms, 1958, p.95).
But what if you don't feel like praising Him? Does that mean we should go away and work on our feelings and then come and try to praise Him later? No. Because praise to Yahweh in a general sense is frequently commanded from men as a duty and is obviously not meant to depend on mood or feelings or circumstances (cp. Job 1:21). To "rejoice before Yahweh" is part of the ordered ritual of common life of His people (Dt.12:7; 16:11-12) in which men and women encourage and exhort one another to praise. And though there are plenty of psalms which suggest private or personal praise, the scriptures consistently teach that praise is best rendered within the assembly of believers (Ps.22:25; 34:3; 35:18) where praise not only gives honour and pleasure to Yahweh (Ps.1:23) but also bears testimony to Yahweh's people (Ps.51:12-15).
Of course, no one really wants to artificially praise. We know that what is needed is a genuine conviction of joy that erupts from our hearts mediated by the Ruach (Spirit). That is the ideal. The problem is that we are not yet perfect. We still have carnal tendencies and sometimes the centre of our spiritual gravity gets sucked into the carnal and we find ourselves unable to praise. That is not, however, an excuse to cave in to the carnal nature. Praise can be - and should be - used as a clarion call to the redeemed self to wake up. Many a time I have felt down and not interested in praise. So I have forced myself. Yes, it is often insincere at the beginning but I find that such artificial praise often sets a process in motion that awakens the soul to true action. Doors swing open, the Ruach (Spirit) returns and before long one is in the true, natural, spontaneous joy of praise. This is far better, in my view, than creating an imitation or artificial praise and convincing oneself that it is the real thing. We must be honest and say to ourselves: "Father, I feel dead, I don't much want to praise but I am going to exercise my will and make a proclamation to my soul that I want to wake up. Please wake me up to praise You in word and song." He will hear prayers like that and help us regain our equilibrium. And the more we praise in the Ruach (Spirit) the more we become sanctified and the easier it becomes to praise in the future.
The Temple Choirs started by David must have been awesome. The Psalms were used in liturgy and sacred procession which were accompanied by "glad shouts and songs" (Ps.42:4). The singing was often antiphonal involving two choirs, or soloist and choir, and dancing was very much a part of this praise (Ex.15:20; 2 Sam.6:14) and was employed in the temple (Ps.149:3; 150:4). The first Christians continued worshipping in the Temple (Lk.24:53; Ac.3:1) but their experience of a new life in Christ began to thereafter express itself in new forms of praise (Mk.2:22). Joy was always the dominant mood of the Christian life and though formal worship and praise naturally continued as part of the Israelite way and which has never been done away with, there is no doubt that it was transformed spiritually. Those who experienced the healing and spiritually cleansing power of Yah'shua (Jesus) broke out spontaneously into praise of Yahweh (Lk.18:43; Mk.2:12). The same happened in the apostolic era as men and women gave way to spontaneous outbursts of praise as they began to see and understand the power and goodness of Yahweh in Yah'shua (Jesus) (Ac.2:46; 3:8; 11:18; 16:25; Eph.1:1-14). And we know - because the New Testament says so - that the Psalms continued to be used to express praise in the Messianic Community (Church) (Col.3:16; cp. Mt.26:30). But there were also new Christian hymns (Rev.5:8-14) as found, for example, in the Magnificat, Benedictus and Nunc Dimitis (Lk.1:46-55,68-79; 2:29-32). The doxologies (hymns glorifying Yahweh) in the Book of Revelation (cp. Rev.1:4-7; 5:9-14; 15:3-4) were undoubtedly used in public worship to express the praise of the congregation much as we use them in our Lord's Supper liturgy.
Finally we must note the strong connection between Old Testament sacrifice rituals and praise which included a sacrifice of thanksgiving as well as of expiation (atonement) (Lv.7:11-21). Gratitude was to be the fundamental motive behind the bringing of the firstfruits to the altar (Dt.26:1-11). In the sincere offering of praise itself there is a sacrifice which pleases Yahweh (Heb.13:15; Hos.14:2; Ps.119:108). Today that praise is transferred to the priestly self-offering of Yah'shua (Jesus) (Mk.14:22-23,26; Jn.17:1-2; Mt.11:25-26). Thus the life of a Christian should be a self-offering of gratitude (Rom.12:1) in fulfilment of His Royal Melchizedek Priesthood (Rev.1:5-6; 1 Pet.2:9), and the fact that such a sacrificial self-offering can be made in a real way in the midst of suffering, links suffering and praise together in the Christian life (Phil.2:17). Thanksgiving sanctifies not only suffering but all aspects of our lives as Christians (1 Tim.4:4-5; 1 Cor.10:30-31; 1 Thess.5:16-18). Whatever the burden of our prayer life may be, it must include praise (Phil.4:16), as indeed Yah'shua (Jesus) taught in the opening and closing lines of the Lord's Prayer: "Hallowed be Thy Name" - "For thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for Ever and Ever. Amen" (Mt.6:9,13).
Praise cannot happen unless there is submission, contrition and humility. The soul that is not contrite is too busy praising itself. Praise is part of a wider phenomenon which we call 'worship', a word that derives from the Hebrew 'abôda which means 'service'. Those who are too busy serving self-interest can never worship or praise. Indeed, this word is used of servants and slaves in the Bible. In order to offer Yahweh this worship the believer must learn to prostrate himself.
With very few exceptions the worship that is discussed in the Old Testament is communal, not private - by no means meaning that private worship is unimportant but that it finds its fulfilment and consummation in corporate worship (Ps.42:4; 1 Chr.29:20). When an individual worshipped, Israel worshipped. Public worship was highly developed and continued into the New Testament Community (Church). The day of worship remained the Sabbath - Friday to Saturday sunset - until the Catholic Church started changing Yahweh's Torah. By setting aside the Sabbath as a day of rest, worship and meditation, we are praising Yahweh, because it is our service to Him, to each other, and to ourselves. Early worship was conducted in believers' homes and took place every day (Ac.2:46) including, of course, the Sabbath. The house-church worship service was very simple, and consisted of praise (Eph.5:19; Col.3:16), prayer, reading from the Torah (remember the New Testament did not exist then), reading the apostles' letters, and exposition - explaining what the scriptures meant. They celebrated Yahweh's Annual Feasts in a New Covenant context (e.g. 1 Cor.5:8) and took a regular Lord's Supper meal (1 Cor.11:23-28). Undergirding all of this worship was, of course, the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit), the deep inner love and the devotion of hearts beating in echad unity.
Finally, we come to prayer which is worship that includes all the attitudes of the human spirit in its approach to Yahweh. The Christian worships Yahweh when he adores, confesses, praises, and supplicates Him in prayer. This highest activity of which the human spirit is capable may also be regarded as communion with Yahweh, so long as due emphasis is laid on the divine initiative. A man does not pray because he wants to out of his own spirit but because Yahweh has already touched his spirit. Prayer in the Bible is not a 'natural response' (Jn.4:24) because "that which is born of flesh is flesh" (Jn.3:6). And we know this so because Yahweh does not 'hear' every prayer (Is.1:15; 29:13). The biblical doctrine of prayer emphasises the character of Yahweh, the necessity of man's being in saving or covenant relationship with Him, and his entering fully into all the privileges and obligations of that relationship with God.
Westcott rightly understood when he said: "True prayer - the prayer that must be answered - is the personal recognition and acceptance of the divine will" (see Jn.14:7; cp. Mk.11:24). It follows that the hearing of prayer which teaches obedience is not so much the granting of a specific petition, which is assumed by the petitioner to be the way to the desired end, but the assurance that what is granted does most effectively lead to the desired end. Thus we are taught that Christ learned that every detail of His life and passion contributed to the accomplishment of the work which He came to fulfil, and so He was most perfectly "heard". I this sense, He was 'heard for His godly fear'.
May these infallible scriptural truths be our guideline in praise, worship and prayer. There is, of course, so much more that could be said about such important subjects. Let us content ourselves with the simplicity of a genuine, open and true heart which recognises the Creator, the Creation and the Kingdom and which spontaneously responds in the joy of worship. These are the three Great Principles that govern my praise and from which I derive such personal wholesome satisfaction. May His Kingdom indeed come soon. Hallelu-Yah! Amen.
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