The liberating power of praise

Image result for hallelujah

Hallelujah!

It’s the ultimate praise-word. The term is peppered across the book of Psalms and in the book of Revelation. It’s very familiar through the singing of Handel’s Messiah.

But what does it mean?

It’s made up of two words.  The first part, hallelu, is the second-person imperative plural form of the Hebrew verb hillel. That simply means a summons or encouragement to a group to “Praise!”  The second part, Yah, is the shortened form of the Hebrew word for God.

However, “hallelujah” means more than simply “praise Yah”, as the word hallel in Hebrew means a joyous praise in song, to boast in God. Hallel could also refer to someone who acts madly or foolishly! Imagine that. Go wild!

It’s a summons into something outside of ourselves. It’s a joyous reminder that  first and foremost, life is not all about us.  The Psalmist summons us to look to God:

“Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!”  (Ps 150:2)

“And my tongue shall speak of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long.” (Ps 35:28)

But this outward-looking perspective has an important consequence. It not only challenges our self-obsession, but second, it brings us to a place of humility. To say “Hallelujah” recalls our dependency on God, as we acknowledge our need for Him. It’s an admission that we are not in control.  He is.

This is the challenge of Psalm 95 – a great classic picture of praise:

“Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”  (Ps 95:2-3)

It’s important not to let familiarity blunt the impact of these words. Catch the wildness of “joyful noise”! This is more to do with the unihibited riot of a kids’ party than the hallowed tones of a Cathedral choir- that’s the crazy foolishness of the Hillel definition coming out.

And there’s something more still. First we learn to look outside ourselves, in gratitutde and wonder; then to see ourselves in that perspective, humbled and dependent. But, third, we discover something mighty about who we are in God.

This was the discovery of the people of God in 2 Chronicles 20, when Jehoshaphat encouraged a beleaguered people to praise God in the face of an overwhelming enemy. Evil will not stick around if we’re praising our God, who will fight our battles for us.  Third, Praise makes the enemy flee.  It pushes back the darkness that threatens to  surround, and blocks the attacks and lies that come against us:

“As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated”  

And fourth, praise leaves no room for complaining.  We focus on Him, and no longer allow so much attention to be centered around our own struggles.  We’re reminded of what He has already done in our lives.  We’re reminded that He knows what concerns us, and is capable of taking care of all that burdens us.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” (Ps 103)

I love the Message version:

“O my soul, bless God.
    From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!
O my soul, bless God,
    don’t forget a single blessing!”

Fifth, our spirits are refreshed and renewed in His presence.  We’re strengthened by His peace and refueled by His joy.  Through a heart of praise, we realize that God doesn’t just change our situations and work through our problems, He changes our hearts.

“In His presence, there is fullness of joy.”  (Ps 16:11)

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” (Ps 63:3-4)

And sixth, this gives space for God to move.  People’s lives are affected and changed.  God shakes things up through praise.  As Paul and Silas sat in prison, shackled, and chained, they kept right on praising God.  And God sent an earthquake that shook the cells and broke the chains.  The jailer and all his family came to know Christ that very night.

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”  (Acts 16:25-26)

Everyday we make a choice: we either live absorbed in ourselves and our own stresses and strains, focused only on what surrounds us, or we learn to say “Hallelujah.”

I’ve found this last week quite stressful, to be honest. But one of the things that “unfastened my bonds” was the simple and wonderful song by Rend Collective, “Free as a Bird” which reminds me of the Hallelujah, the liberating power of praise.

You break us out of our cages
Into the wide open spaces
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
No prison wall can contain us
Your beating heart makes us fearless
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
Love cannot be tamed
You shattered every chain
Let our praises run wild and free
The lionheart is alive in me
Let our freedom and joy begin
With you we’re dancing upon our chains
With you we’re soaring on eagle’s wings
Take us beyond our horizons
Leading us into your wildness
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
You are the greatest adventure
You are my uncharted waters
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
Love cannot be tamed
You shattered every chain
Let our praises run wild and free
The lionheart is alive in me
Let our freedom and joy begin
With you
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