Psalm 145 – I will praise: The divine gift and mystery of language (by Graham Scott)

A psalm of praise of David.

I will exalt you, my God and King,
    and praise your name forever and ever.
I will praise you every day;
    yes, I will praise you forever.
Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
    No one can measure his greatness.

(Psalm 145:1-3 NLT)

Our God Focus theme for this summer semester is the greatness and goodness of God as we reflect on Psalm 145 and work through it together. Graham opened our weekly God Focus reflection time with this talk on the first verses of Psalm 145. We invite you to reflect on Psalm 145 with us, and we trust that God will use this to bless you as much as it has blessed us.

The Psalms – the worship and prayer book of both Jews and Christians. As we take up psalm 145 today and in the coming weeks, we listen, read, and pray as believers have done throughout generations and generations. 

Psalm 145 is an acrostic poem – each new two lines of the psalm start with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Starting with aleph and ending with taw in verse 21.

Here are the first 7 verses in the Hebrew. The first letters of each line are in red – and together they make the first 7 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Interestingly in the Hebrew text which is the basis of our Old Testament, the letter nun, for the sound [n] is missing. But in Qumran and the Septuagint nun is not missing – and we have that in some English translations as verse 13b. That probably won’t change how you read the psalm or even verse 13, but I do think that it is always good for us to acknowledge that our Bibles come down to us through a long historical process, which has been shepherded by God, but which also leaves traces behind of the complexity of the biblical text’s story. And besides I’m an Old Testament nerd.

So why is the psalm an acrostic? It certainly isn’t the only one. One suggestion, which makes some sense from a practical point of view, is that that the acrostic aided memory and that our psalm, psalm 145, perhaps was used in an educational setting for memorisation and recitation. It’s a fun suggestion, but there is no way to know if that was the case.

Ellie wrote an acrostic alphabet prayer during Advent to share with our friends and supporters. It’s now on our website – http://www.gescott.net/reflections/from-a-to-z-you-are-praised/.

No doubt there are letters which are trickier than others when writing in English, and which called for some creativity. For ‘x’ we had to use the sound rather than the letter to begin each phrase, for example.

But there is the sense that using the whole of the alphabet in prayer and praise has a fullness and completeness about it.

Adele Berlin says this about power of acrostic psalms, “The entire alphabet, the source of all words, is marshalled in praise of God” (Psalms, Baker, 3:695). I love this suggestion. It reminds me of John’s comment at the end of his gospel, that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written if everything that Jesus did was written down (John 21:25).

And in the context of Psalm 145, a psalm that sings endless praise, it is certainly true that that the poet has used all the alphabet – all the language at their disposal – to praise God.

Digging now into verses 1-3.

The theme of the psalm and these verses is abundantly clear when we notice the repetition of words of speech in these opening verses. Each of these is a verb of speech – praise exalt, praise, praise, praise.

And the three verses are made up of 3 utterances – 3 proclamations of praise:

“I will exalt you, my God and King,  and praise your name forever and ever.”

“I will praise you every day; yes, I will praise you forever.”

“Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure his greatness.”

This psalm is soaked in the reality of human speech and language, and I find that reality – that human language can be used to praise and worship the great creating and sustaining God – absolutely mind-blowing. Human language is appropriate for speaking to God; for communicating with the eternal.

Speaking another language to be able to sit and share stories with another person is amazing enough in itself. As Ellie and I sat with our friends in Papua in Indonesia, we shared with them their journey towards realising that they could use the language they used at home, in the street, and at the market to pray and praise God. We cheekily challenged them to pray in their first language, rather than the national language used in their churches. And the results were incredible. Comments like, “I knew God was close but I didn’t know he was that close.” “When I pray in my own language, I can tell God everything.” Language is not only a connection between people, but also a connection to the divine, to God Himself.

The emotion or feeling that these first three verses of Psalm 145 invoke in me is thankfulness. Thankfulness to an amazing and gracious God. Thankfulness that He communicates with us, with me, and that we can communicate with Him.

Psalm 145 verses 1-3 challenges me to firstly, put God in his right place. It reminds me that God is the only one truly worthy of worship and praise. It also reminds me of the needs expressed by linguistic minority groups around the globe to access scripture in a language and form that communicates best for them.

During the past year, I have been reflecting on the reality that human speech, despite all the ways that we abuse it, and despite all the ways that our communication as people is so very finite and limited, connects us to God. That something like simple human speech can transcend the created world, bounded by space and time, and draw us into communication with the divine.

As I have reflected, I have returned to the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 1:27, I think, is key to understanding not just who we are as people, but also putting language in the right perspective. Genesis 1:27 – “God created human beings in his own image”. On the basis of Genesis chapter 1, what do we see of God that we can understand is imaged in humans?

Reading from Genesis 1:1 to 1:27, we see that God is in relationships; God creates; God speaks; God blesses, or says that things are good; God orders, puts things in their right place. I suggest that God intends that all of these things be reflected in what it means to be human beings made in his image. And in particular, God speaks again and again – and so too, humans are given the power of language and speech. And from the very start, human language and speech is used to communicate with God.

Language, for me, is a key part of what it means to be created in God’s image – perhaps before almost anything else. Language implies relationships and community. With language we order our thoughts and the world around us. And we create with language. Over the last few days as we have started summer semester, we have all embarked on building new friendships, telling stories, and listening – and we have prayed, we have read, and we have sung praises together.

The miracle of language is something that God invested in humans and entrusted to us. And so it is in verses 1-3 of Psalm 145, that we see human language as it is intended to be used – to praise God, and in doing so to order our lives with the right perspective. That there is a God, who can be known, and who we have been created to relate to. And so our use of language not only reflects our created ‘godlikeness’ but also God’s intention for us and our lives.

So secondly, Psalm 145 challenges me to live out of the image of God that is my being, and resist the lure of the fallen and broken. The challenge is to use language, words, and speech as God intends – to bless and thank him, and to bless and embrace others.

The beauty and transcendence that we access when things are as they should be – that our words glorify God, and worship him – is also compromised by the fallen nature of our language and selves.

A favourite philosopher-theologian of mine is Josef Pieper, probably the leading Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. In a little book, titled, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Pieper says this,

“A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality.”

I remember reading that in Chicago in 1995, and I can still remember the way that those words shook my world.

Language is meant for a right purpose – for relationship, for community, for praise, for prayer. But we often use language in ways that distort its purposes, and that shake at the foundations of what it means to live in community. And it’s not just lies, is it? There are many ways that we can use language to prevent community, to disturb community, to damage community.

Communication – community. Have you noticed their common etymology? Both are ultimately derived from the same Latin word, communis, meaning ‘common’. Common in the sense that it is something that is shared between people. So communication is the act of sharing between people. Community has a similar sense – the linkages that exist within a group of people; and what they have in common.

Pieper’s concern and criticism is that when language is misused, then communication fails, and so too community fails. Corrupted language, he would say, corrupts communication and corrupts community.

To misuse language means that we deny the humanity of the other person – we no longer treat them as our partner, created in God’s image. Rather we belittle or reduce them and their significance, their value; and we exclude them from participation in the life of community.

So Psalm 145 calls us back to reflecting God’s image through our use of language, to praise and worship our Creator and so relate rightly to him and community.

Finally, and this is a biggie for me and the subculture I grew up in – this psalm is a giant kick in the pants to be thankful – not just in my head and heart – but in my words. …….. To orient my heart, mind, and life in such a way that thanksgiving is my natural posture. Thanksgiving expressed to God, and also thanksgiving in my words to others. If we can distort community through our language, then we can also build and extend community through our language. 

I am thankful to God for the amazing team I get to work with. I am thankful to God for those of you who have come to study with us, who are putting your lives into God’s hands and seeking his will for you. I am thankful for the gift of languages and their rich variety. I am thankful that God uses language and culture to draw people to him, and for his work in the world. I am thankful to be even a small part of God’s work in the world. And I am so thankful for God’s Word, which leads us into deeper relationship with him and encourages us in our journey.

May our hearts overflow with thanks and gratitude, and may our words be a blessing to our Creator and our community.

Amen.

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