Studying Psalm 149 and Psalm 150

HALLELUJAH! We all know that much Hebrew – because it IS Hebrew, as is Amen. We’ll have “Hallelujah!” on our minds this week, because we are studying Psalm 149 and Psalm 150 for Sunday, October 31. That’s also Reformation Sunday, for the Protestantly inclined. Here are a few notes on these texts:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The last three to six psalms in the psalter, depending on how we count, are special. Christians have been calling them the laudate psalms (laudate means “praise” in Latin) at least since the development of the Roman Rite. On the Catholic side of the church, the laudate psalms are Psalm 148, 149, and 150. They have become a liturgical unit, known as the Laudate Dominum. Laudate Dominum is part of the Divine Office for Lauds, which is said in the morning. [A little more on “Laudate Dominum” here. An interesting description of the Divine Office here.] The Presbyterians, on the other hand, identify Psalms 145-150 as laudate psalms. [Instructions for chanting the Psalms, and in particular the laudate Psalms, from the Presbyterian Mission Organization, here.] Maybe they’re following Maimonides, who included all six of those final psalms in the element of Jewish morning prayer known as pesukei dzimra. [According to Wikipedia – here.] Other sages, though, went with the shorter list.

However we count or label them, these psalms close out the book of Psalms on a dramatic, enthusiastic note. They alternately emphasize the praises of Israel and the praises of all creation. Psalm 149 articulates the praises of Israel; Psalm 150 calls forth the praise of “all that has breath.”

In addition to the use of these psalms in the Daily Office, Psalm 149 appears in the lectionary twice, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, and on All Saints’ Day Year C. Psalm 150 is the psalm for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C.

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CLOSER READING: “Praise the HOLY ONE,” the phrase which opens each of these psalms, translates the Hebrew expression Hallelu Yah – the imperative form of the verb “to praise” plus a shortened form of the divine name. Christians brought this Hebrew expression over into Christian worship untranslated, and have been using it for the past couple of thousand years.

Psalm 149

In v1 and again in verses 5 and 9, the “faithful” or “faithful ones” are the chasidim, the ones characterized by chesed. Chesed – steadfast love, lovingkindness, faithfulness, loyalty – is usually something we associate with God. Here, people are responding to God’s chesed with their own.

The “dance” in verse 3 is a specific dance associated with the celebration of military victories, a whirling dance. [Although there is some argument that it might be a type of flute.]

Verse 4 is pivotal. God takes pleasure in God’s people – so, the opposite of being grieved by or worried about or angry with those people. This is cause for rejoicing. Especially because God adorns / beautifies these people – the humble – with salvation. Salvation, yeshua, renders its objects beautiful. The faithful ones, in turn, praise God exultantly, with “a ringing cry” or “[joyful] shout.”

These people are not exiles. Quite the opposite: they are people who have the wherewithal to exact vengeance on “the nations” (v7). The closing verses of Psalm 149 (missing from our Uniform Series text selection) cast the faithful ones in the role of executing justice – or establishing justice – presumably on God’s behalf. This equilibrating activity neatly balances the joyful singing and dancing of verses 2-5. We might even see it as a different form of praise and rejoicing.

The praise belongs to Yah – the HOLY ONE.

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Psalm 150

Psalm 150 gives us the place of praise, the motive for praise, the instruments of praise, and the identity of those doing the praising. The emphasis is on the instruments, the list of which takes up half the psalm.

The place of praise is God’s holy place, which is equated with the firmament – the dome that separates heaven from the earth. But maybe the holy place of the Temple mirrors that firmament – it’s another place where heaven and earth touch. The place is literally mightyoz or uz in Hebrew.

[This might remind us of the story about Uzza, whose name means “mighty,” and how he is killed, despite his name, for laying hands on the Ark of the LORD during its first, abortive, trip to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). Or it might just remind us of the Wizard of Oz. Maybe Frank L. Baum also knew some Hebrew.]

The motive for praise is God’s mighty acts and, literally, God’s great (rov) greatness (godel).

The instruments of praise comprise a long list, taking up half the psalm. This is most obviously simply a list of all the elements of a really big ancient Israelite worship band. On the other hand, we might notice that these instruments are particularly associated with specific occasions. For instance, we might think of the shofar being associated with the festival of atonement, or the timbrel and the machol being associated with victory over enemies. So this list of instruments might also double as a list of all the times for praising God.

Verse 6 begins, literally, “all the breath.” In English it becomes “everything that breathes.” But the Hebrew construction might be a clue to the way the psalmist is thinking about reality. “All” needn’t mean “each one,” it can mean “all of.” Here it would be all of “the breath,” which is a singular [feminine] noun. The image is of a single, great, living, breathing entity – all of creation, which is animated by the breath or spirit of the living God, the source and sustenance of all life.

At least, that’s how it reads to me.

[Here is a contemporary musical setting of Psalm 150, by Cantor Azi Schwartz at Park Avenue Synagogue.]

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Image: Illuminated Psalter, Lionel Allorge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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