You’ve perhaps heard of, or possibly have seen, the animated movie Happy Feet. Well, this psalm comes from the heart and hands and harp of someone with happy faith. He is happy because of his faith in the God who helps and who therefore gives him hope. Whoever wrote it was happy, and he wanted his readers to be happy too. But more to the point, he expects that those who are happy will speak like it, sing like it, submit like it, serve like it and, generally, live like it.
The last five psalms of the psalter are, in a particular way, “praise” psalms. This is evident from the opening and closing lines of each: “Praise the LORD!” (emphasis in the original). It is the word, “Hallelujah.”
The psalms are among the favourite parts of Scripture, no doubt largely because they address with profundity the various things that we face in life. It is for this reason that these final psalms focus on praise, for as Kidner remarks, “The Psalms are a miniature of our story as a whole, which will end in unbroken blessing and delight.”1
The opening line of each of these closing psalms is what some call an invitation; I prefer to call it a command. The picture is of a congregational gathering where the choir master exhorts the congregation to praise the Lord. And, at least in the psalm before us, the expectation is an antiphonal response. The choir master expects the congregation to read then “praise the LORD” (see also Psalm 148). He expects the congregation to respond to his command. None are to be silent. All are to join in this praise to the Lord.
But, of course, our praise is not to be empty; it is not to be characterised as “vain repetition.” The praise is to have content—biblical, theologically accurate content. It is to be thoughtful. In the words of Romans 12:1, it is to be reasonable. There are reasons why we are to praise the Lord.
There is always the danger of vain repetition, of taking God’s name in vain when we sing, when we pray, when we speak and, yes, when we teach and preach. Vain repetition is not necessarily saying the same words.2 The error lies in saying these words without consideration, without thought. To merely pray or “praise” as rote ritual is what Jesus meant when he warned against “vain repetition” (Matthew 6:7).
It is for this reason that each of these praise psalms goes from exhortation to explanation. Concrete reasons are provided that undergird the command to “praise the LORD.” After all, as Boice helpfully comments, “If we are not reflecting on what God is like and has done, we are not really worshiping.”3
This is a very important consideration as we approach Psalm 146. For, too often, a nouthetic abuse can occur, though doubtlessly unintentionally. That is, just like Bob Newhart’s “Stop It!” we expect Christians to join in song and praise as we gather. Now that is not wrong, for both the Old and the New Testaments reveal God’s expectation that we do so (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; etc.). But if we have not engaged our minds, then such praise is indeed empty.
I believe that, when we gather to worship, every church member is under obligation to join in the corporate expression of thanksgiving, prayer, worship and praise—and I am thinking particularly of praise through song. But this does not always happen. I notice this sometimes when I am sitting on the platform before I preach. And it does trouble me. I wonder to myself, “Why the silence? Why the non-participation? Why the solitude?”
There may be many reasons. Some may be distracted by the burdens and busyness of life. Others may be physically unwell. There may be some uncertainty about the ability to follow the music and words. Some may be questioning the doctrine of the song. But there may be some worse reasons.
Some may simply be in a really foul mood! Others may have nothing to sing about because you do not know the Lord.
Aside from illness and musical confusion, it seems that the fundamental cause of the silence is that we have not engaged our minds. We have not given sufficient attention to who the Lord is and all that He does and has done and yet will do. For once we consider the Lord, we will have more than enough reasons to open our mouths to praise Him.
All this tells us that that these praise psalms do not merely exhort us with a flippant “just do it,” but rather they provide a rationale to “just do it.” So, if you are not joining with the congregation to praise the Lord, then stop it! Think for a moment and then start it!
The Resolve to Praise the LORD
In vv. 1–2, we find a resolve to praise the Lord: “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.”
“Praise” properly means “to shine; to make shine; to give forth a clear and distinct sound.” It connotes celebration with the voice or with sound. It is akin to boasting in something.
We are to celebrate who the Lord is and therefore we are to boast in what He does. Surely every believer can do this!
Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Is our speech different from those who have no interest in the Lord?
The psalmist writes, “Praise the LORD,” and then again, “Praise the LORD, O my soul!” This may be an antiphonal response to the command. On the other hand, it may be that the writer is answering his own invitation. He is taking himself in hand as he responds to his own counsel. This is always helpful. As Spurgeon noted, “It is a poor business if we solely exhort others, and do not stir up our own soul.”4
Note that the response is a whole-hearted one—“O my soul.” The person’s entire nephesh is responding in praise. In fact, this individual is instructing himself to praise the Lord. Stop listening so much to yourself and rather talk to yourself (cf. Psalms 42–43).
We need to speak the truth to ourselves, especially in light of the lies that we are constantly bombarded with. We need to trace God’s story onto our story. We need to map God’s story onto the details of our life. And when we do then we will be in position and disposition to praise the Lord.
Are people despising, disregarding and mistreating you? Remember that the Lord’s everlasting love will uphold you (Romans 8:31–39). Have you failed miserably—sinned against God? Remember His promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Do you feel forlorn or lost? Cling to these words:
“He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Are you at the end of your rope? Remember:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
The psalmist continues, “While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” His praise will continue as long as he lives. This is a long-term commitment, a long-term resolve to praise the LORD. The Jerusalem Bible captures the emphasis well: “I mean to praise … all my life, I mean to sing … as long as I live.”
This, of course, should be our resolve—the shape and bent of our heart. In all situations, under all conditions, and in all circumstances, we are to praise the Lord (Philippians 4:11–13; 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18).
An Essential Reflection
Next, in vv. 3–4, we read of the psalmist’s essential reflection: “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish.”
There are many who compete for our praise, who compete for our boasting, who compete for our trust. We are reminded of this in vv. 3–4. These verses provide a foil, a powerful contrast for what follows. By comparing the inability of man with the omnipotence of God, the writer seeks to evoke heartfelt because confident praise. It is a very logical argument.
We tend to view biblical truth as the “ideal” and (God forbid) merely the theoretical. The writer addresses this tendency. He tackles the temptation that, in times of trial, we seek “the ‘influential,’ whose backing may well seem more solid and practical than God’s.”5
The point is not that people and governments and experts can provide no assistance to us. They can. In fact, we are even commanded to pray for them. The point, however, is that man’s help is ultimately limited. Those who help us are fundamentally no different from us. Because we live in a sin-cursed world, any temporal help is just that—temporal. Granted, it is very real help at times. But it cannot be infallibly depended upon. Friends, like foes, will at times fail us. Well-meaning politicians will make mistakes—as many a presidential biography will attest.
In such cases, we may praise such an individual who has helped us, but we will be forced by the facts to confess that even they had warts. But not Yahweh.
Paul experienced this when imprisoned. He wrote to Timothy: “At my first defence no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them” (2 Timothy 4:16).
Often, people are willing to help, but they lack the power. As Leupold notes, “They do not have resources which enable them always to deliver those who turn to them.”6
Further, we must keep before us the truth that even “good” people and good leaders die. When they do, then can no longer help us. If we become dependent upon them in an unhealthy way, we will be devastated when they are no longer around.
For example, we have all known people who shrivelled up when their beloved parent or spouse or child died. They had built their lives unwisely on them and so, when they were gone, so was their purpose, so was their hope.
The same can be said with political shifts. I was in the United States when the Brexit results were released. I was driving with my wife and in-laws across country to a wedding. The radio was on while we were driving, and the host was talking about how dreadful the vote was and how dire the outcome was for the world. Four days later, we were returning from the wedding and the same announcer was speaking of how positive the vote had turned out to be!
The same can be said for churches that were unfortunately built upon an individual rather than upon the Lord. The Lord certainly uses gifted individuals, but it is the Lord Jesus who builds His church and who is the Head of the church. At the end of the day, as Boice notes, “The only being in the universe that you can depend on unconditionally is God. So worship God!”7
The Needful Realisation
In vv. 5–9 we read a needful realisation:
Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD raises those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked He turns upside down.
A Final Beatitude
“Happy is he” is the last beatitude in the Psalms (cf. 1:1; 2:12; 32:1–2; 33:12; 34:8; 40:4; 41:1; 65:4; 84:4–5, 12; 89:15; 94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1–2; 127:5; 128:1–2; 137:8–9; 144:15–16).
Access to Help and to Hope
“Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is the LORD his God.” This is what the previous verses set us up for. It is a wonderful realisation that, though man will fall and fail and fade (see Psalm 90), the Lord will not. And so those who place their trust in Him will be “happy.”
“The God of Jacob” is the living God (Matthew 22:32), and this fact is to be contrasted with those whose “spirit departs” and whose “plans perish” with him.
The mention of Jacob serves to encourage us from history. As the Lord provided and sustained and protected His covenant people in the past, so we can be sure that He will do so in the present. As they were “happy” so can we be happy.
The one who trusts in the living God is not only in a position to secure help but is also in a position to live with hope—to have hope.
When it comes to our resolve to praise the Lord, it must be fuelled with resources to keep it alive. And that resource is the revelation of who God is and what He has done. This is seen in vv. 5–9
In the first part (vv. 6–7a), the writer seems to have in mind what God has done, and the second section (vv. 7b–9) emphasises what God delights to do for His people.
A History for Hope
In vv. 6–7a, we have the description of God, who is the creator of the earth, the definer and defender of truth, the righteous Judge of the earth, and the one who provides food for the hungry. It is to this God that we turn for help and in whom we find hope. The knowledge of this God will provide the foundation to be happy as we place our trust in Him.
Yahweh is the God “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all this is in them.” God, the sovereign Creator can make a way for you.
He is the God “who keeps truth forever.” He can be trusted. He is faithful. You can trust Him even when you cannot trace Him.
He is the God “who executes justice for the oppressed.” History is filled with examples of God righting the wrongs. Think, for example, of how God time and again righted the wrongs done to Joseph in the book of Genesis. God sometimes rights wrongs temporally, but we are confident that one dal everything will literally be made right.
The Lord is the God “who gives food to the hungry.” Leupold’s comment is spot on: “It is God who satisfies their hunger, not the independent operations of the laws of nature.”8 As God provided manna and quail in the wilderness, as he provided for Elijah through the ravens, and as Jesus provided food for the multitudes in the Gospels, so God “gives food to the hungry” today.
What does trust in this God look like? It looks like relying on the Lord as your help and your hope. It looks like resting in the one who creates and controls all (see Isaiah 40:21ff). It looks like resting in the Word of the one who cannot lie. It looks like resting in the verdict, albeit temporary, of the one who rights all wrongs. That is, even when all is not right, you choose to rest and rely on the one who does right. It looks like relying on the one who promises to feed His people.
An Inclination for Hope
In vv. 8–9, the psalmist further revels in the God whom is trustworthy and who therefore is the source of true happiness. The Lord is inclined to help His people; He is inclined to do the remarkable for them.
The psalmist writes, “The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners.” Don’t think Radovan Krejcir! This is not the kind of prisoner that the writer has in mind. Rather, he is speaking of those who are wrongly imprisoned—like Joseph (Genesis 39) and like those mentioned later in Hebrews 11:36 & 13:3, 23. The sovereign Lord ultimately holds the keys to the prisons. He can deliver.
“The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.” When all seems dark and hopeless, the Lord—and He alone—can shed light. He clears up the dark.
“The LORD raises those who are bowed down.” He literally makes the crooked straight.
All of these things are most clearly seen in the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s ministries highlighted His sovereignty and thereby provided comfort to those who believed in Him.
The Lord continues, “The LORD loves the righteous.” This summarises and does some explaining to the passage. The ones whom the sovereign Lord delivers are the righteous. They are loved by Him and so He works for their good. This is the God in whom you want to trust for help and therefore the God on whom you can truly hope.
“The LORD watches over the strangers,” the psalmist continues. Obviously, these “strangers” are in covenant relationship with Him. They are those strangers who have been sovereignly and graciously brought by Him to Him.
Note that the Lord elsewhere commands His people to treat “strangers” well—just as He has graciously treated the nation of Israel. God’s people are called to be like Him.
The Lord is the God who “relives the fatherless and widow.” This is not an absolute statement. Again, the context would imply those fatherless and widows who look to Him for help and hope; those who trust in Him.
A Note of Contrast
The last part of v. 9 brings a contrast. After all these wonderful declarations of what God does for those who trust Him, those who are righteous, the writer seems to make a statement to guard against any unwarranted presumption by those who do not trust in the Lord. So he writes: “But the way of the wicked He turns upside down.”
In other words, the great and trustworthy LORD, in whom the righteous finds help and hope, is against those who choose not to trust Him. Whereas He sets the life of the righteous right side up, He turns the life of the wicked “upside down.”
The word “wicked” describes those who have an unrighteous cause. They are anomia, lawless. They are guilty of violating God’s rules and therefore guilty of violating His rule. Because they turn God’s laws upside down, He turns them upside down.
Why does the author state this? I presume that he does so in order to drive home the contrast between the righteous who are ultimately happy and the godless who are ultimately unhappy (see Psalm 73).
Choose very carefully in whom you place your trust, to who you seek your help, from whom you derive your hope!
The Praiseworthy Reign
Finally, in v. 10, the psalmist exults in the Lord’s praiseworthy reign: “The LORD shall reign forever—your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!” This is a statement of God’s covenantal promise and therefore covenantal faithfulness.
The psalmist reminds the people of God that their God reigns forever. Sometimes, we just need the reminder! And we need the personalised reminder of who is ultimately in control.
During my recent time in the United States, I heard a lot of Christians talking about the elections. Strangely, the one place that I heard very little talk of politics was at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. The believers there understand who is in control, and so they are not swayed by the latest political polls and predictions.
This God reigns “to all generations.” It is important to keep in mind the original recipients of this psalm. We need to be careful of flattening out this promise. This is a promise to the remnant of believing, faithful Jews through all generations. It applies to the church of our day, no doubt, but it also serves as an encouragement to believing Jews of all generations.
In summary, God is to be trusted for help and hope by His people, regardless of the era in which they live—including ours!
In the earlier psalms, we have studied the writers’ griefs, shames, sins, doubts, and fears. We have witnessed the people of God in their defeats and victories, their ups and downs in life. We have encountered rebellious words and struggling faith. All this is behind us now. In these final psalms every word is praise. Praise is where all true religious contemplations should end.9
So, with this truth in mind what should be our response? “Praise the LORD!” As we gather, let us consider the LORD and we will then praise Him. Do so tomorrow and throughout the week as well.
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 483. ↩
- The instruction, by Jesus, to pray in a certain way when you pray, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, is case in point. There is nothing wrong with praying these same words—even doing so daily. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1259. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1260. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 483. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 984. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1261. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 985. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1257. ↩