Praising God - rhetoric or reality?
I am becoming more and more aware of how much "Christian-ese" fills our conversation, song, and writing. We have held phrases in our rhetoric for so long that they have lost virtually all of their meaning - sometimes in writing, but especially when spoken or sung. Modern Christian conversation is becoming at best only peppered with phrases from the Bible rather than being saturated with the precious words of Jesus, the wisdom of the psalmists, or the warnings of the prophets. When Biblical phrases are used, they are often oriented around man and his need, rather than God and His glory. Though I know this is a massive generalization, it does not take an expert to see that this is just the fruit of our Christianity being shaped by our culture rather than the Bible.
One such phrase consists of only a few words that we seem to treasure as much as a coin that we find on the ground. It would be doubtful to think that a modern believer or even unbeliever has not heard one of the following phrases (or other variants thereof):
"I praise you Jesus!", "I worship you!", "Praise God!", "Praise the Lord!", "Bless God!"
When we say these words ourselves or hear them from someone else, do we know what they actually mean? Is there real substance in our understanding behind these words?
Just one glance at the Psalms will reveal multitudes of verses like this one:
“I will praise You, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works. I will be glad and rejoice in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High.”
(Psalms 9:1–2 NKJV)
In order to have a better Biblical understanding of what it means to praise, we can begin with David, the sweet psalmist of Israel. David often commanded Israel to praise the Lord. There are actually several Hebrew words we translate as "praise" that David used in his psalms, and each of them have a specific meaning. Sometimes David meant "give thanks to God", other times he meant "sing and make music to Him", and still other times he meant "make God your boast". Each of these expressions of worship and praise had profound significance to the people of Israel. But the key understanding behind each of these words for "praise" was an exclamatory command to act in some manner, whether in thought, speech, song, or action because of who God had shown Himself to be through something He had done.
A practical example can help expose the way we use the word "praise" today, especially when ascribing it to God. If we were to walk up to our friend and simply shout "I praise you!" to them without any context, they would probably be dumbfounded and confused. "Why?" they might ask. "What did I do? What did I say?" Put the social awkwardness of such an event aside for the sake of the example. In our mind, we would have a context for praising, thanking, or honoring our friend. Perhaps they are wearing a nice shirt. Maybe their work on the project last week was exemplary. Or perhaps the note they left you really made you smile. Your boast may extend beyond the conversation with your friend to others about what your friend had done. Put simply, you are praising your friend by recognizing what they had done, esteeming it, and telling others how you felt about it.
It is extremely important to understand that praise needs a context. So many beautiful worship songs express praise to God in their lyrics, but because "praise God" is mere Christian vernacular, we often sing songs with a heart and mind almost void of the substance of praise. When we "sing praise to God", what fills our heart and mind? What are we praising Him for? What is the context of our praise?
David commanded worship and praise to God because of His greatness and His mighty acts (Psalms 150). For Israel, this was substantial because of a very real history filled with God's "mighty acts". And for us, this does not have to remain ethereal. There are so many Biblical things we can speak about, remember, and give thanks to God for - everything from the very breath we just took in to the beauty and horror of the cross of Christ. In honoring God, we can give Him the recognition He deserves by speaking highly of Him to others. In singing and making music to God, we can be excellent in what we do so that He is seen as precious to us. Through it all, the goal of praise is to make Jesus look supremely valuable, so that He may have the first place in everything (Colossians 1:18). This isn't insubstantial. Remembrance and gratitude is the substance of praise.
"Praise God" must be a precious command that we take to heart, evoking emotion, memories, gratitude, and honor for Him. We must not be content to let these words remain in our vernacular and have little to no impact on us. Next time you hear them said or sung, let them remind you of Someone and move you to speech, song, and action. Make a conscious effort to fill your heart and mind with substance. When praise abounds, love abounds.