“The Hallelujah Chorus”Dr. Stephen Z. Hearne Psalm 111 Year B – Proper 15 (20) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The music begins to swell as the instruments all join together. The singers join in and sing the first word, “Hallelujah!” The congregants, led by the king, stand up, enthralled by the awe-filled moment of praise and wonder expressed in the chorus. And, thus, we catch a glimpse into the celebration of God’s saving actions expressed in the psalmist’s “Hallelujah Chorus” that is recorded as Psalm 111. It is a song every bit as inspiring as Handel’s chorus though the instrumentation is probably shofars, lyres and flutes not unlike the horns, flutes, drums, and stringed instruments we hear today that help captivate us.
The 111th psalm is a hymn of praise that begins a cluster of nine psalms of wisdom and praise and that use acrostics in their construction. These acrostic psalms form the “Egyptian Hallel” that was used as the liturgy for some of the greater religious festival, such as Passover and Tabernacles. The acrostic pattern not only focuses the liturgy but is used as an aid to learning the great truths of the faith, a practice that still exists in many religious circles today.
As the opening psalm of this cluster, Psalm 111 both celebrates God’s redemptive actions and helps the celebrants understand the religious piety that must be characteristic of their worship. Therefore, proper worship is the responsibility of the congregation in two instances. The practice is their responsibility and the expectation is that they will respond to God’ presence with activity.
The first word is the Hebrew “Hallelu Yah” and sets the tone for what follows. Praise of YHWH is to be the primary action of the celebrant. It is a recognition and declaration of God’s greatness. In point of fact, the praise of God is to be the first act of the day and leads to thanksgiving from both the individual and the community. While personal piety in relation to God is of first importance, piety lived and declared in the presence of the entire community is also very important.
We are not speaking of “false piety,” which is condemned by Jesus in speaking of the hypocrites (play actors) in the Sermon on the Mount. But true commitment to God is to be visible, not hidden (i.e. a city on a hill or a lamp on a lamp stand) and is to be whole-hearted. How often do we just “go through the motions” at our worship times? Our thanksgiving, our “hallelujah” to God is to come from and through a heart that is whole and full because of God’s great acts in our lives.
Of course, there are some people uttering “amen” to this last statement because they think that whole-hearted worship is solely an emotional occurrence. Shouting “Hallelujah, praise the Lord, and pass the grits” while holding the hands high and swaying to the beat of the music is touted as “truly being spiritual” by some just as formal, staid worship is used by others. In fact, many will tell you that they are more spirit-filled than people with formal styles of worship. The psalmist recognizes the importance of praise, but he also speaks to the wholeness of worship as encompassing both the emotional and intellectual.
Immediately, after opening with the emotional “Hallelu Yah,” he reminds the celebrants that the great works of God that emote their praise response are studied, sought out, and understood with the mind. The various translations help us catch a glimpse further of this study: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (NRSV); “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (NIV).
We see that the great acts of God for the person are to be studied (sought out) and examined through reflection (pondered). Such study and reflection give worshipers meaningful basis for the praise offered with emotion, and it brings delight and is pleasing to the celebrant. This carries persons beyond “teaspoon” depth into the richness of the soil where God provides nourishing food for growth.
Several years ago, an editor wrote that many people listening to speeches and sermons complain that the speaker was “dull.” While admitting that sometimes this is true, the editorial writer posited that more times than “dull hearers” are responsible. They come without expectation and anticipation, and they spend their time thinking about other things rather than listening and reflecting on the speech. As a result, the moments spent in the audience become dull and uneventful. The psalmist’s instructions for examination of God’s works and reflection on God’s majesty and righteousness bring delight to the seeking heart and overcome the “dull hearers.”
As the psalmist continues, he instructs the celebrants in remembering the powerful works of God in which God has kept the ancient covenants that are forever before God and fulfilled by God. If this psalm was used around Passover, as many think; the Exodus events are the background for the hope-filled assurances being celebrated.
They include the power of rescue, the provision of food and protection, and the directed conquest of Canaan, the Land of the Promise. These deeds on their behalf call to mind not only God’s graciousness and mercy for his people but also provide for understanding God’s faithfulness. The framing of verses 2-5 and 6-9 with the references to “his works” (vv. 2, 6) and “his covenant forever” (vv. 5, 9) dramatically focus the attention of the worshipers on the trustworthiness of God as these stanzas are sung.
Interspersed within the stanzas are also concepts for deep reflection on the nature of YHWH and his relationship with those who truly seek God wholeheartedly. In addition to God’s works being forever and trustworthy, the precepts which God provides by which the seekers are to live are also forever and are to be done in faithfulness and uprightness.
The works of God in providing redemption (v. 9) demand a living response from those who seek and understand. A redemptive relationship should provide us with an awe-inspired, wonder-filled reverence for God that becomes part and parcel of our being. This is what the writer sees in the “fear of the Lord.” It will lead to higher wisdom in God and the practice of God’s precepts by which we are called to live. In this we will gain the understanding that complements wisdom, and our lives will be praises to God.
While this psalm brings hopefulness to the Israelites, there is even more for Christians. As we search, study, and reflect on God’s mighty and faithful work in Jesus the Christ, we find even more assurance for the future–a future of wise living and greater understanding of the wonder-filling majesty of our God. Do you know the “song of living? Let us stand and with awe…Sing, “Hallelujah!”
About the Writer: Dr. Stephen Z Hearne is a professor, chaplain, and pastor. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and Spartanburg Methodist College and serves as a Chaplain for the Greenville Hospital System. He recently retired as Pastor, First Baptist Church, Piedmont, SC; and is active in interim and pulpit supply.
Dr. Hearne is a graduate of Elon College, Elon College, NC; Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, SC; Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC; and also studied at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.
Steve enjoys hunting, reading, and being with family, especially with Mary, his bride of over 43 and a half years, and their two granddaughters, Sidney and Quinn
Scripture and Music:
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
O God of Earth and Space
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus
Take Time to Be Holy
O Worship the King
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
Be Thou My Vision (Parker)
Shine On Us (Harlan)
Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life
Great Is the Lord (Smith)
Give Thanks (Martin)
Shine, Jesus, Shine
What Does the Lord Require?
Fill My Cup, Lord