One of history’s great eccentrics was the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart. While locked away by his embarrassed father-in-law for his habit of praying loudly in public places, Smart wrote a long poem in praise of his cat, Jeoffry. Here are the opening lines:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the east he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
In page after page of detailed observation, the most trivial of things (“For he can creep”) are placed alongside the most grandiose and mystical (“For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat”). As one commentator observes, “Everything is given equal weight, equal status, in Smart’s world because everything is infused with divinity … It’s understood that Jeoffry praises God simply by doing what cats do, by being himself.” Smart noticed everything about his cat, and his poem (forgive me) is a catalogue of praise. He “understood the piling up of particulars as a joyous poetic activity.”[*]
What is praise?
I like Smart’s wild and wacky poem because it captures the essence of praise. Christians use the word praise all the time, but we aren’t always clear about its meaning. There is an adage, that we thank God for what he has done, and praise him for who he is. But the Psalms don’t reflect this view of praise (see Psalm 22:22-24, for example).
The secret to biblical praise is that there is nothing special about it. It is exactly the same as praise in daily life. Praise is simply saying what you’ve noticed about a special person or thing. When you love someone you notice everything about them. My wife and I will often tell each other things our children have said or done—not necessarily because they are praiseworthy, but simply because we love to notice little things, and by telling each other we share our pleasure in our child. A group of football fans will gather in a pub after the game, and re-live the highlights, blow by blow. Whether it’s a gripping TV series, a fine meal, the perfect holiday spot, an ingenious solution, or the man or woman of your dreams, praise is all about noticing the details.
A lesson in praise
Like Smart’s poem, the wise and cheerful 111th Psalm is a catalogue of praise. Its 22 lines begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet—a device to encourage memorisation, helping a student “learn God” feature by feature. There are no clear internal divisions, but I have split the psalm into bite-sized pieces, so we can notice its habits of praise as we go along. The acrostic is hard to reproduce, so I have added an alphabetical series of word-associations as a kind of substitute.
Praise the Lord.
[Applause] I will extol the Lord with all my heart
[Believers] in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
Praise is for sharing. It arises from within us when we gaze upon the thing we love, and we want everyone—especially our fellow fans—to see what we see.
[Colossal] Great are the works of the Lord;
[Delight] they are pondered by all who delight in them.
A six year-old’s heart swells with pride at Daddy’s modest feats of strength. But our Father can speak oceans into existence, and stars, and forests, and cats. Do you ever grow tired of noticing what he can do? “Pondered” translates a rare Hebrew word, chosen for its opening letter. The verse paints a picture of God’s fans seeking out wonder after wonder, never growing tired of the delight they bring.
[Excellent] Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
[Forever] and his righteousness endures forever;
[Graven] He has caused his wonders to be remembered.
God’s deeds inspire the awe of royal splendour, the magnificence that speaks of power. They overwhelm the senses, and span the eons. His decisions are so perfect that they will last forever, and his miracles so mind-boggling that they are permanently graven in memory. Red Sea, anyone? Resurrection?
[Heartfelt] The Lord is gracious and compassionate;
[Invitation] he provides food for those who fear him;
[Jealousy] he remembers his covenant forever.
Could there be a more amazing feeling than meeting the hero you have looked up to your whole life? What about walking into a room where a crowd surrounds your hero, and having your hero spot you, smile, hurry over, and greet you warmly as a friend. That’s how it is between God and his people. He knows us by name. He grieves for us and with us. He sustains us. And though he knows what we are, he binds himself to us jealously, permanently.
[Kingly] He has shown his people the power of his works,
[Lavish] giving them the lands of other nations.
[Moral] The works of his hands are faithful and just.
Such single-minded commitment to an oppressed people is a recipe for drama, and here is the place where a longer psalm would be filled with blow-by-blow description. For those who sing through the Psalter the great trilogy of Psalms 105–107 is fresh in mind, a triumphant re-living of God’s dealings with Israel from the call of Abraham to the return from exile.
[Never-failing] All his precepts are trustworthy;
[Overwhelming] they are established for ever and ever,
[Perpetual] enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.
This catalogue of joyful noticing now arrives at its climax. Creation reveals God’s power; his saving deeds reveal his love; but to disclose his deepest thoughts God must speak. So profound are his words that it took the greatest acrostic ever written to peg out their dimensions. Psalm 119 reveals a perfect mind—but only in part. God’s final Word was so much greater that it burst into history in human form, and in the new creation his fans will literally never tire of noticing amazing things about the risen Christ.
[Quittance] He provided redemption for his people;
[Relationship] he ordained his covenant forever—
[Sanctity] holy and awesome is his name.
Having mentioned God’s perfect law, his decision to enter into relationship with us suddently looks even more amazing. We have just gloried in the compassion which prompted him to rescue us from bondage, but his law exposes us as sinners, not just slaves. How could God, at one and the same time, be perfect in holiness and joined to us by covenant? The most amazing truth of all: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
[Trembling] The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
[Understanding] all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
[Valuing] To him belongs eternal praise.
“Pay attention!” concludes this little lesson in praise. To know God is to fear him, to fear him is to live well, to hang onto his every word is to master the world. Noticing God completes us. But even if it didn’t … just look at him! He is utterly magnificent, and all the lesser magnificence we see around us exists because “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Praise is what we are for
The Hebrew title for the Book of Psalms is tehillim, which means “praises.” It’s an odd choice, because in the first twenty psalms the word “praise” occurs only once. Just a third of the opening fifty are praise psalms. Mostly they lament, complain, reflect, repent, grieve. But as we keep reading, the praises grow from a trickle to a stream to a flood, and the final five psalms all have the same title: “Hallelujah!”
Praise is not where the Psalms begin. And praise is not where the Christian life begins. It begins in sin, and it is marked by affliction and sorrow. But thanks be to God, praise is where it ends, and that glorious ending changes everything—even the sadness and suffering. And that is why the Psalms are called praises. Praise has the power to bring God near, even when sin and death press upon us.
Ultimately, praise draws us into the life of God himself. The psalms of David became the prayers of Jesus, by which he drew near to the Father in petition and praise.
What is gained if I am silenced,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness? (Ps 30:9)
But in God’s kindness the Messiah was saved, and saved for a reason:
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. (Ps 30:11-12)
For us, as for Christ, to live is to praise. Everything we have and everything we are is the gift of God. Praise is the only thing we have to give back to him.
So read the psalms and let them teach you to praise. Let them teach you to read the world. To see God in everything beautiful. To look up and around, to look into the past and the future, and to glory in God’s work. And let the psalms teach you to read yourself. To see the good, the bad, and the ugly; the person God has made, the person he loves and cares for, and the person he redeemed with his own life. Unlike Christopher Smart you may not be locked up with only a cat for company, but you can still use the psalms to make you slow down and practice the art of noticing things.
[*] E. D. Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (San Diego, Harcourt, 1999), 70-75.