I was once at a church thing where a speaker talked about the Hebrew words for praise. At the end of their message, they gave us an opportunity to practice doing each of those words. (Before you read on, I want you to know that I’m not throwing any shade to this speaker at all. And just in case, I’m also not going to tell you who they were. If you want to try to guess, know that I’ve been in many services in more than one country in which speakers have given basically the same presentation. So maybe I’m amalgamating multiple speakers into one; maybe I’m not. 😜 Anyway, back to what I was saying…) One of the Hebrew words for praise is towdah. The translation this speaker gave for towdah was, “to extend the hands with thanks for promises that are coming,” and the Scripture cited was Psalm 50:23.
"Whoever sacrifices a thank offering honors me, and whoever orders his conduct, I will show him the salvation of God." (Psalm 50:23, CSB)
Even though I had heard all of this many times before—and had even taught it myself a few times—I listened and took careful notes. And when it was time to practice praising God in different ways, I “knew the drill” and was ready to go. But when the time came to “thank God for promises that are coming,” I couldn’t do it and I sensed the Holy Spirit speak a loud, “no,” into my heart. “You can’t do this yet,” He said. It may seem strange that God would tell me not to praise Him yet. But I had a suspicion for why and decided to check it. So as the sound of people praising surrounded me, I pulled out my Bible and read the passage again—not as an isolated verse, but as a part of a whole—beginning with verse one.
It’s important to remember that the book of Psalms was/is the Jewish prayer and song book. And for Christians today, it’s still meant to be our prayer and song book, giving us language to fully express our hearts to God. And whether we’re reading the Psalms or any other book of the Bible, when we isolate verses from their context, we misunderstand what those verses mean.
So now let’s take a look at Psalm 50. Many words of this psalm would not be suitable to stitch onto a throw pillow:
"Our God is coming; he will not be silent! Devouring fire precedes him, And a storm rages around him." (Psalm 50:3, CSB)
When someone in the Bible spoke or prayed about God not being silent, there was something they wanted God to respond to. And that something was likely a source of pain, anger, or some other heavy emotion. What (or who) was causing this author to cling to God this way in this psalm? From verse 7, we learn that the offenders were God’s people. (“Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you…”) These were people who had God’s law and knew what He required of them. In today’s vernacular, we’d say these people went to church, raised their hands and voices during worship, and they might have even been the loudest and most verbose during prayer time. But God rejected their acts of worship and called them “wicked.” Why?
"But God says to the wicked: 'What right do you have to recite my statutes and to take my covenant on your lips? You hate instruction and fling my words behind you. When you see a thief, you make friends with him, and you associate with adulterers. You unleash your mouth for evil and harness your tongue for deceit. You sit, maligning your brother, slandering your mother’s son. You have done these things, and I kept silent; you thought I was just like you.” (Psalm 50:16-21, CSB)
In short, Psalm 50 expresses pain and anger about those who outwardly worship God and claim His name, but who also participate in injustice.
You cannot do the praising of Psalm 50:23 until you have done the lamenting and petitioning of Psalm 50:1-22. There is no shortcut to praise. It’s not that God doesn’t know about our pain unless we express it; it’s that by expressing our pain to Him, we give Him access to it so He can do His transformative work in and through it. God does not ask us to bypass our pain; the God Who Is With Us invites us to walk with Him through our pain. And while we still live in the now and not yet, in a world that is still broken and yearning to be made new, we continue to both lament and praise.
So back to the day when a speaker invited a room full of people to praise God for the promises that are coming: After the Spirit told me, “No, you can’t do this yet,” I broke into tears and lamented, giving voice to injustices I had seen and ways I had been wounded. And after I lamented and poured out my heart to God, I was able to praise.
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, by Soong-Chan Rah
Some of my favorite quotations from this book:
“There is power in bringing untold stories to light.”
“Lament serves the purpose of providing a necessary step toward praise.”
“What would happen to our faith if we believed that God reigns sovereign over both our celebration and our suffering?”
“Lamentations recognizes that individual voices from the full range of citizens must be heard. Lament requires the full and honest expression of suffering; that experience must encompass the full breadth of suffering. In contrast, American evangelical Christianity often presents only the story of the dominant culture. Often, the stories from the ethnic minority communities are not deemed worthy…The power of Lamentations is that the voices of those who have actually suffered are not missing.”
“In many of our justice endeavors, we often believe that our task is to speak for the voiceless. But maybe we need to follow the book of Lamentations and move the ones who suffer to front and center. The prophet-narrator has much to say, but the real movement and progress is that we hear the actual voice of those who suffer.”