A sermon on Psalm 113 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 4 March 2018
“Praise the Lord. Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord.”
So begins Psalm 113. Psalm 113 is an invitation, a summons, to God’s people from every place and from every time to praise him. And just for good measure, it gives us two good reasons why we should. And those two reasons are that nothing is too hard for the Lord to do, and no one is too small for him to help.
“Praise the Lord.”
Psalm 113 begins with praise. You might be familiar with it from the only Hebrew word that you know: Hallelujah. It means “Praise the Lord”. To praise him means to glorify him, to magnify him, to say great things about him, to shout them out aloud so that everyone can hear and know how great our God is and what great things he has done.
Now, you can praise a person for their intelligence or good looks, or for their hospitality or generosity or for their good fortune or their loads and loads of money. But when the Scriptures praise God, they remind us who the true and living God is, what he is really like and what attributes and actions of his are worthy of praise. We praise him for who he is and for what he has done.
Psalm 113 is actually the first of six psalms in a row, from 113 up to 118, that were sung by the people of Israel on the night of the Passover. The Passover was that great day of the year when they remembered how they’d been slaves in Egypt. They were trapped. They were helpless. They were being oppressed. But God reached down to save them. He struck the land of Egypt with terrible plagues until the king of Egypt chased the people of Israel away to get rid of them. Psalm 113 was the first of the songs sung on the Passover that celebrated that great act of the Lord’s salvation. How he reached down to pull them up out of the dust of their slavery. Praise the Lord.
So when Mark chapter 14 says that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn on the night of the Last Supper, Psalm 113 was one of those songs. So it may not be on everybody’s list of top ten psalms. Everyone loves Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd. Some people know Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength. However, not many people are familiar with Psalm 113. But as we turn to it today, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus.
“Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord.”
Our first point is that the servants of the Lord are summoned to praise the name of the Lord. The servants of the Lord are his people gathered for worship. They don’t gather to talk about the latest sports results. They don’t gather to complain about the weather. They gather because they are the Lord’s people, ready to serve him, who delight in declaring how great he is in sharing with each other how much he means to them. So they praise him.
They praise his name. Because God has a name. He is not just a god, a nameless one among many. He is not just a theory, a conclusion that we propose based on all the observed facts. He is not just the embodiment of our greatest hopes and dreams. He is not just the big man in the sky. He is the God. And he has a name. Because he is a person who has made us as persons too. He is the true and living God who has made himself known. His name is not just a label we put on him like he could have any name. It represents all that he has made known to us about himself. To know the God’s name is to know him. To call on his name is to be heard by him. To praise his name is to declare the greatness of the God we know, because he has made himself known.
And his name, as he revealed it to Moses, is:
“the Lord, the merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.”
This is his name. This is what he has made himself known to be. His name is the refuge of sinners. It is the praise of his servants.
“Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore.”
He is to be praised at all times, in all generations.
“From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.”
It doesn’t mean to praise him all day long, from morning until evening, while the sun is in the sky. That would imply that his praises should stop at night time. It’s talking about places. From the furthest east where the sun rises, to the furthest west where it goes down. It means everywhere. Because we know that the earth isn’t flat. We know the earth is round. So for us it means that all around the globe God is to be praised. God is to be praised by all people of all times in all places, everyone, everywhere, every when.
Because he is not a local God. He is not the God of one mountain. He is not the God of one village. He is not the God of one nation. He is the God of all people. He is the God of Australians. The God of the Chinese. The God of Christians. The God of Buddhists. The God of atheists. The God of the 1st century. The God of the 21st century. The God of the last century. He is the God of those who know and love and serve him. And he is the God of those who do not know him, who do not acknowledge him, who do not serve him yet. He doesn’t vanish when we stop believing in him. Close your eyes and close your ears. Close your hearts to him if you can and withhold your love. But he is still there, even when you can’t see him.
In the story Peter Pan, the fairies are in danger from unbelief. Every time someone says, “I don’t believe in fairies” a fairy dies. But God in no danger from our unbelief. He doesn’t need our faith. He doesn’t even need our praise. In fact, a God who needed our praise would not be worthy of our praise.
Verses 1 to 3 call on us to praise the Lord. The second point is that verses 4 to 6 give us the first good reason why we should praise him. Nothing is too hard for him to do.
“The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.”
Israel was a small nation, caught between Egypt and Babylon. From generation to generation, Israel was the plaything of the world empires that swept back and forth across the middle East. But the Lord was and is above them all. All those nations that little Israel was so afraid of. The Lord is greater than Egypt or Babylon. The Lord is greater than the Persian Empire. The Lord is greater than the Roman Empire. The Lord is greater than the British Empire. And when the last empire falls to dust, he will still be there, enthroned on high.
“He rules above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, the one who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?”
We often make the mistake of locking God up in heaven. We forget that heaven is just another part of the created order. We forget that heaven and earth are too small to contain the Lord. That he fills them and overflows them. He transcends the cosmic order that is the home of our planet, our solar system, our galaxy. The Lord even has to stoop, to bend down far down to look at the heavens and the earth that he has made. God is not a wise old man who lives in heaven. He is the Spirit who fills the universe with more to spare. No obstacle frustrates him. No enemy threatens him. No one is like him. No one can match him. Nothing is too hard for the Lord to do.
And that’s the first reason that we should praise him. The third point is that verses 7 to 9 give us the second reason to praise the Lord. No one is too small, too insignificant for him to help. In fact, the Lord makes the small his priority. He majors on the minors.
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children.”
The Lord is not the God of the status quo. His existence and will do not justify why the rich are powerful but the poor are weak. He is not the principle that explains why the desperate are so miserable. “Why am I poor?” someone asks. “Why can’t I have children?” someone complains. “It is God’s will,” people say. “You must have sinned. You are being punished. Put up with it because there is nothing that anyone can do about it.”
But the Lord is not the God of the status quo. He is the great reverser of fortunes. Just as he is exalted and high up, so he exalts the poor and lifts them up out of their misery. Just as he sits enthroned on high, so he makes them sit with the great and mighty of the land. Just as he dwells above the heavens, so he causes the childless woman to dwell in a household full of children. It isn’t luck. It isn’t random. It is the Lord. And so the poor and the childless and the sick and the oppressed and the troubled can cry out to him and he will hear them. Not because he loves the poor more than the rich or the small more than the great, but because he loves the poor just as much as the rich, but the poor need him more and he wants to help and he can help.
When Mary was pregnant with Jesus she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. And Mary sang a song, a song that lies behind our second hymn, “Tell out, my soul.” She sang:
“the Lord scatters the proud, he brings down the rulers, he sends the rich away empty, but he lifts up the humble and he has fed the hungry.”
With similar words, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The message is clear. No one is too small for the Lord to help. Instead the small and insignificant are his specialty.
This is the gospel as we see it in Philippians chapter 2. The Lord Jesus was exalted. His glory above the heavens. He was enthroned on high above the nations. And he stooped down, not just to look on the heavens and the earth, but to enter our created order as one of us. He lowered himself into the dust. He shared the life of the needy in the ash heap. And he surrendered his life to death on the cross. And so he was exalted. He was lifted up from death, from the grave, from corruption, and given the name that is above every name. In order that he would not be the only one exalted, but so that he might lift the poor and the needy to the heights of his throne that every knee may bow and every tongue praise his name. Jesus the Lord.
And so to sum up. Psalm 113 calls on us to praise the name of the Lord and gives us two good reasons. Nothing is too hard for him to do. He is greater than all our problems or fears. He is above our hopes and dreams and petty anxieties. And no one is too small for him to help. Not the poor. Not the needy. Not your neighbour. Not your enemy. Not even you.
Praise the Lord.