This article is the edited transcript of an address delivered by Brother John Martin on 1st October 1966 at a Young People’s Study Weekend held at Victor Harbor. The study weekend involved study groups considering several key Messianic Psalms. This was a memorable weekend for all who were there and Brother John’s address on the Saturday evening of the weekend was a highlight.

This article is the first in a series in this issue which highlight the importance of worship, praise and song in our ecclesial and personal life, from the days of Israel to our own days and in the wonderful time of the Kingdom soon to come.

If someone was to ask what was the highest form of worship that you could offer to God in heaven, what would you say?

Thanksgiving

We read in Scripture, that without a shadow of doubt, there is no higher form of worship which we as human beings can offer unto God than that of thanksgiving. There isn’t any higher form than that, and it is God Himself Who has set forth in His Word this principle.

In the seventh chapter of Leviticus, this principle is clearly and beautifully set forth in the elements of the Law. The verse deals with the peace offering. Now you might ask what has this got to do with the Psalms. I am going to show it’s got everything to do with the Psalms which I believe were written on and around this very verse of Scripture.

The peace offering was the one offering under the Law of Moses which was offered as a spontaneous gesture on the part of the offerer. He had to make a sin offering, he was obligated to make a burnt offering, but one thing he could give of his own heart, under no compulsion, was the peace offering. There were three distinct types of peace offering, and they were the thanksgiving offering, the vow offering and the voluntary offering.

“And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten the same day that it is offered; he shall not leave any of it until the morning. But if the sacrifice of his offering be a vow, or a voluntary offering, it shall be eaten the same day that he offereth his sacrifice, and on the morrow also the remainder of the flesh of it shall be eaten; But the remainder of the flesh of the sacrifice on the third day shall be burnt with fire” (Lev 7:15–17).

The peace offering was offered because a person was so thrilled with the truths of God, so bursting with thanksgiving that God allowed him to make this spontaneous voluntary offering. He could offer a thanksgiving offering, a vow that he would do good, a voluntary offering in which he exercised his participation in fellowship with God. But God said, mark the differentiation between the offerings. A thanksgiving offering must be eaten the same day it is offered, a vow offering or a voluntary offering could be eaten after two days; none could be eaten after the third day.

In other words, God was telling them, thanksgiving stood at the head of the list followed by the voluntary and the vow. As far as God was concerned, thanksgiving stood pre-eminent as the highest form of voluntary worship that any person could offer to the Creator of heaven and earth.

What’s this got to do with the Psalms? The Psalms are the expressions of men’s hearts, bursting to tell the people of what they have learnt from God and the things God has done for them. David describes his reaction to God’s Word. His heart was getting hotter and hotter until it burst into flames, and his tongue spoke like the flame of a fire and spread the glory of God (Psalm 39:3). The spirit of thanksgiving permeates the Psalms. What is the greatest thing we can offer God? David knew and he says, “Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” No! Those things are mere formalism. “Offer unto God thanksgiving, and pay thy vows unto the most high” (Psa 50:14–15). Thanksgiving, vow, voluntary – David knew the order, and he saw that this was the highest form of praise.

In the Psalm 107, David calls on us to offer to God, that which is most acceptable to Him:

“Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men. And let them sacrifice the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and declare his works with rejoicing” (Psa 107:21–22).

The Apostle Paul in Hebrews speaks of this principle of praise and thanksgiving. In Hebrews 13:10 he speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ as our altar upon which the sin offering has been made. And in verse 15, our response: “let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” There is Paul’s exposition of praise – giving thanks to His name. And he follows it with two others: to do good and to communicate (have fellowship). And there’s the three offerings under the Law of Moses: thanksgiving, the vow to do good and the voluntary offering to participate in fellowship, with giving thanks first, the highest offering.

How often do we offer that form of worship? We are very quick to fall on our knees, when we are oppressed and under trial. Prayer to God for some benefit – always! When the benefit has been conferred, when the trouble is passed and deliverance has come, what about the highest form of worship, thanksgiving? And David’s Psalms are full of thanksgiving and praise.

Words of praise

I found there were six words in the Hebrew language which are translated by the word “praise”. The major word that is used is halal. The Jewish Halal is the term they use to describe the Psalms which they sing during the Passover season. The word halal of course is part of Halal-ujah, “Praise be to the Lord”. The word means “to be clear in sound, or in colour”. So when a person makes a sound, it is a clear sound, or a colour, it is vivid. Thus halal really means to celebrate, to make a show, to raise, to glory, to be clamorous. When we are moved by the power of God to such an extent that we celebrate Him with such clarity of meaning and feeling then we halal, praise God, Hallelujah.

The further we consider the Psalms, the more the word appears until finally at Psalm 150, there’s only one word for “praise” and that is halal. It occurs thirteen times, and so the Psalms conclude on that note of “Hallelujah”.

The book of Psalms was called by the Jews “The praises [tehillim] of Israel”. The word tehillah means “a laudation or praise” in the sense of a calculated, intelligent praise. It is found in Psalm 22:3: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” In verse 1 is the fervent anguished cry of a man hanging upon a stake with nails driven through his hands, blood streaming all over him, naked before the populace, in agony of mind and body, tortured upon that stake. “My God, my God”, he says, “why hast thou forsaken me?” He knew why. He knew the answer because he said, “thou art holy”. The holiness of God demanded this. God is not indifferent to His holiness, and His mercy could only be extended if this man was prepared to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world, and to declare for all time that the flesh profits nothing.

He knew why God had “forsaken” him. And when he asked that question, the answer came to his own lips: “Because you are holy” and he says that God inhabited the praises of Israel. The word “inhabited” can be rendered in the Hebrew “enthroned”. And so the one hanging on that cross saw God enthroned on the praises of Israel. God sitting upon a throne of praise. So that the praises which were coming up from that stake were like a throne over which God was sitting – there accepting that praise, sitting upon that praise – enthroned in the praises of Israel! And what are we doing? We are not hanging on a cross. We are not asked to give up our life, to go without wives or husbands. Yet how often do we lift up our voices in praise, that God might sit enthroned on that praise?

Praise – shout with a loud voice

Another word used for praise means to address in a loud voice. It is interesting to see how this word is used for example in Psalm 145:4: “One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.” There is a marvellous significance in this. You see the complete generation which has been succeeded by another generation, but one generation is shouting aloud the praise of God to the next generation. And that generation takes up the praises of God and shouts it aloud to the generation following, and so it goes from generation to generation.

Israel did this when Joshua brought the people into the promised land, before they commenced their conquest. He took all the people first, and he put six tribes upon Mt Ebal, and six tribes upon Mt Gerizim. He put the priests in the middle of the body… the priests chanted the blessings and the curses of the Law, and Israel, one generation and another generation, spoke to each other across that valley. So that reverberating across that valley would be the shouts of loud voices, one telling the other the blessings and curses of Almighty God.

Psalm 117 again is an illustration of how this word is used – as in a chorus, when all the orchestra, and all the singers come together with a loud voice to praise God. Psalm 117 contains the word “praise” three times. It opens and closes with the word “praise” – halal. But the second word for “praise” in verse 1 is shabach – “to shout with a loud voice”. So David says, “Celebrate the Lord all ye nations, and shout aloud all ye people.” And you can see him calling on the people to make clear in sound and colour, the celebrations of God and to shout aloud the praises of our God.

Praise – pluck with the fingers

Another word used for “praise” in the Psalms is zamar. It literally means to strike or pluck with the fingers. David is speaking of the use of musical instruments. But invariably, this word not only speaks of harps, and of psalteries and other musical instruments, but also the voice, the voice with accompaniment – it is always used in that sense. In Psalm 98:4–5 David says: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice and sing praise.”

“Sing unto the Lord with the harp.” The words “sing praise” translate the Hebrew zamar. David is saying that we have to make a joyful noise unto the Lord with the voice, but we also sing unto the Lord with the harp. The word is used both for the voice and for the instruments, for music and accompaniment.

The Apostle Paul makes a classic interpretation of this verse, a classic exposition of this particular Hebrew word. In Ephesians 5:19 the apostle says: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” The term “making melody” in the Greek means, exactly as the Hebrew, “to pluck the strings”. Rotherham’s translation reads: “Speaking to yourselves with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and striking the strings of your heart unto the Lord.” And so Paul says we sing with the voice, and we play upon our heart, and it plays a beautiful melody.

When we come to the book of Revelation we see how this principle operates. The redeemed are referred to in Revelation 5:8–10: “And when he had taken the book, the four living creatures [the cherubim], and four and twenty elders [the four and twenty courses of the priesthood and singers in David’s time], fell down before the Lamb having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof, for thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests and we shall reign on the earth.”

What have they got in their hand? A harp and a golden vial, and we are told what the vial means; the prayers of saints. What’s that harp? The harp is their heart, and they are singing a new song, and they mean every word of it, because that harp is being plucked by the fingers, and it is playing the tune, and out of their mouth comes: “Thou art worthy to take the book,” and they mean it! The same thought is in Revelation 14:2–3: “And I heard… the voice of many waters… and I heard the voice of harpers, harping with their harps. And they sung as it were a new song…”. He sees the harps “singing” with human voices based on what was in their heart.

Revelation 15:2 has a similar thought: “And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.”

Did they mean that? Of course they did, because they are standing on a sea of glass, and they have got the harps of God, harps that have been touched by the power of the Word.

Wait till we are standing there on the sea of nations, and it is calm. The nations calmed by the judgements of Armageddon and at peace. Wait till we are standing there, and the smoke of Armageddon is rising, and blowing away; the dreaded judgement is over, and we see the result of the victory which Christ has gained over the beast – peace and tranquillity to the earth. Wait till that day, and our heart will vibrate like a harp, and we will sing “great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty” and we will mean every word we say, because in that day we will be moved by the power of Christ to sing as we have never sung before.

As David wrote in the 150th Psalm, when he looked back over the plethora of orchestras he conducted, when he thought of all the musical instruments, when he could think of nothing else, he said: “Let everything which hath breath praise Yahweh!”