Prayer [Part 3]

I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth. —Psalm 34:1

We are learning how to pray. Not that prayer itself is our goal. What we want is for God to be here among us in a wonderful way. What we want is to be clothed with power from on high. What we want is the blessing of heaven flowing into our city. So for that, we pray.

We have seen that the first essential to prayer is a spirit of praise: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Those words that Jesus taught us breathe out a spirit of praise to God. It was first on Jesus’ heart when he taught us to pray. Now when I say “a spirit of praise,” I am not talking about a certain behavioral regimen. I am talking a heart of praise to God, a determined purpose to praise God as the highest call on our lives every moment of every day. I am talking about living in praises to God, loving God, enjoying God, honoring God moment by moment for his constant goodness to us. You’re taking that first sip of coffee in the morning, and you’re praising God for caffeine. You’re driving to work, and you direct your thoughts and words to praising God on I-65. You’re on the phone with a client, and you’re praising God for the opportunity to serve that person to the best of your ability. You leave the office at the end of the day with many tasks still undone, so you’re praising God for an opportunity for humility and for a reason to come back to work the next day. And so forth. Praising God isn’t yet another item on our To-Do lists. It’s the spirit with which we do everything, because God is always with us in grace.

Who is this One we are learning to praise? He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He said, “I feel compassion for the crowd.” He said, “Father, forgive them.” He said, “I did not come to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” He said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” He said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” He said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” He said, “I will be with you always.” He said, “I will come again and take you to myself.” This is the One we are learning to praise, because he alone is praiseworthy. And when by faith and repentance we accept this spirit of praise, we ourselves are released from our own natural darkness of heart.

That new spirit within is what David is talking about here: “I will bless the Lord at all times.” David was a decided man. He made up his mind. Whatever might be happening to him, he would bless the Lord. Whatever other people might be doing, he would bless the Lord. I heard about a weather vane on top of an old building. It had these words: “God is good.” Whichever way the wind blows, God is good. And in fact, David’s life was not easy, but he was easy to read: “God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth.” David stood out as a praising man.

I believe God wants to make every one of us a praising person. I want you to know that in 2011 my primary focus of repentance is right here – that I would complain less and praise more. You can pray for me, because this year I’m going after the praise of God. Will you go with me?

It is so freeing simply to change the subject in our thoughts from ourselves and our brooding to the grace of God. We don’t need to wait. We must not wait. If we do hold out, we are saying to God, “I will not praise you, until the way you’re running my life gets better. Your job approval rating isn’t high enough yet to receive my praises. But if you’ll jump when I crack the whip, it might put me in a mood to praise you.” That is arrogance. That is standing in judgment on God. And that evil is in our hearts. But still he loves us! Here in Psalm 34 God is opening the door for us into a better future, and the time to get going is now.

The Bible says, “Praise befits the upright” (Psalm 33:1). It could be translated, “Praise is beautiful for the upright.” A spirit of praise is attractive. Who likes being around whiney people? But praising God is winsome.  Think of a man wearing a great suit, with the perfect shirt, but then he puts on a killer tie that makes the whole thing pop.  That’s what a spirit of praise does for a whole church.  It beautifies everything. If a spirit of praise isn’t there, a church may have many fine qualities, but you can tell something is missing. It’s drab and dull. But praise befits the upright. And we sinners are upright this morning, we are upright sinners, because Christ is upright, and his merit is ours now.  We’re not going to hell any more. He’s preparing a place for us in heaven.  The fact that we’re sinners is no reason not to praise God; it’s the best reason to praise God.

I believe our next step together as a church is right here – praising God more than we ever have before, more than we think we can, more than our circumstances would dictate, because they don’t dictate. God’s grace dictates. Psalm 34 shows us that change of heart.

Let tell you one thing about Psalm 34 before we look at verses 1-3. This is an alphabetical psalm. In the Hebrew text, the first letter of the first word in each verse starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order – we would say, from A to Z. It’s as if verse 1 began, “Always will I praise God.” Verse 2, “Boast in the Lord is what I’ll do.” Verse 3: “Come with me into the praises of God.” And so forth. That’s interesting. David composed Psalm 34 carefully. He didn’t throw this together. He thought about it. He worked at it. Why? Because not all praise is spontaneous – especially when we’re praising God together as a church. It takes care and thought and preparation, like writing a psalm with a deliberate structure. I wonder if we have a strange idea that, if we plan to praise God, it isn’t authentic. If we work at praising God, it isn’t real. But where does the Bible say that? If our hearts are really in it, we won’t be slapdash about it. We will work at it. Can you imagine if I didn’t prepare a sermon each week and got up here and just said whatever came to my mind? Would you consider that honoring to God? What if the band didn’t practice? What if the congregation didn’t come prepared? What we’re doing together here is partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:5). We all need to come with thought and preparation, ready to praise God together. As you’re driving to church every Sunday morning, you should be thinking, “Okay, I’m getting ready to give the Lord my all.” If you’re a member, you’re not an onlooker. Let’s all give our thoughtful best to God. The Lord will enjoy it, and so will we.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. —Psalm 34:1

The word translated “I will bless” is a cohortative verb in Hebrew. There is an added letter at the end of that verb which signals resolve. David made a vow to praise God at all times. That was the gospel making an impact on him. I wonder if we have the correct understanding of grace. If your understanding of God’s grace makes you indecisive and passive, such that you don’t obey God until you feel like it, because you think that obeying him when you don’t feel like it, making yourself obey him, is legalistic, then you don’t understand grace. “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).

Grace does not mean we praise God only when we feel like it. Grace means we always have a reason to praise God, no matter what we feel. Do you know what legalism is? Legalism is not: obeying and honoring and praising God at all times. Legalism is: obeying God at any time because my obedience will earn me more points on his score card. Legalism is meritorious obedience. But Jesus is all our merit. So now, we obey God because we freely have Jesus, not because we happen to feel in a certain mood. If you limit your obedience to what you feel like doing because you want to avoid legalism, you don’t understand legalism or the gospel. What if I limited my faithfulness to Jani to when I felt like being faithful? Would she say, “What grace, Ray! You really get grace!” No. She’d say, “You don’t get marriage. And if you think that being faithful to me is a legalistic hardship, thanks a lot!” Here in Psalm 34, this strong word “I will bless” is the power of God’s grace. The gospel creates wholehearted people who resolve to bless God at all times.

We’ll never make a mistake by praising God. We might get it wrong if we lament. It is possible to grieve too much. But we can never get it wrong by praising. We’ll never stop and say, “God didn’t deserve that much passion. Let’s cool our jets.”

In the entire book of Psalms, there are basically two vibes, two themes, two tones – praise and lament. Praise for blessing, lament for suffering. The Psalter is a happy book, and the Psalter is a sad book. But praise is the dominant tone. In fact, the Hebrew title of the book of Psalms is “Praises.” Why? Even when we suffer, we are still swimming in an ocean of the love of God. David wrote this psalm because God rescued him from danger. But what if it had gone the other way? What if God hadn’t rescued David? That is David’s point: “I will bless the Lord at all times.”

We might think, “I can’t bless the Lord at all times. When life is good, sure. But at all times?” Good question. Here’s the answer. There is something about Jesus that brings praise within reach all the time. Let me explain that. At first, you might think it’s crazy. But it isn’t, and you’ll see why. Here is the insight. You and I can be sad and happy at the same time. We can feel real pain and sincere praises both at the same time. In fact, the hard things about following Christ can move us to praise him. Think of it this way. It’s like a football player who plays hurt.  He feels bad, but he also feels good, both at the same time. How does that happen? It’s because that guy finds it so meaningful to be on the team and not in the stands, to be on the field and not on the bench, that he doesn’t mind the two-a-day practices and the wind sprints and the sweat.  He’s glad to be playing the game, and he likes the fact that it isn’t an easy game. It’s the hardship that tells him he’s a football player, and that feels good.

Here is how it works for us. What empowers this happy praise in our hearts is not the ease of our circumstances but the worth of our Lord. To be on his team is a privilege. To serve him is so meaningful in this world of fraudulence that we embrace it, no matter how tough it gets, and we thank him for it. He chose us for his team and put us on the field for the big play, though we had been on the opposing side. And the opposing side is going to lose. But he brought us over and got us involved in his huge win. Our lives matter now, because we are in Christ. He is why we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3). We rejoice not in spite of our sufferings but in our sufferings.  It is our sufferings that get us rejoicing.  Our sufferings prove we’re not sidelined but involved. And as with David, sometimes we wonder if we’re going to make it. But even then, and then most of all, we know that God has set us apart to himself in the great struggle of our generation. And that feels good even when it feels bad. We praise, even as we weep. 

The wonderful thing is, we don’t have to be superhuman. If this morning you are weak, this is for you:

My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. —Psalm 34:2

David is speaking about his own soul, and he is telling the humble and the afflicted and the weak about what God has done for him. When one believer is stronger than another, the stronger helps the weaker. That’s why it’s so important to gather together for worship. David’s heart is surging with praises to God. His heart is saying, “I am loved. I am forgiven. I am cared for. And I didn’t do this. Christ did it all for me.” That’s what he means when he says, “My soul makes its boast in the Lord.” It is so depressing when we boast about ourselves. I’ve done it many times. Maybe you have too. You know, saying a little something to help people know what an important person I am. It’s so empty and emptying. But to boast in the Lord, to be re-centered around him, to orbit around him and for him – we never have to regret it or apologize for it. David is teaching us that. His interiority is brightening with gospel thoughts and feelings, and he wants us to go there with him. 

But here is something I saw this week for the first time. The root of this verb “boast” is the same as the root of the noun “praise” back in verse 1. David is still talking about praise. Do you know what it means to praise? The verb “praise” is used over in Genesis 12:15, when the princes in the court of Pharaoh see Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and they praised her to Pharaoh: “King, have you seen that new woman?” And they raved about her. That’s what it means to praise. Just showing up in church and mumbling the songs and slouching through the worship without getting engaged – that isn’t praising God. That’s insulting God. And we need to face that.

But here is the wonderful thing about Christ. He spreads real praise not to the mighty, the superhuman, but to the humble: “Let the humble hear and be glad.” We only have to be humble. This word “humble” means afflicted and beaten down. It’s not a word for virtuous people but for exhausted people. In the book of Proverbs it says, “Blessed is he who is generous to the poor” (Proverbs 14:21). That word “poor” is our word “humble.” The humble are the poor who have nothing to offer. And Christ is a generous Friend to sinners who have nothing but need.

So this kind of humility here is glad: “Let the humble hear and be glad.” We are glad sinners because of our Friend. And as we spread gladness about him, more and more people enter in:

Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! —Psalm 34:3

My dad proposed to my mom with that verse. Isn’t that a great theme for a whole life long? You guys that aren’t married yet—there’s your verse for when you meet that girl. And it’s true. It’s the gospel. The praises of God are spreading. They will never die, until we are all together in heaven, forever immersed in a happiness that belongs to God alone. And I want to say this to you, as Immanuel Church: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” Let’s not exalt ourselves. Let’s magnify and exalt the Lord together. He is the true Immanuel.

There are two ways to magnify something. You can magnify with a microscope or with a telescope. If you magnify with a microscope, you make a small thing look bigger. If you magnify with a telescope, you make something that looks small grow to at least a little of its true magnitude. All self-magnification and self-promotion – we’re good at it here in Music City USA – all self-exaltation is like the microscope. We are small, trying to look big. But it never works. Doesn’t self-display work against itself? Have you ever once looked at a self-important person who needs you to know what a big deal he is and thought, “What a beautiful human being”? Let’s be as little as we are, and put the microscope down, and turn the telescope toward Jesus, who is massive but almost completely unseen in our world today. We don’t make him great. We only make his greatness more visible. That’s what we’re here for. It is so happy to magnify the mighty, superhuman Friend of sinners.

The praising life is the life for you. You might think, “But I’m not good at that.” Of course, you’re not. Neither am I. We’re so self-centered. Maybe you need to admit you feel nothing for Christ. Your heart is dull. But the Bible says, here in verse 8, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” The Lord is here, he is good, and he wants to take you right into his heart and treat you really well.

Whatever holds you back, your sense of failure, your defeatedness, your impasse – you are the one he loves. Verse 18 says that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and save the crushed in spirit. You have nothing to dread in him. Trust him. Come to him. Say to him, “Lord, I see my need. I want to get out of my self-pity and my self-praise. I want to praise you now. I don’t understand it all, and I am weak. But you are my refuge.” Will you say that to him today? He will help you. And a whole new era of your life, a new era of praise, will begin today.