When I preach a sermon, I always ask that my listeners tell me how wonderful the sermon was. When I audit financial statements I want my clients to thank me profusely and elaborate on all the benefits that my work brought them. And I want readers of this writing to send in their compliments on the wonderful new world my ideas have opened up for them.
Does that strike you as odd? People aren’t supposed to ask for compliments, are they? Even if they want compliments, they are at least supposed to have the social graces not to ask for them. (By the way, the whole first paragraph is tongue-in-cheek.) Yet in the Bible we find God telling us to praise him. (The objection may be raised that it’s the Bible writers, not God, who tell us to praise God, but since we say that God is kind of telling the writers what to write, it would seem to boil down to the same thing.)
Revelation 4 pictures a choir that apparently does nothing but praise God 24/7. Don’t they do anything else? If I had a group of people who did that to (or for) me, I think I would tire of it quickly, but I am not God, and as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are his ways than my ways. So maybe I should stop asking questions about the scene in Revelation 4 and join the choir.
Wait a minute! On this planet, we tend to be suspicious of places where the leader is always spoken of respectfully. In North Korea, the president is called “Dear Leader,” and if you live in North Korea you had better refer to him that way and only that way. In Thailand, Harry Nicolaides spent time in prison because his fictional book, of which there were only 50 copies, had suggested that a member of the royal family might have done something considered improper. We who live in countries where we are allowed to criticize any leader shake our heads at the idea that citizens of a country are forced to say that the leader is wonderful. But do we give God a pass on commanding praise while we scorn the same directive from other leaders?
C.S. Lewis, in Reflections on the Psalms, points out that “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.” Or does that despising not apply to our religious world? While we may find demands of praise by God as reasonable, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke for many when he declared, “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.”
I suggest that there is a common sense way to understand the commands to praise God, without feeling that for religious purposes you’re being asked to act like a citizen of North Korea.
Imagine that one Sabbath I visit a church and preach a sermon that explains that we should wear orange shoes to church. After the sermon, people praise me for the wonderful sermon, gushing on how helpful they found it. A month later I go back to preach, and I can’t help but notice that nobody is wearing orange shoes. Undeterred, I preach a sermon on the idea that we should be using the Inspired Version of the Bible, and I let the congregation know where that version can be bought at an affordable price. Again, the comments after church are very complimentary, expressing appreciation for the best sermon the people have ever heard. A month after the sermon about the Inspired Version, I return to the church to preach again. Nobody is wearing orange shoes; nobody is carrying an Inspired Version. I preach on the idea that true Christianity will be demonstrated by wearing sunglasses. As the people talk with me after church and start complimenting me on the fantastic sermon, I tactfully say something to the effect of, “I prefer to see your praise acted out rather than given as words that are contradicted by your actions.” I would rather see folks wearing sunglasses and using the Inspired Version and wearing orange shoes than hear them telling me how wonderful my sermons are. If they really thought what I said was helpful, I would see a few more orange shoes.
In Isaiah 29:13 we read a complaint about how “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. . . .” In Luke 6:46, Jesus asks why folks call him “Lord” when they don’t do what he says (e.g., wear orange shoes). In effect, these folks are in a 24/7 choir but doing nothing to help hurting people around them.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked us to let our light shine before others in such a way that others will be drawn to glorify God. It’s said that the highest form of flattery is imitation, although I can’t give a specific Bible text for that. If we understand flattery as an excessive form of praise, we could posit that what the choir in Revelation 4 is really doing is helping others, being kind and loving, as Jesus demonstrated God to be. (“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve . . . ?” Hebrews 1:14, NLT)
In Amos 5:23 God is presented at the end of a passage complaining about religious services and ceremonies by saying, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” But in the next verse he says, "[What I really want is for you to] let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Even as many sports fans like to cheer (sing the praises of) their heroes, religious people often like to sing and talk about their admiration of God. God isn’t trying to shut off such natural displays of emotion. But he lets us know that talk is not as meaningful as action. When God asks us to praise him, he’s not asking us to say “Rah-rah! You are wonderful.” He’s asking us to live godly lives - lives that help bring about improvement in the lives of others and lead others to think that God’s way of life is worth employing.
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