Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.
In Hebrew, Psalm 149 begins with hallelu Yah, a phrase that operates on three levels—as poetic praise, a call to worship, and a quasi-musical direction. It sets the tone for the lyrics following it. Hallelu Yah has been accepted “as is” in dozens of languages and is generally interpreted as a catch phrase for “Praise the Lord.” In English, “hallelujah” is marvelously scalable, from the grandeur of Handel’s chorus to the reverence of quiet hymns to a passing exhalation of gratitude. (Who hasn’t breathed a quick “hallelujah” for a green light when running late?) Strictly speaking, we’re taking wide liberties with hallelu Yah when we apply it to any and all occasions for praise. Yet the intent and instruction imbedded in the phrase encourages freedom to praise God with gusto. Any time we rejoice by saying or singing “hallelujah” we’re doing as it directs.
Hallelu Yah is a compound combining hallel (“joyous praise”) with Yah (“Creator”). In Judaism, “The Hallel” refers to a song cycle in Psalms 113-118, which is chanted joyfully at morning prayers during high festivals. Psalm 113.3-4 declares, “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised. The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.” In other words, everywhere we look—from the heights of victory to the depths of despair—we find reasons to rejoice. While English translators cast hallelu Yah as “Praise the LORD,” using the all-caps setting to indicate Yahweh (“the One True God”) Yah is actually a derivative channeling praise specifically to our Maker. Hallelu Yah celebrates God as our Source. It springs from our honor to be created in His image. Thus, when the psalmist opens with hallelu Yah, he/she indicates the song should be sung without restraint—boisterously, even, as we boast in God. Hallelu Yah is party praise, the cacophony of a family that dearly loves its Father.
The composer of Psalm 149 follows the injunction for buoyant praise with this: “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.” The spirit of hallelu Yah inspires improvised praise—extemporaneous expressions of gratitude and glory for who we are, being made as we are, and Who made us as we are. The next verse reads, “Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King.” Hallelu Yah bursts with pride, not in anything we’ve done or for how we’re seen by others, but because we belong to God. We take pride in Him as our Maker and King. Take a moment to think about that. See yourself standing with millions of other brothers and sisters, rejoicing together in the light and strength of your Creator. Let everything else fall away—the struggles, disappointments, misunderstandings, and misperceptions—so all that’s left is the pure, innocent being He fashioned by hand and breathed to life. Now, tell God how it feels to be His and His alone. That’s what hallelu Yah is.
“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp,” verse 3 says, with the next saying, “For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.” The Christian praise spectrum is astonishingly vast, from silently contemplative to raucously demonstrative. Yet variances in outward behavior don’t reflect the commonly held exuberance that hallelu Yah enjoins. Whether we shout it impulsively, join worshipers in choral response, or whisper it silently, our reasons for saying it—and the intensity with which we feel it—are uniquely our own. Our hearts dance to music we create in a spontaneous flow of emotion. It delights us and it delights God.
A New Song
By its nature, every time we sing hallelu Yah we sing a new song. God is forever creating novel things in and through us. As a dear friend constantly reminds me, “He’s the God of the new and the now.” Who we were when we sang hallelu Yah yesterday is not who we are when we sing it today. We awoke this morning to fresh mercies. We opened our eyes to untapped possibilities. We walked further in our faith, grew deeper in our understanding, and acquired greater confidence from our experiences since we last rejoiced. The strength we gained from yesterday’s trials lifts our spirits in praise for today’s tests.
Our Maker never stops making us, shaping us, refining us to more clearly reflect His likeness. Because nothing ever gets old and stagnant in His hands, our praise never grows old. Today, as we join the assembly of the saints, we may have sung the same hymns a hundred times. We may have heard the same readings all our lives. We may have participated in the same worship rituals for years. But we’re not the same. Because we’re new, every hallelu Yah is new. In 2 Corinthians 5.17 we read: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This is not, as many presume, a one-time transformation. It’s a constant process, often as painful as it is glorious. But through our changes, we’re reborn into more perfect and pleasing reflections of our Maker. What was new yesterday is old today. It’s gone and the new has come. Hallelu Yah! Sing to the Lord a new song! Enjoy this Lord’s Day!
Every time we say or sing hallelu Yah, it’s a new song rising from our triumphs and sufferings. K.D. Lang splendidly taps the joy and pain of Leonard Cohen’s magnificent “Hallelujah.”
(Tomorrow: After They Leave)