The Noisy Bible and Psalm 148

Sigrid Fowler

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​I’m not sure I understand it, but the Bible, it seems, is full of loud sounds. On the simplest level, there’s always talk. However, the sound of words isn’t just the back and forth of conversation. According to David, petitions, complaints, and words of thanksgiving are voiced, they’re not just the psalmist’s silent prayers, to be read or said inwardly. The wider narrative seems full of commotion—noisy debates andofficial proclamations, heralds and soldiers, children shoutingto each other in the streets, sellers hawking their goods.Wisdom calls aloud, beckoning every listener. Adversaries curse or challenge each other to prepare for death, there are shouts of victory or defeat in battle. The oppressed cry and groan, the sorrowing weep and lament. When Joshua catchesdistant hubbub in the camp, he thinks he hears the sound of battle, Moses thinks it’s singing. It’s neither, as they learn when they come down from Mt. Sinai. The people are worshiping the golden image of a calf.

​Heaven and earth seem noisy. Storms rage and waves roar. Ravening lions roar over their pray, young animals and birds cry for food. Earthquakes crash across the scene, winds blow and waterspouts call out, connecting the deeps. The trees and rivers “clap their hands, ” the hills rejoice together (Ps 98:6). The temple of heaven rings as seraphim cry “Holy, holy, holy,” and the threshold shakes! Heaven thunders with the praise of innumerable hosts.

​The noisy Bible seems to outdo itself in the last three psalms, a conclusion that goes on and on, turning the exhortation, “make a joyful noise to the Lord” into a heard reality— Psalm 148 first.

​ This psalm makes us hear the praise with our thoughts, but it cannot be without a vivid sense of the audible. There’s no reference to sound, but the voices of creation, here and there praising the God who made it all, bring their own kind of audio. Turning praise to silent imagining is no adequate response. Somehow, we have to hear it, even when the praise emanates from mighty created works we normally assume to be silent—the heights, moon and stars, heaven and the heavens of heavens (Ps 148: 2-4a). Praise from sea and earth occupies verses 7-10, and familiar sounds reverberate in weather images—fire, hail, storms and winds. But the praise of snow? Perhaps the praise of clouds is something like thunder, and the ocean’s roar can account for “all the depths,” but v. 7b,“You great sea creatures?”

​ Earth itself joins next—mountains, hills, fruitful trees and cedars. We know the sound of animal calls, and when the scene opens on worshiping human beings—kings and all peoples, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old men and children—again these familiar sounds prevent us from sailing off into the assumption that literal sound isn’t meant.Some may not be sounds we know, but should we just write it all off to hyperbole?

​The psalmist makes no distinction between these two kinds of praise—the audible worship we understand and worship we do not because sound isn’t a usual part of that reality. However, to reduce all this to silence and some sort of merely mental exercise or poetic lapse seems a mistake to me. If we aren’t careful, we fall into the literalist trap. Is the praise of snow, for example, just poetic nonsense? I think not. 

​God is to be the recipient of the praise. Psalm 148begins, “Praise the LORD!” Part of the literalist trap is to anthropomorphize God—to make God in our own image, as it were, and assign to him a physical form like our own. Does God need ears? Indeed, to insist that the praise of snow, the great sea creatures, the terrain of earth, the sun, moon, and stars is a figment because we’ve never heard it is to miss who the Creator is. The Bible teaches that God is Spirit. Perception of praise in that context has to be beyond us, it’s something that belongs to God. One thing seems clear though—that God in fact does perceive the praise of everything he has created. It’s fascinating to me that Pythagoras, Philo of Alexandria, Saint Augustine, and Kepler, ground-breaking scientists, mathematicians, and theologians, all mention something they thought of as “the music of the spheres.” String Theory isn’t far behind. Finally, Psalm 148 is an order, the praise is commanded! This psalmist gets it.