Everything That Has Breath

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By Sigrid Fowler

​Psalm150 is a musical rush of sound bringing God’s praise to a crescendo. The sweep of adoration is set in the broadest terms, giving the psalm an expansive tone that seems to take in the cosmos. The opening verses establish the setting. We are urged to praise God “in his sanctuary” and “in the firmament of his power.” We are to praise him “for his mighty acts” and “according to his excellent greatness.” The psalmist merely approaches the preeminence of God in these generalities. It’s as if the limitless being and character of the Almighty can barely be expressed. Five of the six verses begin, “Praise him,” and the brevity of the opening (vv. 1-2) confronts like the shout of a herald. The blast of trumpets at the end of the psalm concludes the entire psalter with an audible outpouring of praise. We have to hear the musical hubbub.

​The body of Psalm 150 is a catalog of instruments of praise, a veritable orchestra of celebration and rejoicing in God. Trumpets are listed first and last, maintaining the pitch of the praise. Psaltery and harp are next and listed together as if to hold their own against the louder brass. This isn’t quiet worship! 

​The timbre of the various sounds enhances the specificity of the body of the psalm, moving the focus from the broadgeneralities of the opening to a sense of individual praise. The Hebrew instrument names are translated in many ways—lute or lyre or psaltery, timbrel or tambourine or “instruments of brass,” strings and organs or pipes or flutes. A feeling of fortissimo results. Dancers (v. 4) add motion and excitement. A final crash of cymbals completes this orchestra of worship: “Praise him upon the loud cymbals; praise him upon the high sounding cymbals” (v. 5).

​The Book of Psalms is something like the hymnbook of Hebrew worship, and it engages us to be participants. It has been said that every human emotion is expressed in the psalms, but the focus is always on God. We are exhorted to express open praise, and the psalms and prayers include many examples. The negative tone in the laments often lifts in the context of prayer and praise in these hymns. Again and again sorrow and fear or grief are transformed to peace, confidence, and satisfaction when the psalmist turns his heart to God.

​The final verse of the Book of Psalms sums up the tone and purpose of the entire psalter. The specificity narrows to individual level as vocal praise is added to the sounds of instruments: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD” (Ps 150: 6). When the psalmist addresses “everything that has breath,” he or she is extending the praise beyond that of human voices! Consider the implications. All animals, birds, and insects breathe, not just human beings. In this final verse of the psalter, every breathing thing is urged to praise the LORD. Praise has now become as general as we can imagine as the psalmist extendsthe size of his picture of praise to the whole of creation. The tone is again  broad and general. The backdrop of specific musical instruments in the previous verses, gives the psalm a kind of completeness—the whole as well as the individual parts and persons.

​The first and last words of this psalm are the Hebrew word hallelujah, literally “Let us praise Jehovah.” The English Bible uses the word LORD for the unspoken name of God, sometimes expressed in the psalms as Jah/Yah. This isan abbreviation of the name God gave Moses to tell the people (Ex 3: 13-16), and it is a form of the Hebrew being verb. Psalm 150 ends with the word hallelujah (the literal Hebrew); the word is a reminder, appearing frequentlythroughout the psalms, that we are to praise God. The grammatical form of this word is plural, and the word is in the imperative mood, a command to praise. The final syllable, the abbreviated name, keeps God in focus. In fact, this abbreviation of God’s unspoken name is the last Hebrew wordand the last English syllable of the psalter: Jah/-jah. The worship of God is what the psalms are all about. The sounds of praise in Psalm 150, the list of musical instruments, and the reference to all breathing things increases the range of expressed praise to bring us in. The audible quality encourages reading the psalm out loud.

One Response to "Everything That Has Breath"

  1. Paul G.   February 7, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    Thank you for these words. Many churches, like mine, are blessed by singing the Psalms every week.