–by Stanley A. Clark (Member of Providence Community Church)
View more posts from Stanley at the Presup.org Blog!
I have been an amateur radio operator since my teenage years. My interests in radio have always been practical rather than theoretical, which is to say I was in the hobby not for the theories of electronics, nor to build and experiment with radios; but rather, to simply talk to other operators around the world. But along the way, I have learned a few things about the mysteries of propagation… the “spreading abroad” of my signal through space.
Radio waves are an amazing reality of life. They are invisible, travelling at the speed of light, and undetectable to our natural ear. They are given off by stars, quasars, lightning, even the decay of radioactive objects. They cover a spectrum defined by the lengths of their waves, and the frequency at which they vibrate. That spectrum ranges from gamma rays (the smallest), to x-rays, to ultraviolet rays, to infrared rays, to microwaves, and finally, to radio waves (the largest). They were first discovered in the 19th Century, and since then we have learned how to use them for many purposes: radios and television, of course; but also cell and cordless phones, microwave ovens, remote controls for garage doors and TV sets, wireless networks, satellite communications, and overhead power lines.
But let’s focus on the radio as our primary illustration, and as a segue to the theme of this essay. When a radio is turned off, it is a useless metal box. But when it is turned on, when electricity travels through it, it comes to life. Its many circuits begin to operate. It locates radio waves, and translates those signals into audible/understandable form. The radio doesn’t create radio waves; it perceives them, and changes them. It is a piece of sensory equipment, like our ears, without which (in both cases) we would be unable to hear a thing… even though the signals are traveling around us in untold numbers, and coursing through our bodies 24 hours a day.
Like the radio, or our ears, our hearts need to be tuned in order to praise…or to comprehend the praise of the rest of creation. Songs of praise may be outside our range of hearing, or ability to understand, but that does not prove they do not exist. Praise, too, is absolutely everywhere. But to hear it requires faith, which provides the equivalent of electric current to the circuits of our heart. In that process, what seemed at first to be far-fetched, even preposterous, begins to seem plausible, then likely… then, real.
The Bible and Praise
Praise is both a form of communication, and its content. Through it we proclaim the value and worth of the object of our praise, and in so doing we glorify and bestow honor on it. Praise can flow downward, as in a parent to a child, a teacher to a student, a supervisor to an employee; or it can flow upward, as an audience to a performer, followers to their leader, or the created to their Creator.
The Bible is, of course, full of praise, but my purpose is not to analyze that topic in depth. Suffice it to say that there are wonderful expressions of praise offered by Moses (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32); David (2 Samuel 22, I Chronicles 16, 29, and throughout the Psalms); Ezra (Nehemiah 8); and Daniel (Dan. 2); Paul (Rom. 11:33-36, Eph. 1:3-14, I Tim. 1:17); Peter (I Peter 1:3-5); and Jude (Jude 1:24-25). Throughout Scripture, what God is praised for includes that He is God, He is great, He created us, His name is holy, He is gracious and glorious, He is sovereign …in other words, He is praised because He is worthy of it! Closely related to praise is the act of thanksgiving, which is a form of worship (Heb. 12: 28 exhorts us to “…be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe”).
Psalm 148 is the great call to praise for the created order (the choral anthem Canticle of Praise, by John Ness Beck, captures this passage beautifully). The Scripture could not be more clear than this. God is to be praised “from the heavens” by the angels and heavenly hosts (v. 1-2); praised by the sun, moon and stars (v. 3); by the sky (v. 4); praised by the creatures of the sea, and ocean depths (v. 7); by lightning, hail, snow, clouds, and stormy winds (v. 8); by mountains, hills and trees (v. 9); and by wild animals, cattle, small creatures and birds (v. 10). The call, of course, extends to humans too: kings, princes and rulers (v. 11), and everyone else–young, old, men and women (v. 12). The entire sweep of the cosmos has received its orders. All of creation is designed for praise, and it is therefore the natural response of everything and everyone. So, how does this all operate?
The Procession of Praise
Consider with me the scope and range within which praise occurs in creation, according to Scripture and starting with the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
1. The throne of God. We begin with the most amazing and unfathomable place of all: that place where God dwells, and from which He rules. It is here that praise can be heard in its purest, most continuous form. It is the place where heavenly beings and the redeemed people of God are found, reflecting all the diversity that earth has to offer. The Bible tells us that angels, heavenly creatures, saints and elders surround his throne. The book of Revelation refers to this at several points, noting the praise being offered by the elders and “ten thousand times ten thousand angels” (chapter 5); the “great multitude” in white robes, from every tribe, nation and language (chapter 7); and again, “the roar of a great multitude in heaven” (chapter 19). Their recorded songs of praise both humble and inspire us:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals…” (5:9)
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor
and glory and praise!” (5:12)
“To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever
and ever!” (5:13)
“Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever
and ever. Amen!” (7:12)
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” (19:6)
And as the shepherds heard in the fields near Bethlehem, this same heavenly host has visited earth, too, singing “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:13-14). By faith we, too, can hear the chorus.
When I was about 10 years old my family spent Christmas week in Corpus Christi, Texas, staying in an old World War II barracks building. The heating system in our room was forced hot water, a system notorious for its clanks, whistling and hissing. It was Christmas Eve, and as I lay in bed the strange noises from the heater filled the room. I didn’t pay much attention to it until I thought I heard the melody and harmony of voices singing in the midst of it all. Were angels singing? I could almost, but not quite, make out the words; but in any case, the sound was beautiful beyond my ability to describe it, then or now.
I share this story with hesitation and a degree of embarrassment, because it sounds quite silly from the perspective of adulthood. Perhaps the angels’ voices were a product of my youthful imagination, and merely the side effects of water boiling in pipes. But I have always reserved in my heart the possibility that God revealed to me, for a few minutes that night, something of the glory of angelic worship. Somehow that moment opened a door for me that I have never been able to shut in the decades since: by that, I mean the belief that every so often we are offered a glimpse of the spiritual realms above, to inspire us on our journey. All we have to do is receive it.
2. The universe. Radio waves have been picked up from distant galaxies, billions of light years away, indicating immense energy and large-scale cosmic events. They occur in bursts, according to radio astronomers, on a continuous basis. Michael Kramer, a British astronomer and Director of the Max Planck Institute, says “…if we could view the sky with ‘radio eyes’ there would be flashes going off all over the sky every day” (quoted in Nature World News, 2013). We of course do not know if there are meaningful messages contained in these signals, or if they are simply bursts of energy; but the Bible has something to say about it, so we need to keep a loose grip on our tendencies toward skepticism. Consider these three passages:
(a) “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Ps. 19: 1-4)
(b) “The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too… for who in the skies above can compare with the Lord?” (Ps. 89: 5-6a)
(c) In Job 26 we read a stirring description of the power of God in nature. Job makes note of the earth hung in space, the northern skies, the moon, and the clouds. He concludes with this statement of wonder: “And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!” (Job 26: 14). This powerful verse was placed over the doorway to the campus observatory at Geneva College in Pennsylvania when I worked there in the early 2000s, serving as a powerful reminder to those about to view the distant stars through the telescope inside.
What this seems to be telling us is that there are dimensions to existence that we cannot comprehend; they are, at best, whispers of glory and distant radio waves racing across time and space. God did not create a silent universe. He gave it voice, so that it could join in chorus to the Maker.
3. The natural world. The Bible contains a remarkable number of references to nature’s capacity to praise God for his works. Perhaps my favorite passage in this regard is Job 12: 7-9: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this.” M. D. Babcock penned the following words in 1901 to capture this truth:
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas– His hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.
The key phrase is “…to my listening ears.” Babcock heard the praise of nature because he was listening for it. In The Gospel According to Job, Mike Mason puts it this way: “Nature…was God’s original word to man, His original revelation. It was only when people rejected this perfectly obvious and adequate display of His glory that the Lord was obliged to change tactics… Nevertheless, nature still stands as His first and sufficient revelation, His first gospel. Mother Nature is theology’s subconscious. She is our Father’s mother tongue.” (1994:144) Consider these Biblical passages, describing the “voice” of inanimate objects:
(a) When God rebukes Job for his audacity, He asks him, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?… On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-6)
(b) In Isaiah 54-55 the prophet of God has a vision of the future glory of Zion and says, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Here, it appears, nature is joining us in celebration of the God who makes everything new.
(c) In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul compared our earthly sufferings to the glory that is to come, and realized that, really, there was no comparison. Then we read this remarkable passage:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pain of childbirth, right up to the present time.” (Rom. 8:19-22)
Can it be that the cosmos is literally waiting, frustrated, groaning, expectant, hopeful? Can it truly comprehend the ‘bondage to decay’ under which it now labors… and the glorious freedom on the horizon, not so far away?
(d) Jesus himself made a startling statement during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you, he replied, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out'” (Luke 19: 39-40). Nature wants to crown the King as much as we, his followers, do. A similar phrase appears in the Old Testament, when the prophet Habakkuk warns that for those who practice injustice, “The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.” (Hab. 2:11) How often do we say, “if these walls could talk…”? Is it absurd to think that a house will bear witness against the evil practices of its inhabitants? Or does it simply require the eyes of faith to see it?
Certainly there is symbolism present in these passages, and we usually hasten to leave it at that (“Of course rocks can’t talk, and trees don’t have hands”). Most people resist anthropomorphism, the tendency to ascribe human qualities to the natural world. But why couldn’t there also be a literal aspect to these passages? Aren’t a tree’s limbs like human arms, raised toward the heavens? Don’t the mountain peaks soar above the clouds, pointing upward toward God? In verse 2 of Isaac Watts’ classic Christmas carol, Joy to the World, we read this: “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy…” We typically assume that the response of creation here is to merely echo what humans are singing, in passive reflection of our own voices. But are we certain that nature is not adding its unique praise at the incarnation? Why couldn’t both living things and inanimate objects also praise God? Doesn’t all of creation long for restoration, for a return to Eden? Wasn’t nature present, too, before the Fall?
4. The animal kingdom
No one would dispute that there is extensive communication within the worlds of birds, sea mammals, elephants, canines, felines, insects and many (perhaps all) other species. In some cases– apes, lions, cattle, whales, porpoises and so on– the vocalization is clear and systematic enough that human observers can usually understand what is being communicated. And consider our house pets (dogs, cats, birds), and their ability to make very clear to us what it is they want or need. They communicate with us in so many ways, both obvious and subtle; who can say they do not also communicate with God? And if so, what would they be expressing to Him except praise? Or did God, who created in them the capacity to communicate, encode that capacity in such a way that it would be incomprehensible to Him? What joy could that possibly bring the Creator?
In my mind I picture the stable in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, where the Son of God was crowded in by all kinds of domesticated animals. Like the wise men, did they not also understand the significance of that little baby, destined to become the Savior of the world? Did they not also praise him in glorious animal-hymns? There is a 15th Century Latin hymn that says, “Christ from Heaven descending low, comes on earth a stranger; ox and ass their owner know, becradled in a manger.”
YES, they say. He made us. We are His.
Recently my daughter’s dog, Oakley, collapsed with seizures in their home. Not knowing what else to do, Rachel knelt down next to him and began quietly singing hymns. Did he respond because he recognized the calming voice of his provider? Or did the Spirit of God wash over him, through the praises of his servant? And did Oakley also worship God in his own way there on the floor, through the music and in his spirit?
We are wise to embrace mystery here, and heed the words of the Psalmist: “Let every creature praise His holy name forever and ever” (Ps. 145:21). And again, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Ps. 150:6).
5. Humankind. We pride ourselves on the ability to communicate. We write novels and poems, we orate, we discuss, we sing, to say nothing of the many nonverbal techniques we use so freely. It’s a remarkable gift we have been given, part of being made in the image of God. It enables us to soar. Those of us who believe write hymns and choruses of praise, giving back an offering for the gift we have received. And this is good. But we need to understand that “…from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). This is a warning label from the Maker: use this for My glory. He does not want weak or half-hearted praise. He wants it all, robust and pure. We are the crown of creation; our praise was designed to be the highest that can be rendered to the Creator.
And yet in reality, is not ours the lesser praise? While nature is impacted by sin and subject to the curse (see Genesis 3), in itself it does not sin, and it fully accomplishes the purposes for which it was created. Its praise is not adulterated by its own weakness. But we are far from perfect; we are fallen, and impure. So as we offer praise to God, our thoughts wander and lose focus. We revert to cliches, to shallow words and insignificant ideas. We get tired. Pride sets in, or shame, and damages our voice. We cast quick glances around the room to see who is watching us, and what others are doing, and judge them accordingly. Our minds become crowded with prideful thoughts, irrelevant thoughts, even lustful thoughts. Whoever came up with the statement about our words “not rising past the ceiling of the room” certainly understood these realities. And can God be pleased with this type of praise? Will he listen, and respond?
An illustration might be helpful. The singing of the Doxology has been a staple of corporate worship for centuries. In many places it is utterly ritualized: at the conclusion of the offering, perhaps, or during the processional, the congregation dutifully rises and mumbles through it, to satisfy some kind of innate desire for routine. When we were living in Massachusetts in the 1970s we attended a Congregational church north of Boston. During our first visit there, at the conclusion of the offering, a most remarkable thing happened. The audience rose, and the organist released all the stops as the ushers came forward with their plates. In double forte, and among many hands raised toward the skies, the audience joyfully sang these words in a way I had never heard before:
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise Him
above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen!“
These were the same words as always. But the hearts of the worshippers were tuned to sing praise, and they sang the words for all they were worth… which is to say, their praise was worthy. I felt as though I were at the foot of the very Throne of God.
My point is that our understanding of the mechanics and process of praise may be seriously flawed. We assume that by saying “Praise the Lord” aloud, or mechanically singing a tired old praise hymn, we have somehow satisfied the mandate to give glory to God’s name. But if we do so without thinking, or as an amulet against evil, or because everyone else is doing it, might we not be better off to simply remain silent? Is audibility so much more important than sincerity? Is the voice more important than the spirit? Mike Mason offers a thought- provoking idea in this regard: “…when we are filled with the Holy Spirit we can continue to commune with our Lord all night long, even during sleep. Who knows? The worship that takes place when we are not fully awake may be the purest of all, for isn’t that when God’s Spirit is most likely to be given the freedom and full control that He seeks?” (1994:362)
It is instructive to reflect on those among us who are damaged or limited in their ability to speak or understand (consider infants, the mute, the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, the senile). They also praise, because they have hearts and minds and awareness and voice. It’s even true of babies: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (Ps. 8:2). This is why Jesus rebuked his disciples in Luke 18 when they objected to babies and children being brought to him for blessing; He did not want to silence even the “least of these” from being part of the chorus. Is this not an even greater form of praise? Imagine the pleasure God feels when one of his followers serves communion to those in an Alzheimer’s ward, or when a small child drifting off to sleep quietly sings a hymn her mother taught her, or a deaf person converts a chorus into sign language, or the music of praise is played at the bedside of a person in a deep coma. Praise is, finally, an attitude of the heart… and it can surface in many unexpected ways and places.
Eyes, ears, heart
Returning to the analogy of the radio once more, to have any value whatsoever the unit must be turned on, activated, and tuned to hear and transmit signals. The same is true of our own hearing. Throughout Scripture we are told to “hear the word of the Lord”, “hearken”, “listen”. Being unwilling to hear can lead to spiritual deafness, which is the condition of being unable to hear (closely associated with being hard-hearted). It renders us no more effective than an unplugged radio. This is, in its essence, an affair of the heart and a matter of faith. The created order may or may not literally praise God; I believe it does, but I may be wrong. The point is that we must never close our hearts and minds to what God is doing in heaven and on earth. May we all have eyes of faith to perceive the width, depth and height of the majesty of God, whose glory fills the universe.
Perhaps the purest song of praise ever written is the contemporary anthem All Praise Rising, by Luke Garrett. The core text says this:
All praise rising, all rejoicing,
Every honor rise to Thee;
All the beauty, all the glory,
All thanksgiving rise to Thee.
All the music, all the singing,
All the longing rise to Thee;
In the sorrow and the laughter,
All praise rising, rise to Thee.
If there be any peace, any love,
If there be any joy, let them rise.
If there is any good, any just,
If there is any grace, let it rise.
If there is any breath, any sound,
If there is any life, let it rise.
And it will rise. All praise will rise to Thee.
It will rise!
We see two things here: first, a petition that praise be released to God in all circumstances (“let it rise”); and second, that the praise will in fact rise, because it cannot be stopped (“it will rise”). God will receive the praise due His name, whether it comes from our feeble voices, the trees, the rocks, or the distant stars.