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Praise and prayer: reflections on Psalm 134

September 2018

Psalm 134, which has only three verses, is the last of the fifteen psalms with the heading ‘A Song of Ascents’ (ESV).  In the Jewish Scriptures the headings were part of the Psalms.

The pilgrims sang these psalms when they travelled to Jerusalem for worship. As they ascended up to Jerusalem they lifted up their voices in praise. Singing made the journey seem shorter! The three shortest psalms are included in the Pilgrim Psalms: 131 which focuses on humility; 133 on the theme of unity, and 134 calling us to praise and prayer.

Psalm 134 begins with a doxology, ‘Come, bless the LORD’ (v.1), and ends with a benediction, ‘May the LORD bless you’ (v.3). What is the difference between us blessing God and his blessing us? Alex Motyer explains: ‘When he “blesses” us he reviews our needs and meets them; when we bless him we review his excellences and worship him.’

How does benediction differ from doxology? A benediction is a prayer and a doxology is praise. Of course benedictions are sometimes praise and a doxology is often a prayer. However, I would suggest that prayer is more prominent in benediction and praise more prominent in doxology. Psalm 134 is an interesting psalm because it combines both: ‘Come, bless the LORD’ (v.1) — doxology — ‘May the LORD bless you’ (v.3) — benediction.

The ‘LORD’

Who blesses us and who do we bless? He is ‘The LORD’ — God’s name occurs five times in three verses. The name LORD directs us back to Exodus 3:14. Jehovah (sometimes pronounced Yahweh) spoke to Moses at the burning bush. He is the ‘I AM WHO I AM’ who sent Moses to fulfil a special task. What did God send him to do? To lead his enslaved people out of Egypt. To accomplish this commission Moses would have to go in God’s name to the mighty Pharaoh and demand him to let the chosen people leave the land.

What does ‘LORD’ mean? God is eternally present; everything is now. God sees at a glance all the past and all the future; he knows everything because he has planned it. God always knew every detail of our lives, from our birth to our death. He loved us, and therefore chose to save us, even before the creation of the world.

God chose us because he chose to choose us and not because of any foreseen merit (Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-6). We cannot understand this! God’s thoughts and ways are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). We thank God for his sovereign grace as we echo the psalmist’s words: ‘Come, bless the LORD all you servants of the LORD’ (v.1).

In Exodus 3 we read that the ‘I AM WHO I AM’ heard the groans and saw the tears of his people, ‘I have surely seen the afflictions of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings’ (v.7).

Once we were enslaved to our sin; slaves of Satan the cruel taskmaster. But the ‘I AM’ came to earth to redeem us — to set us free. The uncreated God took a human body (Colossians 1:15; 2:9); he became a servant to deliver us. This meant dying on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Let us with the psalmist ‘Bless the LORD’ (v.1)

The ‘LORD’ said to Moses, ‘I know their sorrows’ — he knows ours too (Isaiah 53:3-4; 2 Corinthians 1:3-6; Hebrews 4:14-16). God’s care is why we ought to say with the psalmist, ‘Come, bless the LORD’ (v.1).

Servants

It is the ‘servants of the LORD’ who are to ‘bless the LORD’ (v.1). Who are these servants? Firstly, the priests and Levites who served in the temple as Psalm 135:19-20 indicates. However, it’s clear from the words ‘O House of Israel’(135:19) that all God’s people are his servants, who are known as those ‘who fear the LORD’ (v.20).

The author of Hebrews wrote to Christians, ‘Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and fear’ (Hebrews 12:28).  Jonathan Griffiths, a tutor for the Cornhill Training Course, defines this fear. It means ‘to recognise him for who he truly is. Fearing him is not about being terrified of him. It is about knowing that he is the God who made the world, rules the world and will judge the world, and so giving him the reverential respect and honour that are his due.’

Servants are humble before the divine Master; they lift up their hands as an indication of their dependence on God (v.2). Lifting hands is often used in the Old Testament as a symbol of prayer. As sinners we cry to God for his pardon. We are weak and helpless; therefore, we reach out our hands to God to protect us and to provide for us. The lifted hands also suggest servants who stand ready to obey their master.  Servants had no rights of their own. When the master spoke they instantly did as he commanded.  Are we like Paul, who said, ‘I delight in the law of God’ (Romans 7:22)? Is our service willing and joyful?

Servants are not only humble and ready to serve, but also sincere — this is the point that Paul makes in 1Timothy 2:8: ‘I desire…that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling’. The words ‘holy hands’ mean sincerity seen in godly conduct. His words echo Psalm 24:4: ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.’ Sincere servants worship — they say to one another: Come, bless the LORD’ (v.1).

Zion

We read in verse 3, ‘May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!’ What is the meaning of ‘Zion’? The Jews understood Zion in two ways: Jerusalem where the temple stood — the dwelling place of God. The name ‘Zion’ was also used of the nation — the people of God.

Christians belong to ‘Mount Zion’, ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’: ‘you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven…’

Entrance into Zion is through ‘Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant’. He opened the door into this city through his blood (Hebrews 12:22-24). The ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ is eternal and unshakable (v.28).

It is those who are citizens of the spiritual Zion who receive God’s blessing: his presence, his pardon, his peace and his power — to name but a few. Recall Ephesians 1:3: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.’

‘The LORD who made heaven and earth’ (v.3) is well able to bless us!