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Praise: Worship as Foretaste of Heaven

Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Feb 2, 2000

Psalm 134:1-3

Please turn with me to Psalm 134, the Psalm we sang together.  It’s the last, the fifteenth, in this series of Psalms we’ve been considering known as the Ascent Psalms.  Now the words I’m about to read ought to be very familiar to this congregation because you hear them every week, and rebuke yourself if you don’t think that’s so because every Sunday evening Ligon begins the service with these particular words.  Psalm 134: 

“Behold, bless the Lord, all servants of the Lord, who serve by night in the house of the Lord!  Lift up your hands to the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.  May the Lord bless you from Zion, He who made heaven and earth.”

Let’s pray together.  Our Father in Heaven, without Your blessing all of our ministrations are vain.  Come now by Your Spirit and give us that spirit of illumination and give us, we pray, holy obedience to all that You would reveal to us out of Your word, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

This is a most fitting end to this series of Psalms because in a way it’s like an “amen” at the end of this collection of fifteen Psalms.  It’s actually composed of two particular things, namely a call to worship and a benediction.  Although Ligon always uses it as a call to worship, the final verse on this particular Psalm is actually a benediction, a closing of an act of worship.  And many of you have realized that particularly here and traditionally in Presbyterian churches, worship services have been bound by two bookends.  At the very beginning of the worship service, there’s a call to worship; and at the close of the service, there’s a benediction where the minister raises his hands and pronounces a benediction upon the people of God.  And that tradition goes back to the Reformation, and before that it actually goes back all the way to the time of the Patristic fathers.  It’s something that the church has gleamed as a way to worship God, indeed as the way God would have us worship Him.  I wonder, when you come to church and something happens…and maybe you’re not familiar with or maybe you are and you ask yourself, “Why do they do this, this way?”  It’s more likely that some of you have the question, “Why don’t we do it that way?”  And I want you to realize that everything that we do in worship in this particular church has a reason for it.  It has some biblical foundation that lies behind it.  That’s particularly true of a call to worship and a benediction.  We don’t do it simply because we think it’s nice.  It’s not a matter of taste or prejudice.  It’s something we do because we believe that’s the way God has taught His people how to worship.  I wonder if you’ve ever gone to a worship service and, you know, when everybody comes, everybody’s talking—and there’s nothing wrong with talking and fellowshipping.  It’s sad when people just don’t talk to each other.  But there comes a point where you want to say to somebody who’s talking in your ear, ‘Please be quiet because I want to worship God now.’  That’s one of the advantages of having a call to worship because that signals the point at which idle chatter is to end and we focus our thoughts upon the living God. 

I. The worshipers' blessing

This particular Psalm, imagine…and we’ve been trying to do that as we’ve been going through these Ascent Psalms.  Imagine the worshipers who have traveled all the way from Meshech and Kedar in Psalm 120.  They’ve journeyed to Jerusalem.  They have come in order to take part, perhaps, in one of the great festivals in Jerusalem.  And now it seems it’s nighttime and they’re about to go home.  They’re about to make their journey back to where they live and perhaps they’ve come one last time to the temple of God in Jerusalem.  You know how it is when you go on vacation and you go somewhere and you’ve enjoyed it, and you say to your wife or husband, “Let’s go there one more time before we go home.”  And perhaps that’s the setting of this Psalm.  They’ve come into the temple of God and they’re beholding the Levites, the priests engaging in their night worship.  Now we know there was a night shift in the temple, particularly at the time of Passover.  The ovens, for example, had to be kept going all night long in order for the showbread to be placed in its appropriate setting in the temple.  So at any time of day or night, there was worship taking place in the temple.  And the Psalm begins in the first two verses with the worshipers coming to the temple and saying, apparently, to temple ministers who are Levites or priests, “Bless the Lord, all servants of the Lord, who serve by night in the house of the Lord!”  And then they reply in verse 3, “The Lord bless you out of Zion.”  So that this antiphonal aspect to this Psalm where the worshipers are asking the Levites to “bless the Lord” and the Levites are saying by way of return, “The Lord bless you.” 

But what does it mean to bless?  I remember asking that question, I thought fairly innocently one time, when I heard a number of prayers uttered at a prayer meeting: you know, ‘Lord, bless John and bless Martha and bless Mary and bless this and bless that.’  And I asked the question, “What does it mean to bless?  A good question I asked a student over lunch today, “What does it mean to bless?”  He was asking the Lord to bless the food and I said, “Are you asking the Lord to bless us in the eating of it or are you asking the Lord to bless the food?  Which is it?”  It’s an appropriate question to ask, isn’t it?  What does it mean to bless?  The word occurs in the Bible over 400 times in some form or another.  And the word seems to be associated at least in part—and I’ve got Dr. John Currid’s verification of this—that it seems in part to be associated with a word “to kneel.”  And it may be that the association is that of an act of reverence.  “To bless” means to consider and to think about all of the wonderful attributes of God and that God may respond accordingly, and when God blesses us He thinks about our needs and responds accordingly.  We think perhaps of a very familiar Psalm in which the blessing of God occurs over and over again, Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name.”  It’s a matter of reviewing all of the excellencies of the character of God and responding accordingly.  We think of the words of Paul in Ephesians where he tells us that we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  Notice, we’ve just heard something about this in Psalm 133, right at the very end of the Psalm, “…the Lord commands the blessing,” “…the Lord commands the blessing.” 

Now let me say a number of things, here.  Here are worshipers calling upon these Levites to bless the Lord, and what are they saying?  They’re saying that it’s perfectly appropriate.  Indeed, it is what we ought to do to give thanks and praise to Almighty God.  Now if you have a New International Version before you, verse 1 is translated “praise” although they’ve taken verse 3 and put in “bless,” although it’s the same words.  “To praise” and “to bless” have almost, but not quite, almost the same meaning.  I think “to bless” carries more than “praise” but let’s start there: that it’s appropriate for us to come into the house of God and to praise our God.  That’s a rebuke to us, isn’t it, when God has bestowed upon us every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus in the heavenly places, and we come with our hearts dull and empty, and we need that spiritual motivation that we might give to God the praise that is due to His holy name?  Shakespeare—and I can quote Shakespeare, to let me quote Shakespeare from As You Like It.  “Blow, blow though winter wind.  Thou are not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.”  Well, what’s Shakespeare saying?  Well, you know what he’s saying.  You’ve been out in these cold winds…well, it’s cold for Mississippi.  Last few days we’ve had these cold, cold nights but there’s nothing as cold as the ingratitude of a man’s heart.  Let our hearts be aflame with praise to Almighty God.  “Praise my soul, the King of Heaven…” Francis Light wrote that.  We sang “Abide with Me”; this is another one of his well-known and favorite hymns.  “Praise my soul, the King of Heaven, to His feet thy tribute bring; ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  Who like Thee His praise should sing?  Praise Him.  Praise Him.  Praise the Everlasting King.”  But imagine too, that these worshipers, perhaps, are going home.  They packed their bags; they’re gonna make their journey home now, northwards to Galilee and beyond perhaps, a long journey taking several days.  And they’re going one last time to the temple and what they’re saying is, ‘You Levites, you Priests, you perform your ministries, you continue blessing God, you do what God has set you apart to do while we go home and make our journey thence.’  And do you know…can you bring that into the New Testament, that idea?  Because we have a great High Priest who blesses His heavenly Father day and night before the throne of God; and as we make our journey home, through trials and difficulties and perilous times, through the ups and downs of life, we have a desire, do we not, to say to Jesus Christ, “Bless Your Father in Heaven and do so on our behalf”?  Because it’s from the ministry of our great High Priest that our comfort and assurance comes.  I can just imagine these travelers as they were making their way north thinking, ‘Yes, those priests are praising and blessing God in the temple right now and the benefit of that ministry is accruing to my account right now…’ and how much greater is the blessing that comes from the ministry of Jesus Christ on our behalf in the temple of Heaven? 

A word of posture

But there’s something else here also, and that is a word about posture, and I can’t avoid it because of the reference, “Lift up your hands to the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.”  And we know that this is something that Paul almost cites in I Timothy chapter 2 when he speaks about raising and lifting holy hands to the Lord.  Now the Bible speaks of many acts of posture that are suitable for the worship of God.  To stand up, for example, and bless the Lord, to bow in reverence before God, to lift up one’s eyes in expectation of blessing, to kneel…and I think the Bible means by that “to prostrate oneself”—more than a sort of formal Anglican posture of kneeling—I think the Bible thinks of it more in terms of an Islamic prostration on the floor before Almighty God.  And the Bible doesn’t seem to say that one is more desirable than the other.  But Hendrickson says this, that slouching, “the slouching position of the body while we are supposed to be praying is an abomination to the Lord.”  Well, Hendrickson had obviously worshiped in many a Presbyterian church.  We are good at slouching when we’re praying to Almighty God and I think that we do have something to learn here about our activity in worship.  It’s not a matter of whether we lift up hands literally in worship, that’s not the issue, I think.  The issue is an issue of a heart; the issue is one of involvement; the issue is one of sincerity and a desire to praise and bless our God that that in which we are engaged at this point is the most holy and reverent act of all.  “Bless the Lord” then, these worshipers say to the Levites. 

II. The Levites’ response

But then, in the second part of this Psalm, in verse 3, the Levites respond by pronouncing a blessing upon them: “The Lord bless you from Zion.”  This is the benediction.  You know how it is, Presbyterian ministers especially will lift up one or two hands and pronounce a benediction, pronounce a blessing upon the people of God.  And it’s a blessing; it’s not a prayer.  It’s perfectly appropriate to keep your eyes open during the benediction and to look straight into the eyes of the minister who’s pronouncing those words.  It’s not a prayer for blessing; it’s a pronouncement of blessing.  The minister is simply the vehicle.  It is God who is showing the blessing upon the covenant people.  It may be these words.  It may be the familiar words of II Corinthians 13, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  It may be something as simple as I Thessalonians 5:28, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 

But what does it mean to pronounce a blessing upon the covenant people of God?  And it’s a very wide concept in the Bible, when God blesses His children.  Children are a blessing.  They are the blessing of the Lord.  Can some of you think of your children just now?  And I know that some of you have children, covenant children, who are not converted and you must never lose heart and never lose hope because the promises of God will follow them to their journey’s end.  Children are a blessing from the Lord but so is property and so is good health and so, especially in the Scriptures, is the presence of God.  Imagine the next time you hear Ligon pronounce that blessing on Sunday morning or Sunday evening that what God is saying through him is that, ‘I will be your God forever and ever.  Go out into this world.  Go to your vocation.  Go to your homes.  Go to your problems.  Go to those difficulties which God in providence hath put in your lap, and I will go with you.  I will go with you.  I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I will be your God; you will be My people.’  Do you remember back in Psalm 121…?  And scholars seem to see in Psalm 121 especially at verses 5 and 6 a reflection of the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6.  “The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee.  The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.”  Psalm 121 verses 5 and 6, “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.”  And there seems to be an allusion to the Aaronic benediction.  So what does it mean?  Well, look at the next two verses, “The Lord will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul.  He will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forthand even forevermore.”  Isn’t that a wonderful thought?  When you hear the benediction on a Sunday evening, it’s God saying, ‘Until we meet again, until we gather as the Lord’s covenant people in this place again, I will be with you.  In your going out and your coming and whatever you do, I will go before you.  I will protect you.  I will lay My hand upon you.’  It’s a covenantal thought, isn’t it?  It’s so quintessentially covenantal that we as the covenant people of God should have the blessing of God Almighty pronounced upon us, because in Jesus Christ we are truly blessed, because greater blessings we cannot receive than the blessings which are ours in Jesus Christ.  Notice how he puts it: he says, “May the Lord bless you from Zion.”  And it’s from the heavenly Jerusalem—to think of Hebrews 10 for a minute—it’s from the heavenly Jerusalem that now the blessing descends upon the people of God.  It’s like Chisholm’s hymn, isn’t it?  “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father.”  And that’s the idea that the Psalmist here, at the close of these Ascent Psalms, is saying as he journeys home.  God is pronouncing His blessing upon His people.  We’re all journeying home.  We’re journeying home to that place that Christ speaks of in John 14, of a place that is prepared for us in heaven.  “I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”  And you know where Jesus is.  He is before the right hand of God Almighty beholding the glory of God in all of its resplendent beauty.  And that’s the place that He has promised to all of His people, and that’s what the benediction of God speaks of.  What a blessing!  What a blessing!  What a joy!  What a privilege is ours.  Do you not get…do you not get, my friends, something of the thrill of worshiping God from these Psalms? 

May God so bless them to us for His names’ sake.  Amen.  Let’s pray together. 

Our Father in Heaven, we do thank You for this particular Psalm, and we thank You especially for the covenant blessing that You bestow upon us in Jesus Christ and the assurance that You will never ever let us go.  Go with us, we pray.  Go with us into our various troubles and trials and difficulties and be Thou our assurance, that come what may, “the Lord is my keeper and the Lord is my shade upon my right hand.”  Hear us Lord, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction?  May the Lord bless you from Zion—He who made heaven and earth. Amen.

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