by Al Maxey

Issue #655 ------- April 17, 2015
Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Hymn in the Vale of Chamouni

The Hallel From Hell
Reflecting on Psalm 150

You may very well be wondering about the title to this issue of my Reflections. Several questions may immediately come to mind. What is a "hallel," for example, and in what sense is this particular hallel (Psalm 150) from Hell? The Hebrew word "hallel" is "derived from the verb 'to praise,' which occurs as a command ('praise thou') in various psalms" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 542]. It is an oft repeated term in the OT writings signifying "praise." When this word is combined with the word for Jehovah we get the term "hallelujah," which means "praise God." Both of these terms are found repeatedly throughout the book of Psalms. This is not surprising, for 74 of the 150 psalms are classified as "hymns and psalms of praise." They generally begin with a call to praise God, and then they continue with justification of such praise by reference to God's nature, attributes and/or deeds. One such psalm of praise unto God has often been the focus of some rather heated debate among Christians over the centuries. That particular hallel is Psalm 150, about which I heard an old preacher many years ago say rather emphatically, "I wish that psalm wasn't in the Bible; in fact, I'd love to rip it right out of there!" In the minds of some, it is virtually the "hallel from Hell," for it clearly and unashamedly depicts God's people praising Him with, and accompanied by, various types of musical instruments. Since some regard the use of such instruments by Christians in worship as virtually assuring "a ticket straight to Hell," one can see how this psalm (and others like it) can be unsettling to those whose tradition (which has come to be perceived as binding law for the church) is non-instrumental.

In my own faith-heritage (that wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement which has come to be known as Churches of Christ) the tradition of singing without instrumental accompaniment was the norm for most of our congregations for many generations. Indeed, this practice became one of the "markers" of our movement, which inevitably was elevated to the status of "divine mandate." Our practice was the only biblical one; the only one approved by God. Thus, those digressive denominationalists who dared to defile their singing within their sanctuaries with "the noise of instruments" were all headed straight for Hell. And we didn't hesitate to tell them! In more recent years, however, this very legalistic sectarian mindset among us is rapidly changing. Praise God! We are beginning to perceive our traditions for what they are, and for what they are not. There is a big difference between a personal preference and a divine precept, yet we far too frequently failed to perceive that distinction, thus conflating the two and forming "church LAW." Little wonder, then, that we gained a rather negative reputation among other Christians, who tended to view us as isolated arrogant exclusionists who thought we, and we alone, had a monopoly on Truth, while every other person on earth who was outside our own fellowship was eternally damned. Yes, there are still some in Churches of Christ who feel that way, but they are dwindling in number and relevance. Before the end of this century I predict they will be little more than a religious oddity and a small footnote in history. (NOTE: For those who might be interested in reading more about this dogma that the use/non-use of musical instruments is a fellowship and salvation matter, I would encourage a review of my 16 studies under the heading "Musical Instruments" on my Topical Index page.)

But, enough about them. Let's get back to Psalm 150. Although some do indeed perceive it as the "hallel from Hell" (because of their deep-seated aversion to the use of instruments), most find this final psalm in the Psalter very edifying. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), one of England's most beloved pastors, wrote, in his classic work "The Treasury of David," this glowing tribute to Psalm 150: "We have now reached the last summit of the mountain chain of Psalms. It rises high into the clear azure, and its brow is bathed in the sunlight of the eternal world of worship. It is a rapture. The poet-prophet is full of inspiration and enthusiasm. He stays not to argue, to teach, to explain; but cries with burning words, 'Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise ye the Lord.'" Spurgeon nailed it. This is indeed a glorious psalm of praise unto God; it is not an attempt to argue some theological or liturgical point, but is instead a call to praise, one which, according to Spurgeon, asks: Where? (vs. 1) ... Wherefore? (vs. 2) ... Wherewith? (vs. 3-5) ... by Whom? (vs. 6).

Dr. John Gill (1690-1771), who was the famous Baptist pastor of the New Park Street Church (which was later pastored by Charles Spurgeon), noted in his Exposition of the Entire Bible that "thirteen times in this short psalm is the word 'praise' used; not on account of thirteen properties or perfections in God, but it is so frequently and in every clause used to show the vehement desire of the psalmist that the Lord might be praised, ... and that all ways and means to praise Him should be made use of." Yes, "no less than thirteen times in these six short verses" (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword] we find the concept of praise unto God. As alluded to by Dr. Gill, some see spiritual significance to the number 13. "This is according to the thirteen attributes of God, as the rabbins reckon them" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 691]. "The Synagogue reckons up thirteen divine attributes according to Exodus 34:6f" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5: Psalms, part 3, p. 414]. Although this is an interesting take on the use of the number 13 with respect to the occurrences of "praise" in this brief psalm, most scholars feel it is highly unlikely that it was the intent of the psalmist.

In the Old Testament book of Psalms (also known as the Psalter), psalms 146-150 are often referred to as the "Hallelujah Psalms," for they contain the term "hallelujah" at both the beginning and the ending of each psalm. We find this "hallelujah" used multiple times in Revelation 19 in very similar hymns of praise unto God for His power displayed in judgment against all unrighteousness. These are hymns of praise as God brings the present heavens and earth to an end (ushering in the new heavens and earth), just as Psalm 150 stands at the close of the OT book of Psalms. The "hallelujah," in many ways, stands as a statement of praise linking the two covenants. Dr. John Gill stated, "This psalm belongs to the times of the Messiah; to the Gospel dispensation, to the latter part of it, especially when Jews and Gentiles shall be converted; and when all will praise the Lord, as they will have reason for it" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395), who was a prominent theologian of the fourth century, also saw in this 150th psalm a view to the end of days: "It hovers over the blissful summit of the end, where all creatures, after the disunion and disorder caused by sin have been removed, are harmoniously united for one choral dance, and the chorus of mankind concerting with the angel chorus are become one cymbal of divine praise, and the final song of victory shall salute God, the triumphant Conqueror, with shouts of joy" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5: Psalms, part 3, p. 415-416].

"This final psalm in the book of Psalms is one sustained crescendo of earthly and heavenly praise of God" [The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 463]. "The heaven and earth have been called to praise God for His works of strength and His abundant greatness. Every conceivable instrument of music and cultic noise has been enlisted, including the rhythm of the dancers' feet" [ibid, p. 464]. "No psalm rises more grandly from verse to verse, or terminates in a nobler or grander climax: 'Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 8: The Psalms, part 3, p. 417]. "The strain of the psalm is that of an earnest summons to make the praise of God the prevailing note of our life. Let life be charged and crowned with praise" [ibid]. The psalmist "desires that no way be omitted by which we may show our zeal and ardency in praising Him" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 691]. This is certainly in contrast to some ultra-conservative disciples today who would seek to regulate and restrict all visible and audible expressions of praise to God, making for a far more subdued and solemn "worship service." Indeed, they would (and do) ban all instruments from even being brought into the church building, much less being actually used there. Although they acknowledge (grudgingly) that God commanded their use in worship under the Old Covenant, and enjoyed their use, and that the redeemed hold "harps given them by God" in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 15:2), yet they dogmatically declare that He will cast those worshippers into the fires of Hell who dare to use them in worship during the time of the New Covenant. This is absolute nonsense, and comes close to blasphemy of our God, in my view!!

Nevertheless, some still regard Psalm 150 as the "hallel from Hell," for it clearly declares our God may be acceptably praised and honored and glorified without limitation! As the people of God, we are called by our Father to "unencumbered praise! In this light the expectation of the Old Testament is not finally obedience, but adoration. The Psalter intends to lead and nurture people to such a freedom that finds its proper life in happy communion that knows no restraint of convention or propriety" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 878]. I agree with the following insights, and feel they make a fitting closing to this study of Psalm 150. I hope you will consider them carefully and prayerfully: "All kinds of faculty are engaged in the work of praise. The breath is employed in blowing the trumpet; the fingers are used in striking the strings of the psaltery and the harp; the whole hand is exerted in beating the timbrel; the feet move in the dance. ... It is interesting, but only a matter of curiosity, to identify and describe the different instruments mentioned here in Psalm 150. We need only see that they include all the musical instruments: wind, string, and clanging. The point to fix attention on is that when a man wants to praise God he may bring into his service every kind of power that he possesses, and every agency through which he can find expression for his power. All kinds of instruments may be used in praise. Only sentiment ever puts limitations on the instruments that may be used for divine worship. ... No instrument is in itself unsuitable. The kind of use man makes of it, and the kind of associations man causes to gather round it, may make an instrument unsuitable. In this matter the good sense of Christian people must decide" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 8: The Psalms, part 3, p. 419]. Christian people with good sense -- may their number increase (we've had too many of the other kind for too long!!).

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Florida:

God bless you, Al, for your work to spread understanding! I started reading your work when I was preaching in Pensacola years ago. Thank you!! My son has just started a class on "Life, Death and Beyond" at our congregation. He ordered your new book "From Ruin To Resurrection" a few weeks ago and is using it as a resource for the class. The other teacher needs a copy, and I need one also. I am sending a request and check to your New Mexico address for two signed copies of this book. Again, thanks!

From a Reader in Alaska:

I am reading your article "Christians Bearing Arms" (Reflections #232). I had to chuckle when I read the following from one of your readers in California: "Brother Al, I must hand it to you -- you never hesitate to open a 'can of worms.'" It struck me: how else is one going to go fishing (i.e., be a fisher of men)? It seems the work Jesus did fits that description often as well!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Maxey, Thank you so much for adding me to your mailing list for Reflections. I have been reading your writings online. They have been such a blessing to me, and I thank God for you! May He lovingly bless you always for your contribution to the Christian walk of many folks like me.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Thank you so much for your article "Knocked Breathless by Jesus: Reflecting on Our Redeemer's Response to Ruffled Religionists" (Reflections #654). I really needed that, having recently been the recipient of harsh criticism for ... can you guess?! That's right: teaching GRACE. Have a blessed week, brother.

From a Reader in Texas:

I just got a chance to read this latest Reflections ("Knocked Breathless by Jesus") and found it very transforming! It is definitely going to be one of the "best of the best" for 2015, and we are only a few months into this year!! I think it places tradition in a much more meaningful position of "dangerous" than I have believed in the past, if I'm reading this accurately. Thank you for sharing!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Great article, Al ("Knocked Breathless by Jesus"). Thank you! Encouraging for those who need to brace themselves for the storm. Well stated; full of truth. God bless you.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I so enjoyed the "Knocked Breathless by Jesus" Reflections article! I thought the quote by Pascal at the beginning was intriguing. Blaise Pascal, as you are aware, also concluded that "a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God." Pascal's Wager is rejected by the atheists, though. In fact, I have yet to experience one saying anything good about Pascal. Yet, Pascal would be inclined, perhaps, to set our own belief system today packing. Thanks for sharing this article!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

"Knocked Breathless by Jesus" is an excellent article! Some "conservatives" use these passages as their authority to "expose the error" of folks like you and me. The difference is, they believe the passages mean they must destroy a person's reputation, even if innuendo and/or lies are used to do so. Thus, they feel justified in their actions. While reading this Reflections, this thought popped into my head: In Acts 6 Philip is one of several picked to "wait on tables" of the widows. However, in our society, that is not a male role, but a female one. If culture allows a male role to be changed to a female role without sin being involved, why wouldn't that also apply to other cultural things? Gal. 3:28 -- "neither male nor female." Notice, it also says "neither slave nor free." Slavery is not condemned in the NT, only regulated. Today, we believe the cross, through time, eliminated slavery, even though Scripture did not change! So, what about the male/female culture of the first century and today? Just some of my thoughts on this beautiful Friday morning.

From a Minister in Florida:

This Reflections on being "knocked breathless" is extremely insightful and helpful. I am currently preparing for an inevitable encounter with an extreme legalist, and I'm hoping it does not become a hostile confrontation (of which this person has had more than a few with people I know). What is the source of the legalistic spirit? My assumption is that it comes from a progression of negative attitudes or perspectives (including low self-esteem and fear). Thanks for this article, Al.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Just read "Knocked Breathless by Jesus." Great truths here! Don't you wish you could just walk away and let such people thrash about?! They won't leave you alone until they feel vindicated. The Pharisees had to see Jesus killed off. This same Pharisaical spirit is alive today. They may not want to literally kill you, but they want to stomp out any person or teaching that would diminish their influence. Perhaps the admonition that "not many should be teachers" is due to the fact that being imperfect humans, there are times when we need to reexamine our positions and adjust them to be more closely near the truth. That's not always easy to do. Some just refuse to imagine that they could ever be wrong. Keep up the excellent work, brother.

From a Reader in Canada:

I have been in Florida on vacation, and decided to attend an all black Church of Christ for Sunday School and worship assembly. What a huge disappointment. The class was on marriage and divorce. They are still in the dark ages on this topic. I spoke up in class, but they refused to listen to anything I had to say. They shut down any open discussion, for their view on this was "the real and only truth." When the preacher later got up to speak, he seemed to equate loudness with Scriptural authority, and the louder he yelled the more the folks shouted their agreement and "Amens." He said things like, "The cross is in baptism; the blood is in baptism, the cleansing water is only found in baptism; all are lost until baptism." I found out he was a student of Florida College (an "anti" school), and claimed to be taught by Homer Hailey. I must admit that I had a very hard time just sitting through that service. What a shame folks are still so locked into their traditions and sectarian understandings that they refuse to even listen to anything that differs with their own personal thoughts. Once again, Al, thank you for your very timely article ("Knocked Breathless by Jesus").

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