The “Hallel” Psalms: “Theme Songs” (Psalms 113-118)

orchestraEvery great movie is more than a visual adventure – it couples the visuals with great musical themes that drift in the background that move to the story. Anyone who watched the shark approach in “Jaws” recalls the haunting sound of the “Duh-duh” as it sped up with the approach of a hungry predator. Fans of an entire generation thrilled at the sound of George Lucas’ themes in “Star Wars”. For an older generation: ”Who didn’t get a lump in their throat at the high and lilting theme that filled the air when “Lassie” was about to start?” In fact, I would bet that in the average church meeting we could find people who could sing more of the openings to old TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “Gumby” – carefully recalling each word – more than we could find people who could recite the same number of words from any Scripture passage they chose. We all know it is true. Many of us have minds filled with “Oscar Mayer Weiner” theme songs, but can barely recall much in the Word past Psalm 23 and John 3:16. Let’s admit it: songs STICK with us.

Each year Israel was called by God to gather in Jerusalem and come to worship and celebrate the memory of their national rescue from Egyptian bondage by God. The rescue of God from slavery was initiated and completed by God’s power, executed before a largely stubborn and resistant people on both sides – the slaves and their reluctant retiring masters. We have read the stories of that time in Exodus and Numbers, but perhaps the whole scene will be filled in, just a bit better, if we include the theme songs that went with the occasion’s memory in Jewish history. As a “Palm Sunday” experience, perhaps that is the time to recall these songs, an appropriate time to recall the lyrics of the “redemption Psalms” that were called in antiquity the “Hallel Psalms”. These songs were (and are) sung or recited during the Passover season (Pesach and Unleavened Bread), but the lesson applies to all of us who know and walk with God at any time of the year. These are songs of gratefulness, songs of overwhelming praise for the rescue of God by those set free!

Key Principle: Our rescue came from God’s powerful hand – because He is a both a Master and a Loving Father.

Turn back to the song sheet provided by the ancient Hebrews. Remember that there was not one book of Psalms in antiquity, but FIVE collections of Psalms, sometimes called the “Five Books” of the Psalms. Within that collection were Psalms that every Hebrew learned by the time of the Second Temple (the time of Jesus and Paul). Those Psalms included:

• The “Psalms of the Word” (1, 19 and 119);
• The single Psalm of Moses (Psalm 90);
• The Sabbath Psalm (Psalm 92);
• Two “song sheets” of Psalms that were linked to the feasts and their celebration. The first “song sheet” was the “Psalms of going up to Jerusalem” – called the “Psalms of Ascent” in the old English versions (found in Psalm 120-134 in most editions).
• The second “song sheet” was the selection of our study for this lesson – the “Hallel Psalms” (found in Psalm 113 to 118). Turn there for an interesting look at the “celebration of the rescued”.

Take a moment and walk through this special set of Psalms…Let’s begin at the first of the series…Psalm 113:

Psalm 113

This Psalm was perfect for singing from the top of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, and was also sung at the beginning level of the Nicanor stairs of the women’s court of the Temple by the Levitical choir. It began with…

The Call to Worship: from one to many

Psalm 113:1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, Praise the name of the LORD.

First the lead worshipper exclaimed the beginning of the time of praise with his own loud shout of praise: (from “hallel”: loudly exalt and boast of…) the Lord (Yahweh).

Next, the congregation of God’s people who were the bondservants of God (eved) were called to praise (from “hallel”: loudly exalt and boast of…) the Lord (Yahweh), who is both their Master and provider. Inherent in the term “eved” is both the truth of a Sovereign, and the sense that their Lord supplies for them and watches over them.

A third call to praise reinforces the purpose of the whole song: It was a joyful boast of God’s character by His people. Praising the NAME (ha-shem) of the Lord meant separating Him from any other, and proclaiming His fame and unique identity above any other. He alone is Yahweh. Others will claim strength. Other nations will boast of a god. Yet, there is only One Yahweh – and He draws out of grateful hearts the praise of His people in Israel.

The point of the opening line is that praise begins when one follower calls the others to recall the greatness and character of God – because His power and love has rescued us a lost creation. From around the camp of those who know Him, praise rises. Why? Knowing Him more intimately fills my every recess of my heart with gratitude as my mouth joins others in loud exclamations of His goodness and worthiness of praise.

Reach out to grasp the expanse of praise: in time and place!

Psalm 113:2 Blessed be the name of the LORD From this time forth and forever. 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting The name of the LORD is to be praised. 4 The LORD is high above all nations; His glory is above the heavens.

The worshiper was called to recognize the places from which Yahweh will draw praise from the eastern skyline to the western one (113:3a,4) – all visible from the summit of the Mount of Olives. At that place, an approaching worshiper can see both the mountains of Moab in the east, and the horizon along the ridges west of Jerusalem – the expanse of the visible width of more than half of the land of Israel. This is a praise that is joined to the hearts of the people streaming into Jerusalem from all sides – as all are drawn to boast in Yahweh’s goodness!

Tucked in the middle of the place is a second phrase which intentionally draws worshippers to call for the timing of this praise to Yahweh (עוֹלָם -וְעַד מֵעַתָּה) – it is from that time to forward through the ages (113:3b). God will be praised 100 million million million years from now…Don’t forget that! Scoffers may reject Him, and loud and arrogant men may have decided He isn’t there – but that doesn’t change the fact that He is there, and He will always be there. He will be praised. Every knee will bow – in Heaven and on earth!

The third phrase exposes the reason for this special boast – God is above all nations and is exalted from Heavenly places (113:4). The Lord God is not simply the God of a single nation or people – even though He is most often recognized by them. He is Lord of all men, and His abode is high above them all.

Here is the truth: God is worthy of the praise of every rescued lip on fallen earth as well as those who observe from the Heavens above. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, the Savior, the Master and the King. There is no one above His station. His Majesty is beyond description. He is worthy of every praise of the human mouth – for He is the highest and greatest of all.

The Psalmist knows that He is Master of those who submit to Him and those who do not. He is King of those who cede to Him their hearts and those who do not believe He exists. God needs no vote or affirmation to be Who He is – any more than the morning dawn requires the vote of earth’s inhabitants. He is Lord – recognized or not. His praise should be known from all ends of the earth, and from every century of man’s history. We are invited to know and exalt His Name – but His place is far above ours. He is Lord of Heaven – not merely an earthly Master.

When you grasp the expanse – ask yourself what is… the reason for praise? It is the character of our God!

Psalm 113:5 Who is like the LORD our God, Who is enthroned on high, Who humbles Himself to behold [The things that are] in heaven and in the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust And lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8 To make [them] sit with princes, With the princes of His people. 9 He makes the barren woman abide in the house [As] a joyful mother of children. Praise the LORD!

The song moves to the loud boasts of three marks of character of the Lord:

He Reigns! His sits in the highest seat of the Sovereign.
• He is attentive to observe from His place. There is distance between God’s observation and my life – He is near! Though He must stoop to even view the occurrences of the cosmos and the earth – He does so because He desires to be near me.
• He is Intimate and Personal! He lifts the broken and the hurting from a place of loss and destruction and brings them into a place of special honor. He sees the one who is empty and fills them with great blessing.

What is left to do, but praise Him? The Psalm closes with “Praise the LORD!”

Step back and recognize for a moment where your salvation began – it was not with your attainments, not your works and not by your personal righteousness – it was by God’s work and through His grace. He took you from a life that only saw Him in the abstract, and He made Himself known to you. If you know and love Him – it is because He met you while you were busy pursuing other things. Like Saul of Tarsus, you may have been moral and even religious – but you met Him when He dropped you to your knees and you encountered Him as God. Worship begins with the acknowledgement of God’s place in the universe, and continues in recognition of God’s place in my life. He is Master. Isaiah worshiped first when he saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6). Ezekiel was called when he experienced a vision of the God and Abraham (Ezekiel 1-3). Jesus called us to pray beginning “Our Father Who art in Heaven”. Everything in worship starts with God – not my problems, not my needs – but my focus on Him.

The Passover season’s worship is no different. It is the celebration of national rescue and salvation – and it begins with the acknowledgement that God is God – and there is none that should steal away His deserved praise!!

Psalm 114

The praise is not ended – the celebration has just begun! The Passover was God’s rescue of His people, and the song sheet continues to recall the event. Imagine thousands of worshipers streaming into Jerusalem and recalling the history of God’s work – to prepare them to seek His face anew.

This is a praise of the whole land: God has rescued us!

Psalm 114:1 When Israel went forth from Egypt, The house of Jacob from a people of strange language,

There was a time when God’s people were in bondage – but the Lord did not forget them. From Egypt they were drawn, from foreign soil and a foreign king they were guided home by the Lord (114:1).

Psalm 114:2 Judah became His sanctuary, Israel, His dominion.

When they returned, God rooted them back into the land of their fathers. The place of God’s meeting on earth with man was given to them in the heart of the land at Jerusalem (114:2).

Psalm 114:3 The sea looked and fled; The Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains skipped like rams, The hills, like lambs. 5 What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? 6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

Their return to the land was met with cooperation of nature – because the Lord is over the world as well. The sea moved at God’s command. The Jordan River stopped its flow at God’s nod. The mountains and hills burst with vegetation at God’s directive (114:3-4). It was not a mere natural phenomenon – for nature blesses no one. This was the deliberate response to the Creator’s touch that caused the water to flee backward against the course of nature. The landscape’s burst of new life was not simply due to the Canaanites new farming techniques – God was at work (114:5-7)!

The believer has an ally wherever God plans it. Revelation says that Israel will be chased and hounded in the end times, but God will make the ground work for them to protect them. Whenever you are discouraged, don’t forget – God has anything He chooses to have at His disposal to win in the end!

Psalm 114:7 Tremble, O earth, before the Lord, Before the God of Jacob, 8 Who turned the rock into a pool of water, The flint into a fountain of water.

In praises for Israel’s past, there is yet a command for the present: earth – remember Who is your Commander! Rocks that contain water stores, remember that God directs the flow from you as He calls. You, oh earth, have a Master. You oh mountain are not your own. You were all created – and you must move when the Master calls you!

It is not only mankind that awaits redemption – but the whole cosmos that was marred by the horror of man’s rebellion. Yet even in its mournful and fallen state – earth knows its Master. The rocks are subject to the One Who formed them.

How great the power of the Creator! Do you celebrate the way God brought salvation to you? Can you see the way God moved things in your life to get you to the place of rescue? Jews recalled God’s rescue annually – do you EVER recall it at all anymore?

Psalm 115

But the beat goes on… As one first glanced at the skyline of Jerusalem facing west over the Kidron Valley – the sight of the Holy Temple was overwhelming. Nearly eighteen stories in height, by the time of the Gospels, this was the earth’s largest Temple! It was situated on a plaza nearly 1600 feet long and 800 feet wide, and remarkably held not a single statue! Yet, it could easily become a source of the people’s pride, rather than a reminder of the humility that should be obvious standing before a Holy God! The song sheet continued:

Oh God: You deserve the glory!

The Psalmist cried out:

Psalm 115:1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us, But to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth.

It was God’s faithful and enduring love “that would not let them go” they celebrated – wrapped in the scrolls of the TRUTH in which that love was proclaimed!

God: We are a testimony to You!

Instead of looking at the Temple as a proud symbol, they were to see they were to be a testimony in their worship…

Psalm 115:2 Why should the nations say, “Where, now, is their God?” 3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, The work of man’s hands. 5 They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see; 6 They have ears, but they cannot hear; They have noses, but they cannot smell; 7 They have hands, but they cannot feel; They have feet, but they cannot walk; They cannot make a sound with their throat. 8 Those who make them will become like them, Everyone who trusts in them.

The God of the Hebrews did not dwell in the Temple of the Hebrews – for He was much too large and a mere building on a tiny planet on the edge of the galaxy was nothing compared to His greatness. He was not in a man-made image, and He would not be contained in a man-made structure.

Every ministry must remember this: no matter what we can accomplish for God – it is infinitesimal compared to His greatness. We cannot get so pleased with ourselves that we forget that our lives are most valuable when our service is faithful and selfless.

God: We must trust You!

As they turned from their pride in the building, they looked up to Heaven for defense, supply and sustenance.

Psalm 115:9 O Israel, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield. 10 O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield. 11 You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield.

Two words float through the verse – trust and fear. They are opposed to one another – at tension with one another. When I trust my Father, I do not fear. When I fear my adversary, my trust wanes. Have you celebrated God’s protection for you recently? Have you told Him that you TRUST Him with your life?

For some of us, that means staring at the diagnosis sheet the doctor gave us and fighting back tears and fear. Listen carefully. None of us know what lies ahead – we only know WHO will be there when we get there – and that is all we need to know to settle down and trust our Savior.

God: We acknowledge your blessing!

The Psalmist sung out of God’s blessings…

Psalm 115:12 The LORD has been mindful of us; He will bless [us]; He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron. 13 He will bless those who fear the LORD, The small together with the great.

Are you DOING that today? Are you picking out the blessing of God and proclaiming that He is GOOD?

God: We invite your blessing on others!

People that bless God and celebrate Him become generous. They don’t believe their wealth is all theirs. They believe they are blessed, in every way, to be a blessing! They invite God to bless those around them.

Psalm 115:14 May the LORD give you increase, You and your children. 15 May you be blessed of the LORD, Maker of heaven and earth. 16 The heavens are the heavens of the LORD, But the earth He has given to the sons of men.

Note the songwriter made clear that the heavens are beyond man’s grasp, but earth is his to manage. Sometimes we miss blessing because it comes disguised as much labor!

God: We understand it is our time!

The songwriter continued…

Psalm 115:17 The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor [do] any who go down into silence; 18 But as for us, we will bless the LORD From this time forth and forever. Praise the LORD!

The time for this kind of praise and singing is when I am alive and seeking God. This is OUR TIME to fill God’s ears with the voice of praise. These are our fleeting moments to bring a smile to the Father. We will do so in the future, but in a different way. NOW is the time to worship, to praise, to celebrate and proclaim His goodness!

Psalm 116

Not all my celebration comes from good times and easy life. Life can be scary, and the nights can be long. Psalm 116 was sung while passing by the cemetery going down the hill of the Mount of Olives. Listen to the song as the music changes in the background…

Psalm 116:1 I love the LORD, because He hears My voice [and] my supplications. 2 Because He has inclined His ear to me, Therefore I shall call [upon Him] as long as I live. 3 The cords of death encompassed me And the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I beseech You, save my life!”

The singer acknowledged that God hears and makes an effort to listen – but times of trouble still come. Death draws near, and distress grows as our body weakens. We cannot stop time and we cannot fight weakness – it comes to each of us. When we are laid low – we can cry out to our Father. Who is He that He would listen? Keep listening to the Word…

Psalm 116:5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate. 6 The LORD preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me. 7 Return to your rest, O my soul, For the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. 8 For You have rescued my soul from death, My eyes from tears, My feet from stumbling.

He is gracious, righteous and compassionate. I may be simple, but God is my protector. I may be weak, but God is my strength…

Yet, the time for my departure may come. I may not hear the trumpet sound. If that happen… I will leave this world with confidence…Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones.

I know that my departure will be noticed by you. You consider my slipping from the body a PRECIOUS thing. “Yaw-kawr” is a word for splendid, weighty, and costly. If you follow Him, your life is precious and your death is something God marks. I am no number to the Lord. I am a tiny man watched by an immense and unmeasurable Creator!

Psalm 117

The next part of the Psalm is often said climbing up the Kidron Valley to the Temple doors near the summit of the hill. Thankfully, they are the shortest verses!!

Psalm 117:1 Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! 2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD!

Again we celebrate the chesed: the faithful love, and the truth – the place where that love is revealed (in God’s Word). His truth will not die. His love will not vanish… We will keep proclaiming His goodness – for our universe is built on His character and from His mind!

Psalm 118

The last part of the song sheet celebrated that love in 118:1-5, but then offered something startling… something SHOCKING… something counter to all that a lost world believes about our God…

Psalm 118:6 The LORD is for me; I will not fear; What can man do to me? 7 The LORD is for me among those who help me; Therefore I will look [with satisfaction] on those who hate me.

• No prince on earth can protect me like the Lord above me (118:8-9).
• Nations can surround me – but God’s NAME is faithful. (118:10-12)
• When I am hemmed in on every side, a Mighty God is my Protector and my Rescuer (118:13-14).
• There is no power that can match His outstretched arm (118:15-17).
• Though I forsake Him and He finds reason to chastise me, yet He will do right – He always does (118:18-20).
• I may come to tears and cry out – but You will hear me, and You will rescue me (118:21).

Maybe no one will understand me. Maybe they will see me as odd, and walk away from me. It doesn’t matter. My God will make something beautiful out of me. He will do it through something the world cannot understand. The Psalmist closed with a word of prophecy…

In Jerusalem, when the Assyrian invasion was coming upon the city from the fall of the Northern Kingdom, which was slowly eaten up between 732 and 722 BCE – more than ten years of slow and methodical advance… A wall was erected around the west side of the city. That wall was carefully quarried out of stone from the north side of Jerusalem, on the northern extension of the Ophel Ridge and the Western Ridge. When the quarry workers came to a piece of stone in the middle of that valley, they left it. The stone had too many fractures. The stone was of no value – they rejected it.
Seven hundred years passed, and that rejected piece of stone became a place that looked like a lonely skull hill that stuck up above an olive grove. They called in Golgotha. Others called it Calvary – but it was a rejected piece of stone. Listen to the words of Psalm 118:

Psalm 118:22 The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner [stone]. 23 This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

There it was – a place rejected that became the foundation stone of our salvation. God keeps His promises, and He uses the foolish and rejected things – and the lowly and rejected people – to keep His promises.

The song ends…

118:25 O LORD, do save, we beseech You; O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity! 26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD; We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. 27 The LORD is God, and He has given us light; Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar. 28 You are my God, and I give thanks to You; [You are] my God, I extol You. 29 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

Can you see what they did? They recognized that God saved them – so they broke out in song (113). They looked back at their history and saw God’s hand – so they poured out their hearts in song (114)! They looked past the work of their hands and proclaimed all they did SMALL before God (115)! They saw the graves of those who went before, and acknowledged that death is real and life is hard – but God was watchful – so they cried out in praise (116). They were winded as they walked up in the Temple and so they sung a short by poignant praise (117). As they passed through the ritual baths for cleansing, and walked up the stairs into the Temple – they exclaimed that God would meet them at a place rejected by the calloused hands of men who worked. God would meet them at the place were rejects are tossed aside – at a place where criminals and derelicts are found.

Has He met you at Calvary? For those who have, we are celebrating today, because… Our rescue came from God’s powerful hand – because He is a both a Master and a Loving Father.