What is the source and content of true praise?

Music is one of the more divisive things in the organized church and what causes this division is always the preferences of people. I have experienced many different styles of music in the church service and I can honestly say that I don’t know what it is like to be picky about the style of church music. I think those who are probably cause more stress for themselves than does the style of music they are complaining about.

It’s almost like we don’t know what it means to praise God. Those darn young people (yes, me) won’t go to a church because the music isn’t energetic. Traditionalists only want the hymns. There are some reformed churches that only want to sing the psalms because the only sufficient praise for God is the inspired and inerrant word of God. More charismatic churches have to have lights, instruments, loudness and a large audience to fist-pump so the drummer feels important. Some churches don’t want to use instruments. Some only want certain instruments played. Some want orchestras and choirs. Some hire professional musicians. That’s what we choose to argue about like praise is somehow about us.

Biblically, what is genuine praise like? What distinguishes it from false praise? When we sing or preach or utter a word, what causes that to be an acceptable offering to God? Are we even concerned with the giving of ourselves to God, or do we commit idolatry by expected praise to fit our own preferences?

1 Samuel 2:1-11

Then Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord, My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, Because I rejoice in Your salvation. There is no one holy like the Lord, Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God. Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the Lord is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are shattered, But the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for bread, But those who were hungry cease to hunger. Even the barren gives birth to seven, But she who has many children languishes. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts. He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap To make them sit with nobles, And inherit a seat of honor; For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He set the world on them. He keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness; For not by might shall a man prevail. Those who contend with the Lord will be shattered; Against them He will thunder in the heavens, The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; And He will give strength to His king, And will exalt the horn of His anointed.”

Then Elkanah went to his home at Ramah. But the boy ministered to the Lord before Eli the priest.

True praise is wrought by the Spirit (v. 1)

As we begin in the second chapter of First Samuel, we see that the first word is “then.” This part of the story follows, chronologically and redemptively, the previous part of the story. Before we jump into this part of the text, it becomes necessary for us to remind ourselves of the context in the first chapter.

    1. Elkanah offered a thanksgiving sacrifice to God establishing the truth of God’s providence according to the Law.
    2. Despite the truth of God’s providence, Hannah was provoked to grief because God had closed her womb.
    3. After God had opened her womb, Hannah offered a sacrifice of atonement, seeking forgiveness concerning her sin (presumably treating God as if He had not provided all things according to His will).

The first chapter was explicit about God’s providence, the insufficiency of people, and God’s work of redemption through atonement. It foreshadows the coming of Christ and the sacrificial system we see described is fulfilled in the perfect atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

“Then,”

After Hannah experiences redemption through atonement she praises God in prayer. As we look at this prayer together we are going to notice how different it is than the first prayer we saw from Hannah in the previous chapter. We are going to see contrasts made like this throughout the book of Samuel. We have already seen the thanksgiving offering contrasted with the offering of atonement. Here we are going to see the prayer of desperation contrasted with the prayer of regeneration. Only after God had worked Hannah’s oppression and sin to bring her to repentance,

“Hannah prayed and said ‘My heart exults in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord, My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies…’”

Notice this: the Lord was exalted, not Hannah. This praise coming from Hannah’s mouth is a clear indication that not a single detail in the previous chapter was meant to exalt Hannah in any way. Hannah is not the heroine of this story. The message cannot be, “be like Hannah.” Hannah is the person in this story who is humbled. She is the object of redemption. The story is about God. It points to God. It glorifies God. It draws our attention to God, not to Hannah. It is only in the exaltation of the Lord that Hannah now finds her dignity (her horn is exalted in the Lord). Because of the Lord, Hannah is able to speak boldly against her enemies (probably in reference to Penninah, her sister-wife). It is God who is being revealed as Hannah’s provider. The truth of God’s providence is being established again as it was with Elkanah’s offering in chapter 1.

‘“Because I rejoice in Your salvation.’”

The entire reason Hannah was able to exult in the Lord was because of God’s salvation. Hannah was not able to praise God because of anything in or of herself. This is the very definition of what it means to be depraved. She exulted in the Lord because of His salvation. Salvation comes first, then praise.

There are so many preachers or teachers who take the first chapter of First Samuel and force it to be human-centered. They will teach that we need to be like Hannah or will use it to teach that we have to dedicate our children to the Lord like Hannah did. Lifeway, an SBC entity even has this sort of moralistic teaching. We should always be wary when people don’t take the time to explain the text. Instead, they will read and, without explaining the text from verse-to-verse, hurry to make some sort of practical application. We can’t get through the first chapter of Samuel rightly without seeing the doctrines of redemption and atonement in the text, which is the opposite sort of message from “be like Hannah.” The premise of the whole Bible is that people can’t accomplish the righteousness of God (Genesis 1-3). All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). The Bible is not centered on people. It is God’s story. The whole Bible is about how people are insufficient and about how God is holy. It is about God’s redemptive plan all the way through. That is what we saw explicitly in the first chapter in context. God chose Hannah and reconciled Hannah to Himself. That is the difference between Biblical Christianity and the moralistic, therapeutic deism that has become majority Christian belief in the world. Really, this majority ‘christianity’ is simply gnosticism repackaged. Gnosticism was simply the serpent’s gospel from the Garden of Eden repackaged.

Because the story is about God and because God has been reconciling Hannah to Himself, Hannah responds with the wonderful and powerful prayer of praise that is all about the glory and sovereignty of God. Even Hannah recognized that this was about God’s justice and mercy in salvation.

In this, we recognize the truth about our own praise. People don’t come to worship because of the music and then receive salvation. God works out salvation and draws His people to come and praise Him. Praise is the response to the work of the Gospel; the work of the Gospel is not a response to or result of praise. This is what it means that we worship in Spirit. Jesus taught about this truth and we can read it in John 4:20-26. Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well and there was an argument between the Jews and the Samaritans about where the proper place to worship was. Does that sound like the arguments people have about praise music even in our day?

“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

True worshippers worship in Spirit. These worshippers a sought out by the Father. Jesus clarifies that God is this spirit and those who worship Him worship in spirit. Worship is explicitly wrought by God. He is the Spirit by whose power we worship. The woman’s response is that she knows the Messiah is coming and will declare all things. She hears this and responds in such a way that seems as though true worship depends upon the revelation of the Messiah and His salvation. Hannah’s proclamation is similar, “… because I rejoice in Your salvation.”

To worship in spirit does not exalt or draw attention to people in any way. It is wrought by God’s power and particularly in God’s salvation through the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. This helps us to think about our own preferences in light of the Gospel. What does praise look like, feel like, sound like, and where must we praise? The answer is simple according to the Gospel. Our praise is a result of God’s salvation and exalts Him while making evident our humble estate. True worshippers worship in Spirit. This impacts greatly the way that we think about how we do anything as local churches. Sadly, there is too much ‘praise,’ if it can be called praise, that exalts people rather than God. These are not the songs of true worshippers.

True praise confesses the truth about God (v. 2-10)

After this first stanza, the personal language of Hannah’s song ends and everything is entirely about God. Hannah expresses her feelings briefly and then shifts her attention wholly to the God of her salvation. As a quick note on this Mother’s Day, a mother’s providing for her children in every way that she can is a picture of God’s own providence.

Let’s observe the confessions that Hannah makes together.

There is no one holy like the Lord, Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God.

God is the only one who sits in His position. All glory is His. There is no one who is like God.

Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the Lord is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed.

Because there is no one who is like God, for He alone is holy and He alone is our rock, we are unable to boast. God is the one who saves and we praise because of His salvation. God is the one who has all knowledge. He is the one who judges every action. It is God who saves and brings His people to praise in such a way that no one can boast.

The bows of the mighty are shattered, But the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for bread, But those who were hungry cease to hunger. Even the barren gives birth to seven, But she who has many children languishes.

The work of God’s salvation is such that He sovereignly raises up the humble and humbles the proud. This prevents the boasting of people and glorifies God alone as the provider.

The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts. He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap To make them sit with nobles, And inherit a seat of honor;

It is God who has explicit authority over life and death and over the final destination of every person. People do not have authority. God alone brings people to Sheol, the place of the dead, and God alone raises people up. It is God alone who raises up those of humble estate for His own glory.

For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He set the world on them.

Hannah claims that these things are so for, or because, even the pillars or foundations of the earth belong to God. God is the one who prepared everything and then set all of creation in motion. He is sovereign. Because the world and its foundation belong to God, God is the only one with the authority to do anything. He is holy and there is no one like Him.

He keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness; For not by might shall a man prevail.

God not only initiates, but He is the one who sustains. God is the one who ‘keeps the feet’ of His godly ones. People come to salvation because it is the Lord who raises up. People remain in God’s salvation because it is the Lord who keeps and guards their steps. In the same way, those who are wicked are so because it is the Lord who brings low (even who brings down to Sheol) and they are silenced in darkness. People do not prevail according to their own might so that no one can boast. God owns the world and her foundations. He receives all glory.

Those who contend with the Lord will be shattered; Against them He will thunder in the heavens, The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; And He will give strength to His king, And will exalt the horn of His anointed.”

Those who are wicked and who are silenced in darkness will be shattered and the Lord will raise up the horn of the one whom He has anointed. The anointing, here, is something that is done prior to the raising up. This is a transition into the age of kings, but I think is also meant to testify explicitly to the atoning work of Christ.

Hannah’s praise, here, is simply a proclamation of who God is and is offered in response to what God has done. God is not only the object but also the subject of genuine praise. Praise is not about our feelings and I don’t think church music should ever be confusable with the romantic love songs of our day. Genuine praise, wrought by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, first recognizes who God is and then proclaims who He is in praise to Him. Any song that doesn’t seek to do this has no place in the church worship service. That is what we should be concerned with, not something as trivial as style. This is what it means for the people of God to worship in truth.

After Jesus revealed that true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth, the Samaritan woman at the well replied by saying that they (the Samaritans) know the Messiah will come and declare all things to them. It is a matter of truth and is initiated and sustained in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. He replied to the woman saying, “I am He.”

This true worship is described in contrast to Hannah’s desperation, which was provoked in her according to her own words in the previous chapter. This contrasting between human-centered ways and worship with godly ways and worship will be a constant pattern in the books of Samuel. We see it first with Hannah, then between Eli’s sons and Samuel, then between Samuel’s sons and Saul, then between Saul and David. The books of Samuel make it a point to contrast the unrighteousness of people with the righteousness of God at every juncture. This is because the throne of Christ, the only righteous one, is being established.

Proclaim who God is

All things begin with God’s providence. God saves and reveals Himself through the proclamation of His word alone. God draws in worshippers for Himself. We are not interested in temporary impact. Let us participate in God’s eternal mission in our community and everywhere else. Often our outreach strategies are misplaced because our worship is misplaced, human-centered rather than godly (in Spirit and in truth). If God is the one who saves and the only one who brings down to Sheol or raises up, then our only profitable praise or preaching or evangelism simply proclaims who God is.
Kati and I have been at The Church at Sunsites now for five months. In this time we have dedicated ourselves to simply proclaiming God’s word. We are blessed to be in a church where this work is treasured by the congregation. Through TCATS, God has taken His own word to countries that are hostile to the Gospel, where we are training pastors and where two more churches are being planted in Muslim regions. God has taken His own word into Tucson and other cities around us, where people are responding to the Gospel of our Lord through the ministry of the word at TCATS. Through the simple preaching of God’s word, people here in our own community are being impacted in ways that only God can work out. This week, I had a man stop as he was driving and tell me “thank you” for posting what we do concerning God’s word and getting that out into our community via social media. We are decreasing. Christ is increasing. His work is being done because He is doing it. Brothers and sisters, simply proclaim who God is according to God’s own word in worship to Him everywhere we go and to everyone we meet.

In talking with others in our community, I realize what is probably the most prevalent obstacle. There is the opinion that the churches in our area, in general, are filled with too much drama. This is what happens when churchy people think that something in some way depends on them. Let us be humbled. We are not here to worship us. God is the object and the subject of our worship.

How is your worship? How we approach worship reveals much about our belief in and relationships with God.

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