This semester our chapel theme at RTS Orlando is the incomparability of God. This week I was to preach on this theme from Psalm 113, but present circumstances have precluded that possibility. Below instead is a homily on Psalm 113, adapted to our present circumstances.
I have encouraged you over the past several weeks to adopt the posture that C. S. Lewis commends in his famous essay, “Learning in War Time.” Therein he reminds us that exceptional circumstances such as war or, in our case, a global pandemic are not in fact absolutely exceptional, absolutely unprecedented. To the contrary, extreme circumstances such as ours serve to highlight “the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” In our case, Covid-19 has highlighted the permanent human condition of finitude and frailty, the depth of our social, political, and economic interdependence, and, ultimately, our utter dependence of God’s fatherly providence.
Because circumstances such as these are not absolutely exceptional, Lewis argues, they do not change our callings, however much they may disrupt them. Therefore, if God called us to prepare for gospel ministry before the global pandemic, then God’s call remains during the global pandemic. And, if this is so, then we are called, as much as is possible, to man our stations, to be steadfast in running the course of study that lies before us, confident that our labor, even under present circumstances, is not in vain in the Lord.
But this call to keep our eyes on our immediate horizon, on the immediate task of learning that lies before us, is not the only call that God extends to us during this time. This week Christians throughout the world are commemorating the last week of Jesus’ public ministry, the week that concluded with his trial, execution, death, and burial, the week that gave way on Easter morning to the eschatological day that Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection from the dead. Holy week offers us the opportunity to turn our attention from our immediate horizon, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents, to consider our ultimate horizon, the horizon that gives ultimate meaning and purpose to our immediate horizon.
That ultimate horizon is the being and works of God, in this case, the works that God accomplished for our sake on Good Friday and Easter, the great things of the gospel: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. The great things of the gospel remind us that, though we are called to continue our study in our present trial, we are called to engage this endeavor as those for whom Christ has died, for whom Christ has risen, and for whom Christ will come again. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the reason for our study and the reason why we may pursue our study with hope, even in the midst of our present circumstances.
And so I want to direct our attention to Psalm 113, a psalm that God has given us to shape our understanding and expectation regarding the great things of the gospel.
Psalm 113 is a call to praise the Lord, a “Hallelujah.” “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” (v. 1).
Psalm 113 calls us to praise the Lord at all times and in all places. “Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” (vv. 2-3).
Psalm 113 echoes many of the themes sung in Hannah’s song of praise to God on the occasion of Samuel’s birth and dedication to the Lord’s service in the temple. And Psalm 113 anticipates many of the themes later sung in Mary’s Magnificat in response to the announcement of Jesus’ conception and birth.
Psalm 113 is the first of six psalms that form the “Egyptian Hallel,” a group of psalms sung at Israel’s principal feasts, including Passover, a group of psalms that, in all likelihood, Jesus sang with his disciples during their celebration of Passover on the eve of his crucifixion. Psalm 113-118 look back to God’s great works of deliverance in Israel’s history in order to cultivate hope in God’s great and final work of deliverance in the latter days, the great and final work of deliverance that Jesus came to accomplish on Good Friday and Easter, and that he will bring to its appointed consummation when he returns to judge the living and the dead.
Like all of Israel’s hymns, Psalm 113 provides reasons for its call to praise. In this instance, Psalm 113 calls us to praise the Lord because he is incomparable. “Who is like the Lord our God?” (v. 5). More specifically, Psalm 113 calls us to praise the Lord because he is incomparably high and incomparably humble. “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (vv. 5-6). The high and humble God is the object of Psalm 113’s praise. And, by virtue of God incarnate’s death, burial, and resurrection, he is the object of our praise as well.
Let us consider, then, for a few moments the high and humble God of Psalm 113 and, in considering this psalm, let us consider the one who is the subject of this psalm, who sang this psalm, and who, in doing so, brought this psalm to its goal and fulfillment, even Jesus Christ our Lord, the Alpha and Omega of all moments, including our present moment.
The high God
According to Psalm 113, the Lord is worthy of praise at all times and in all places because he is incomparably high. “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high?” (vv. 4-5). The Lord is high.
We are sometimes tempted to take biblical language like this literally, to think that God is literally “up there” somewhere, as one sometimes hears in the crude expression, “the man upstairs.” But this is to mistake the meaning of the biblical language here. The Lord is not literally high. The Lord is not high in a spatial sense. The Lord is high in another sense.
What sense might that be?
When Scripture praise God on high, it praises God’s transcendence. It praises the supremacy of God’s being, the supremacy of God’s goodness, the supremacy of God’s sovereignty. God is “high” in this sense.
The Lord is worthy of praise at all times and in all places because the Lord is incomparably transcendent and supreme. The Lord transcends the nations: “The Lord is high above all nations” (Ps 113:4). The Lord transcends the heavens: “his glory above the heavens” (Ps 113:4). The Lord transcends all change, growth, and decay, along with the time that measures such change, growth, and decay: “Though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever; but you, O Lord, are on high forever” (Ps 92:7-8). The Lord transcends all would-be gods: “For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Ps 97:9). The Lord transcends all classification: he is unique: “that they may know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are Most High over all the earth” (Ps 83:18); and therefore he is incomparable: “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high?” (Ps 113:5).
The Lord is El Elyon, God Most High. Most living: the Lord has life in himself, without beginning and without end. Most wise: the Lord is an infinite ocean of wisdom, untaught and untrained. Most loving: the Lord loves with an everlasting love that has no basis in the creature, no beginning and no end, the earth is full of his steadfast love. Most just: in him there is no injustice at all, the Lord loves justice and exercises justice by revealing his most holy will, by rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Most powerful: the Lord’s agency depends on no external source of strength and knows no limit, it accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his most holy will. Most blessed: the Lord reposes and rests supremely in himself and communicates a share in his supreme beatitude to those who are the objects of his mercy.
This high God, the psalmist tells us, is “our God” (Ps 113:5), our supreme good, our supreme sweetness, our supreme reason for praise.
The humble God
According to Psalm 113, the Lord is worthy of praise at all times and in all places, not only because he is incomparably high, but also because he is incomparably humble. “Who is like the Lord our God, who is stead on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (Ps 113:5-6). According to Psalm 113, the high God is also a humble God.
What might this mean? To appreciate the psalmist’s meaning here, we must reject two misunderstandings of divine humility.
First, praise of the humble God does not contradict praise of the high God. We are sometimes tempted, especially in times of trial, to try to comfort the miserable by suggesting that God is not in fact high, that God is stuck in the same mess that we are in, that he too cries, that he too laments, that he too finds our trials inscrutable. But this is to propose a false comfort.
It is a false comfort because it supposes that God’s humble presence to those in need is the contradiction of his transcendence rather than the expression of his transcendence. It is also a false comfort because those in conditions of misery do not need the presence of a God who cannot save, they do not need the presence of a God who cannot bring meaning and purpose out of their inscrutable suffering. Those in conditions of misery need the presence of the high God.
Second, praise of the humble God does not imply that God is humble in an ordinary human sense. In its ordinary sense, humility describes a human attitude that reverently acknowledges its dependence on God and that rightly submits to God’s rule and authority. Contrary to the claims of Karl Barth and certain contemporary evangelicals, however, there is no humility in God in this sense. God is independent, not dependent. God in three persons, the blessed Trinity, is sovereign over all, subordinate to none.
What, then, does it mean to say that the incomparably high God is also incomparably humble?
Praise of the humble God proclaims that, though he is incomparably high, God is attentive to the humble and the lowly, he is willing to associate with the unworthy, the outcasts, the unproductive members of society, to make their plight his cause, to bring his supreme being, wisdom, goodness, and power to bear upon their circumstances.
God “looks far down on the heavens and the earth” (Ps 113:6). And where does his attention fall? On “the poor” who lies “in the dust,” on “the needy” who sits in “the ash heap” (v. 7), on “the barren woman” who lacks a home and who, lacking children, feels that she has nothing to contribute to larger society (v. 9). These are the objects of the humble God’s attention.
But note well. These are not merely the objects of God’s attention. They are also the recipients of his saving action. “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people” (v. 8). “He gives“–enthrones–“the barren woman [in] a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (v. 9).
The high God humbles himself in order to raise the humble on high. The Lord delivers the lowly from their lowly condition. The Lord enthrones the lowly in positions of dignity. The Lord fills the lowly with joy. The Lord gives them a creaturely share in his kingdom, a creaturely share in his beatitude and, in doing so, gives them reason to praise the Lord.
God’s transcendence is not a competitive transcendence, the kind he must nervously guard and protect against would-be rivals. God in his transcendent being and goodness is beyond all need, beyond all threat from would-be rivals. He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords does not view us as his competitors. Rather, he stands ready to help all who call upon him in time of need. He stands ready to stoop down and to save them, to raise them up and to seat them at his right hand in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, to fill their hearts with his joy and their lips with his praise.
This is the high and humble God. This is the God who is worthy of our “Hallelujah!” at all times and in all places. “Praise the Lord!” (Ps 113:9).
This is the God we remember and praise during Holy Week, the high and humble God who came singing Psalm 113 with his disciples within the context of the Last Supper. Who fulfilled Psalm 113 by humbling himself and taking on the form of a servant and by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Who, having borne the sting of death in his body on the tree, rose from the dead on the third day. Who ascended to his Father’s right hand, where he lives and reigns, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is the high and humble God who looks upon us in our present distress. Who, by his Word and Spirit, has raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly places that in the age to come he might show us the immeasurable riches of his grace, by seating us with the princes of his people, by filling us with the joy of our mother, the heavenly Jerusalem, by filling our lips with his praise.
Christ the high and humble God has died. Christ the high and humble God has risen. Christ the high and humble God will come again. This is the great and ultimate horizon that shapes and determines all times, including our present time.
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ has humbled himself to save his lowly and humble people. Christ has risen, Christ has ascended, Christ is seated and, by God’s grace, we are raised and ascended and seated with him at the Father’s right hand.
Christ will come again.
Commenting on the psalmist’s praise, Augustine says, “In seeking him they find him, and in finding him they will praise him.” Though, in a real sense, we have found Christ and, in finding Christ, we have found reason to praise him, in another sense, we belong to the age of seeking, not yet to the age of finding, and therefore not yet to the age of fully praising.
Nevertheless, the gospel which proclaims that Christ has died and that Christ has risen also proclaims that Christ will come again. When Christ comes again, the age of seeking will give way wholly and completely to the age of finding. And, when it does, it will give way wholly and completely to the age of praising.
For that reason, even though we may dwell in the dust and sit in the ash heap for the time being, even though we may find ourselves to be barren and unproductive in our present trial, because Christ has died, because Christ has risen, because Christ will come again, we may take as our confident hope the psalmist’s hope that God and his kingdom will be fully and finally found, that God and his kingdom will be fully and finally praised: “Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” (Ps 113:2-3). Hallelujah!