Recently I watched the entire The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (extended editions so you know it’s real) for like the 20th time. It’s one of my favorites. Actually, no…it is my favorite. The Return of the King is the third part of this awesome trilogy. After four intense hours of dark turmoil, fleeting hope, awesome victories, heroic loyalty, joyful celebration, and peaceful happiness…the whole trilogy comes to the end with two words on a dark screen, “The End.”
The book of Psalms is much like Tolkien’s The Return of the King. The Psalter takes you through a long journey (150 Psalms!) of dark turmoil, fleeting hope, awesome victories, heroic loyalty, joyful celebration, and peaceful happiness. But unlike The Lord of the Rings, the Psalms last word isn’t simply a statement like “The End,” but is actually a command, “Praise Yah!” (Yah is the shortened form of Yahweh—God’s covenant name). The last word of the Psalms is a call to praise God—to praise Yahweh: “Hallelujah!” (Psalm 150:6).
To praise God means to celebrate God for who He is and what He does. This is what the book of Psalms is ultimately about. Or maybe better said, this is where the book of Psalms eventually leads its readers—to praise God.
Now, to shed light on this, we have to realize that Biblical praise necessitates two things that we often take for granted: community and physicality. Time and time again, the Psalms call God’s community to praise Him. Often, the call is not singular, “You praise God!” but plural, “Y’all praise God!” This is what Hallelujah literally means, “Y’all praise Yah!” We are supposed to do this together. We’re made for each other not for ourselves. Secondly, as N.T. Wright repeatedly emphasizes, praise implies physicality. Praise is embodied. Which in the end points forward to the reality of eternal physicality (the resurrection). Wright says it this way,
In the Psalms, the creatures that give God praise are the physical, material creatures…Matter matters; it matters so much that God becomes human and in the resurrection launches that transformed matter, that immortal physicality, to which the Psalms already point forward. (152) Wright, N. T. The Case for the Psalms : Why They Are Essential. New York: HarperOne, 2013.
So, if the Psalms are about communal, physical celebration of God for who He is and what He does, why all of the sad stuff in the Psalms? Some Psalms question Him, some cry out desperately for help, a few Psalms even blame Him. No doubt, there are scattered praises throughout the Psalter, but many Psalms along the lengthy journey of this book don’t praise God at all. I think that’s the point. The book of Psalms is a lot like life. There’s times when we’re praising God, when we’re crying to God, when we’re thanking God, and when we’re doubting God. Ultimately though, just like in the book of Psalms itself, we will persevere together through prayer and faith. Old Testament scholar John Eaton reflects on the last Psalm,
In the Psalter itself, our ecstatic psalm stands at the end of a long story of tears and complainings, outnumbering the praises. But still it stands as the final testimony. Through all the pain and conflict, by the way of humility, trust and hope, of prayer and praise, the open gates are found, inviting to the cosmic celebration before the face of the one who at last has made all well in peace and love. (486) Eaton, J. H. Psalms : A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.
In the end, God’s people will be praising God together in community and physicality in God’s coming Kingdom. As we await the triumphant return of our King we cry out in hope to one another and to the world, “Hallelujah!”