This is the second in a little three-part series thinking about different aspects of our church meetings—now that many of us are back and almost approaching normal church again.
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This week we turn to the subject of singing and making God bigger.
Making God bigger
Is it possible for singing to make God bigger?
The answer to that question begins back in the mists of time, when dudes with Sony Walkmen1 roamed the earth and I was at theological college.
As part of my Old Testament studies in 1994, I was set the task of assessing the ‘content and function of “praise” in the Book of Psalms’.
This was much more than an academic exercise for me.
My years in the charismatic movement were only a bit more than decade in the rear-view mirror. And as with many aspects of my neo-pentecostal youth, I had a sneaking feeling that I might have some unlearning and re-learning to do about ‘praise’.
And so it proved to be.
I’d always thought of ‘praise’ as a personal (or corporate) expression of adoration or devotion to God. ‘I praise you, O God’ was a way of saying “I am in awe of you; I want to express just how much I love you” and so on.
So when we all sang, “I will praise you, O God” (or “We praise your holy name”) then that’s what we were doing. We were ‘praising’. To sing it was to do it. And the more we did it, the more God was praised—hence the 40 minutes of pretty repetitive ‘I will praise you’ type songs that kicked off of the charismatic church meetings I went to in the 70s and early 80s.
But my Moore College essay got me looking afresh at ‘praise’ in the Psalms—at what the word itself meant, and what its content and functions were. I found that it had a quite different meaning and purpose. I discovered that this definition by Mark Harding was completely accurate:
… praise and commendation result from human assessment of another’s qualities, attributes, excellences or deeds. What is seen is advertised. It is the advertisement—the public acknowledgment and acclamation—of the attributes and excellences and deeds of another which is praise.2
This is what ‘praise’ is in the psalms (and in the Bible more generally). Praise is not an expression of our gratitude or awe or adoration in response to God’s mighty deeds; it’s the advertising of those deeds to others. When the psalmist says “I will praise you”, he is announcing what is about to come next, which is the actual ‘praise’—that is, a description or narrative or declaration of some aspect of God’s great character or his saving action in the life of the psalmist. This is what ‘praise’ is: it’s letting everyone know just how excellent and ‘praiseworthy’ God is by telling forth his mighty acts.
And because God is indeed very, very praiseworthy, we’ll tend to advertise his greatness with everything we’ve got—with the lyre and the cymbals and all the other joyful-noise-makers we can throw at the situation. We’ll advertise with joy and celebration and to maximum effect. And we’ll feel gladness and appreciation and love in our hearts as we do so. But what we’re really doing when we praise God is advertising the details of his greatness to others.
What has this got to do with making God bigger?
I’ve recently been thinking about the other words that populate our Christian singing. Words like ‘magnify’, ‘exalt’ and ‘glorify’.
Have you ever wondered what we are actually doing when we ‘magnify’ God? Or ‘exalt’ him? Or ‘glorify’ him?
What was Mary doing when her soul ‘magnified the Lord’?
What was Moses doing when when he led the Israelites to sing, “… and I will exalt him!”
I think most of us think about these words largely how I used to think about ‘praise’. They are self-fulfilling words. When I say ‘I magnify you, O God’, then I’ve just ‘magnified’ him (especially if it’s set to music). Ditto with ‘I glorify you’ or ‘I exalt you’. They are words of Godward devotion, where we turn our attention and our souls towards him, and express our love for him. To say it (or sing it) is to do it.
Except—as with ‘praise’—this is not what these words mean, either in English or in the Bible.
Let’s take ‘magnify’. To magnify something is to increase it; to cause it to become bigger or greater or larger. In English, we might magnify an image so that it’s larger in our sight, or we might magnify a mistake by adding other mistakes to it.
This is also what the words in the Bible mean (the Hebrew and Greek ones that we translate ‘magnify’). They mean to cause something to become greater or bigger in some way.
But how can we ‘magnify’ God?! How can anything we do make God bigger?
We don’t really use ‘magnify’ this way in English any more, but the biblical ‘magnify’ words can be used of people. You can ‘magnify’ someone or make them bigger by increasing their honour or reputation; by causing them ‘to be held in greater esteem’.3
This is what Mary is doing when her soul ‘magnifies the Lord’. She recounts all the exceedingly great things that God has done for her (and for Israel), so that all generations will know just how blessed she was by God. She wants God ‘to be held in greater esteem’ by vast numbers of people, as they hear about his extraordinary deeds for her and for Israel.
It’s the same with ‘exaltation’. To ‘exalt’ something is to make it higher; to lift it up. (I received the sad news recently that my cholesterol is a bit exalted, so it’s time to ease off the bacon and eggs.)
When I exalt a person, I raise him in your estimation by recounting to you the various high level things he has done. And the more I raise him up in your eyes, and the more people think highly of him, the more I have ‘exalted’ him. As with magnification so with exaltation—it means to cause God’s name to be ‘lifted up’, by telling other people of his lofty deeds and character.
Ditto with ‘glorify’—I glorify someone by increasing the shininess of their reputation. When your public profile goes through the roof thanks to me telling everyone just how brilliant you really are, then I have ‘glorified’ you. We ‘glorify’ God by raising his public profile, by burnishing his reputation—that is, by telling everyone how brilliant he is.
This is why praise, magnify, exalt and glorify often crop up in the same vicinity in biblical texts (especially in the Psalms). They all mean the same kind of thing: to advertise to other people how great God is in his character and works, and so to make his fame and honour larger, his reputation higher, his splendour and brilliance all the shinier in people’s eyes.
To be perfectly clear, we do all these things—praising and magnifying and so on—with hearts and minds full of thankfulness and love for God. We really do believe (like Mary and all the Psalmists) that God is the greatest and highest and most splendid, and that thrills us. We may even muster up an emotion or two, and start banging a cymbal. But neither emotional connection nor musical accompaniment are what ‘magnification’ is about.
Praising or magnifying or exalting God is not fundamentally a personal transaction between me and God. Its purpose is not to stir my affections, nor to express them, although both of those things may well occur. The purpose of praise and magnification and exaltation is to increase God’s honour and fame by pointing others towards him; by shouting from the rooftops all that he has done for us.
Corporate singing is not the only way to do this—but it is an excellent way, for at least two reasons.
First, singing is a form of speech directed to other people, and all praise, magnification and glorification requires this. Magnification needs words and an audience. Its aim is to increase the esteem and honour in which God is held by others, and that happens as people hear words describing or declaring his greatness in some way. In the Psalms, this is true even when the praise or glorification is addressed to God himself. The praiser acknowledges to God how great his deeds and character are, but does so in the presence of ‘the great congregation’, so that they may come to acknowledge this too, thereby increasing the glory of God’s reputation.
When we sing together, we’re telling and reminding and declaring to each other, in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, how great is the God we serve in Jesus Christ. And in so doing, we not only praise and glorify and exalt and magnify God, but we encourage and edify each other as well (cf. Eph 5:19-20; Col 3:16).
Secondly, singing is an excellent vehicle for magnifying God’s reputation because singing is more than just speech. It’s emotionally-charged speech. It’s a heightened form of communication that is ideal not just for explaining but for shouting how great God is. When I sing, I put my whole body and soul into it. When I hand my passport to the immigration agent, it’s a way of declaring that I am Australian. But when I stand in a crowd at the cricket and belt out the national anthem, that’s a very different way of declaring that I’m Australian.
When you stand next to me at church and sing with me about the mighty deeds and glorious character of God, it’s a powerful testimony. It says to me not just that you think these things are true of God, but that you’re sufficiently convinced and energised by these truths to stand up and belt them out in song. You remind me all over again how great God is, as seen in his marvellous saving works, and God grows larger in my mind and heart.
Perhaps this is why we have missed singing together in church so much over the past 12 months. And perhaps, as we start singing again (God-willing soon!), we can do so with a fresh appreciation of what, in fact, we’re doing together.
When we praise or glorify God in song, we’re declaring the greatness of God to each other in words. We’re advertising the splendid character and works of God in Jesus Christ to everyone present, so that his people are edified and his name is magnified.
There’s much more to say on all this. For example, I wonder how all this relates to the way the Bible thinks more generally about honour and glory and reputation (and shame and infamy). I suspect we don’t always appreciate how significant your name and reputation is in the biblical world, which is perhaps also why we don’t appreciate the true nature of praise, magnification and glory. But that’s a discussion for another time.
I’ve also pondered whether the strange biblical theme of ‘boasting’ is connected with this. It’s strange to us, because ‘boasting’ is almost always a negative idea in our minds. But ‘boasting in the Lord’ seems to be another way of praising or magnifying him—that is, bragging to others about how great he is.
And if you want to think further about the idea that this post started with—that ‘praise’ in the Bible is like advertising—I’m going to send round a bonus article from the archives later this week on precisely that subject. You can chase through the biblical references in more detail in that piece.
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This week’s random image caught my eye (as I was browsing through ‘praise’ images online) because it kind of captures the cliche of what most people think ‘praising’ God is, while being almost the exact opposite of what praising God is in the Bible. And it was nice image.
Note to younger readers: a ‘Walkman’ is the funny little music player that Chris Pratt is obsessed with in Guardians of the Galaxy.
M. Harding, “The Biblical Concept of Praise”, in Church, Worship and the Local Congregation, (ed., B. Webb; Homebush: Lancer, 1987), 28.
See, for example, the definitions listed for megalunō in BDAG. Megalunō is the verb translated ‘to magnify’ in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46.