Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. (Heb.13:15)
On Sunday morning, we were blessed by the performance of a black gospel singing group who tore the roof off the sanctuary with powerfully moving praise to God in the name of Jesus. There were few dry eyes in the room at many points during this time of praise music.
When I say the words “black gospel singing group”, I am not making a racial slur. On the contrary, I mention this for a specific reason. Many young people don’t know the historical roots behind black gospel music, which took shape in the midst of the suffering of inequality in the deep south of America. The Civil War was won by the North, but racial discrimination didn’t end there. In fact, for many blacks, it increased. This is not a post about racial discrimination, but this illustrates the lesson we must understand concerning praise in the Bible.
Black gospel praise music is powerful in ways that contemporary Christian music often isn’t, because it is rooted in pain and suffering.
The cry of genuine faith reaches its greatest crescendo when it goes forth from the valley of darkness.
The writer of Hebrews is directly quoting Hosea in his exhortation. In the early 60’s CE, the believing Jews in Jerusalem were being banned from the Temple Mount by the Sanhedrin. It was a dark and discouraging time for the Jewish believers in Jesus in Jerusalem, and many were buckling to pressure from the Jewish leadership to renounce their faith in order to remain in connection to the worship system they had grown up with and held dear. The writer of Hebrews understood that they needed to remember their great High Priest in the heavenly realm during such times, and echoes the prophet of Israel:
Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity And receive us graciously, That we may present the fruit of our lips.” (Hos.14:2)
The word “fruit” is actually the word “bulls” in the Hebrew. This is a sacrifice of praise. Why is it a sacrifice? Because they don’t feel much like offering it. Things aren’t going too well for them. But the prophet Hosea tells the people to “take words” and offer up the “bulls of their lips” before the LORD.
In our consumer-driven American way of life, which so highly prizes individualism and personal achievement, it is fashionable in our Christian sub-culture to have an expectation of God’s blessing and abundance at every turn of the sun and moon. Day by day, we are taught that we should be experiencing ever greater blessings, being lifted to newer and more glorious heights than the day before, or something is wrong. We consider it “suffering” when we merely fail to reach our goals and expectations. Yet, for Israel, both in Bible times and since the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, exile from the Promised Land has been a centuries-long reality which spans many generations, carving memories of pain and loss, creating a somber spirit.
Imagine being a Jew in the 16th century in Europe, and having “Christians”, stirred by Martin Luther’s scathing polemic “On Jews and Their Lies”, burn down your local community center, as well as your sacred writings. What if everything you cherished, which gave meaning and purpose to your life, is burned before your eyes and you could not stop it? Would you want to praise God for His loving-kindness and faithful provision in that moment?
Or how about a mother who sacrifices for 30 years in order to raise good sons who love God and will carry the family name on with honor, only to have them leave for war and to be killed overseas in a conflict rooted in baseless hatred? How does she bring the “bulls of her lips” to the Lord?
The answer (really, the only answer) is that it is only possible when we focus on the ultimate redemption promised to us in scripture. Our hope is not in our current circumstances. Our hope is in the World to Come. Sometimes we face stark and painful reminders of this fact.
David, as a prophetic psalmist, captured the essence of this dilemma. He understood the dream-like quality of focusing on the blessings which have not yet arrived:
When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South. Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. he who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126)
It’s important to understand that David is writing prophetically here. The key promise of the passage is in the final verse: Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. The bag of seed, then, is the praise of the saints sown in sorrow, but they shall in the end reap a harvest of joy.
This is a consistent messianic promise in the Bible which is tied to the final redemption and the advent of the Kingdom Age, as found in Isaiah:
He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. (Is.25:8)
The Talmud also speaks of this dilemma in its discussion of reverence in prayer:
One is forbidden to fill his mouth with mirth in this world, as long as we are in exile, as it is stated: “When the Lord returns the captivity of Zion we will be as dreamers” (Psalm 126:1). Only “then will our mouths fill with laughter and our lips with song” (Psalm 126:2). When will that joyous era arrive? When “they will say among nations, the Lord has done great things with these” (Psalm 126:2). They said about Reish Lakish that throughout his life he did not fill his mouth with laughter in this world once he heard this statement… (Berakhot 31a, Steinsaltz edition)
It’s important to understand the distinctions being made here. The Talmud is not saying that one should not experience joy, but rather that one should cultivate an attitude of somber reverence. Getting caught up in the frivolity and wanton lusts of this present world is unbecoming for a child of the Kingdom. Our hope does not lie in the passing pleasures of this current life, but in the hope that lies before us, which so far exceeds anything that this present world can deliver.
Sure, we should celebrate our successes. We should set goals, and strive to achieve them. God has made us to do so and we need not apologize for this, nor should we act as though our failures mean nothing to us. The truth is that it is deeply hurtful to experience rejection, to be treated disdainfully, to be marginalized by a heartless culture. These feelings are genuine and the pain is real.
A wise servant of God will remember the words of Ecclesiastes:
It is better to go to a house of mourning Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart. (Eccl.7:2)
This is why the great apostle Paul declares in Phillipians to rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! It is the privilege of the one who calls Christ Lord to suffer, and to praise God in the midst of this suffering. It is a crown of glory, in fact, which will pass beyond the grave. This is why black gospel music can be, at times, so much more powerful than the navel-gazing self-reflectiveness which characterizes much of the modern “worship” scene. The music was born from a place of pain and desperate longing. A longing for justice, a longing for comfort, for validation. It is part of the common consciousness of a people which carries on through generations. The Jewish people know this pain well.
We have a psychological need to be loved and to feel as though our life has meaning, especially at such times when these values seem so distant from us that we will never experience them again. Perhaps Paul understood the loneliness and desperateness of abandonment. He had left the status of the Beit Midrash of Gamaliel, and had decided to follow Christ. Further, the very people he was trying to minister to were rejecting his ministry. He was left estranged from his people, as well as from those the Lord called him to. He had few friends. He suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally. The prosperity gospel would not have found fertile soil in Paul’s mind. He likely would listen to Joel Osteen and declare the popular pastor’s words to be the “vain doctrines of men”. Rather, Paul had a different way of dealing with the pain and disappointments of his life. He found victory and comfort by reflecting upon the work of his Lord on the cross, and the ever-present reality of his resurrection from the dead. Paul’s meaning in this life was found in the next one. This is why he proclaims:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phil.4:8)
We must dwell on that which is worthy of praise. If nothing in your life can be celebrated at the moment, remember that there is always one thing which can be celebrated even in the darkest moments: The Lord God and His Son, Jesus, who has overcome the world.