Imagine that you were born and raised in ancient Israel. The time for yet another major religious observance has arrived, and you must make the required pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. Your destination is the temple, your purpose is worship, and your motivation is thanksgiving. You leave home focused and determined; but then… the journey is long and the sun is hot, the path is unyielding, the animal that you are bringing to sacrifice is burdensome, and the caravan that you are traveling with is noisy. Now you are frustrated, and you question why it is that you must head over to Jerusalem for these feasts, time and time again.
Over the past three months of COVID lockdown, we have heard a plethora of advice regarding how to get through it “in one piece”. One strategy that’s been emphasized throughout is developing a sense of gratitude -- through journaling, meditation, and etc. In our culture, even before the lockdown, the appeal to foster gratitude seemed to have been “in vogue”: a staple of popular self-therapy, book clubs, and character ed in the schools; a frequent feature of social media feeds. The problem is that all of it seems to be done for its own sake. At the end of the day, some of us end up sharing the feelings of a hypothetical 1st century Israelite I described above - the journaling gets tedious, the life circumstances do not really lend themselves to grateful reflection, and the practice becomes burdensome when we don’t really see the point.
In contrast to that, the Scripture does not teach us to foster gratitude as an isolated feeling. Instead, it calls us to engage in thanksgiving as a gateway to worship. Worship is the response of our whole being, body, mind and soul, to being in God's presence. On the surface, we might get a similar emotional response to a beautiful piece of music, or an engaging sermon. However, to use Jesus’ words, to come to church to be thus entertained is equivalent to “looking for him because you ate your fill of loaves”. It is only out of a stance of true gratitude that God's revealed presence occurs - the true bread of heaven. Have you ever noticed that your delight in anything in the world, from a beautiful view, or great food, or an amazing book or concert, or the genius of your kid, gets magnified a thousand times when you express it in words as you describe it to someone else? So it is with God’s praise. In CS Lewis’ words,
“praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment… Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Our psalm today, number 100, was the way that one ancient Isaelite poet has managed to “completed his enjoyment” of his awareness of God’s activity. But he did it so successfully that it resonated not only with his own people, who made it into a processional chant they would recite on the way to the temple, but also with generations of Christians who have subsequently used it, similarly, as an invitation to worship in the traditional liturgy of morning prayer. It has been set to some really beautiful music by so many composers, from Purcell, Handel, and Mozart; to Mendelssohn and Britton; and it was also paraphrased in hymns, such as "All people that on earth do dwell". As a result, today, psalm 100 is among the most well-known and beloved psalms, second only to 23 or 95.
It is together with the 95 (“the Venite”, the other Morning Prayer classic), that it functions to book-end a specific group of psalms in the Psalter, called the “Enthronement Psalms” or “The Lord Reigns” (96-99), traditionally attributed to Moses. These are doxologies that echo the tone of the collection and glorify God as the rule of the universe. Psalm 100 has only 5 verses, but what a masterpiece! What a text to start your day with, to dedicate it to God as one continuous act of worship. St Jerome wrote the words that are truly made obvious by this psalm, brilliant in its simplicity:
“the Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning, and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom".
Looking at its structure, notice that it has two sections that mirror each other. Each gives 3-4 instructions on expressing praise, followed by a rationale that makes it clear why praise is to be offered. So first we have 4 instructions: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; Come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God,” and a rationale: “It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Then we have the second group of 3 instructions: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and bless his name,” followed by the second rationale: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations”.
The structure is simple. But the action words are deeply meaningful: shout (Hebrew rua - a battle cry! … impossible to do with your hands in the pockets and one eye on the phone!); worship (a word that reflects a blend of worship and service); come, know and enter (implying the true intimacy without fear); give thanks and bless (barak related to berak - kneel). Of course, these would all be empty commands if we didn’t have the two rationales, carefully chosen to include both a relational one - praise God because he makes us and shepherds us, and an ontological one - because God is hesed (i.e., lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness) who endures forever.
The most remarkable, prophetic aspect of this psalm is that it extends the invitation to worship towards “all the earth”, to all the nations, and does so centuries before St Paul finally caught on to that in God there is no Jew or Gentile. It may be difficult for us to appreciate how deeply these words would have challenged the worldview paradigm of the Israelites, whose whole system of beliefs was rooted in the understanding of the distinctiveness of its covenant relationship with Yahwe. However, we have our own biases, and we too attempt to create spiritual and physical walls to restrict our invitation to worship and friendship only to people most similar to us. Let this psalm serve as a reminder to us, too, that the temple courts we enter, as well as the entire earth, belong only to God -- not to us, or to another particular group of privileged people.
So, I hope that today I have reminded you, with the help of our good-old Jubilate, about some good reasons to cultivate a stance of gratitude in your lives, other than that of self-therapy. Next time you lose sight of this amidst the life’s challenges, why not use it as a processional Psalm you could chant at the beginning of your personal prayer or meditation time, or upon waking up in the morning by way of orienting your day towards communing with God? Why not compose, by yourself or together with your family members, a morning dedication in your own words? In doing so, may you complete your delight in God’s work in your lives by giving him the due praise and sharing it with others. Thanks be to God.