When I was involved with congregational-based community organizing in Chicago, I disliked the staged protests we were encouraged to do — with lots of planned clapping and cheering, meant to show our power of numbers and commitment to whatever leader we were addressing. It reminded me too much of the required pep rallies we had to attend in high school, expected to shout and clap as our cheerleaders symbolically demonstrated belittling and wiping out the “enemy” — our opposing team.
It really is quite easy to think that the psalms of praise to God as King were used in the context of something like a pep rally. “Clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth. He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet” (Ps. 47:1-3). Go go, God our great warrior! 1, 2, 3, 4, knock ’em out ’til they breathe no more!
Then verse 7 calls us up short to ask us to think about the nature and aim of our praise: “For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.”
Here the gesture of praise is both cultivated and subverted, the energy of the pep rally called forth and then interrogated. Do we really know what it means to pray to God as King of all the earth? Queen of all the universe? Or in one of the few metaphors of final authority that might still resonate in a non-monarchical but very capitalist society: where the buck stops?
Many of us know that generations of Christians praying meditatively with the psalms have identified the enemies of the people as our interior demons, not other nations or ethnic groups. Similarly, praying the warrior praise psalms from the position of being down and out — or an underdog — can work against the surface invitation of the psalm to demonize our neighbors and to justify warmongering.
Think about these lines from Ps. 47 (8-9), rendered in the foreign-sounding frankness of the King James Version: “God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of his holiness. The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong onto God: he is greatly exalted.”
To sing this psalm with understanding, we need to open our hearts to see that God’s sovereignty means something larger than God knocking out our enemies (even though this image, elsewhere in the psalms, has its own kind of comfort). Ultimately we hear: whatever threatens us from other people, they are not greater than the power of God their maker. The shields of the earth belong to God — the ways of God are not with the weapons, but with all that we use to defend our common well-being.
This is something more in the spirit of the fans at a home game clapping when an injured player from the other team gets up and is able to skate off the ice, walk off the court or field, still intact.
Whether we’re praying this psalm in the heat of a Pentecostal or charismatic worship service, or in the boring-to-watch but inwardly energized space of shared lectio, if we pray it with understanding, we are praising a God who cannot be undone by anything that happens to us, anything we do to one another . . . a God who still holds together and rejuvenates our world. Can we witness this truth even amid our fears, even amid witnessing atrocity and loss?