I’ve heard that tiny sliver of Psalm 22 thrown around my entire life, by pastors, church leadership, and lay people. I admit I’ve even used it myself. I think we use it for a couple of different reasons.
First, it’s a powerful method of crowd manipulation. Nothing gets a crowd’s attention like announcing God’s presence. It’s the complete opposite of saying, “Elvis has left the building.” In all honesty, it always made me feel like a holy Ed McMahon, announcing the real greatness among us. It was a perfect chance to put on some pseudo piety.
Second, it’s a simple tool for justifying an understanding of Christian worship, in which God at our own initiative is enthroned on our praises, and therefore all that is required of us is to sing (or say, preach, pray) nice thoughts and feelings about God, and that God won’t be able to resist being with us. A Facebook comment, critical of my recent post on songs I think we should stop singing, demonstrates this use of the phrase:
What? We sing many of these songs during worship in my church. Do you think God only listens to people singing 200 year old hymns? He inhabits the praises of His people no matter what they are singing.
And at first reading, Psalm 22:3 appears to say just what we want it to.
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. (KJV)
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. (NRSV)
Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. (NASB)
But there are translation issues here. We have assumed the seemingly plain statement to be correct. But it could also be rendered this way, as it is in the LXX, as well as in many recent dynamic translations:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises. (NIV)
Most commentators appear to be more convinced by the latter. Here are some examples:
The LXX reading is preferable, “Thou sittest enthroned in the temple, [the theme of] Israel’s praise.”
There is no question here that God exists, is enthroned, and has delivered the psalmist’s ancestors in their time of trouble.”
“[T]he idea that Yhwh is Israel’s praise is a familiar one (Deut. 10:21; Jer. 17:14), but the idea of Yhwh’s being enthroned on or inhabiting Israel’s praise is unparalleled, and if either of these is the psalm’s point, one might have expected it to be expressed more clearly. The fact that 3-2 is the more common line division supports the conclusion that LXX construes the line correctly.” (author’s emphasis)
It appears what this verse is really saying is that God is the Holy One, and is therefore praised by Israel. Even if the common understanding is correct, God is enthroned on Israel’s praise because of it’s content, the work and character of God, not because Israel’s praise suddenly makes God show up and park himself on all the good vibes we send his way.
Having God as “my God” rests first of all on belonging to a community for whom the center of all reality is “the holy one” who is enthroned as king in heavenly and earthly temple and whose acts of salvation are the content of Israel’s hymns of praise. It is to share the meaning and tradition of “our ancestors,” who in times of trouble trusted and cried and were delivered.
Further, there’s another huge context clue we’ve got to look at. Read the whole of Psalm 22, especially the first half. It’s written out of the unpleasant and uncomfortable reality that God seems to be absent. It’s a powerful lamentation, crying out for an invisible God. It’s similar in tone to Jesus’ anguished cry on the cross (Psalm 22 the lectionary Psalm reading for Good Friday). While this Psalm is certainly valuable for those of us who have felt God’s absence, the glib way we use verse 3, either as manipulation or justification, simply does not fit here. It is not a description of God reveling in human celebration.
The bottom line is this: the verse doesn’t give us carte blanche to sing (or preach, or pray) whatever we feel. Worship is not simply about singing and feeling nice things to God so that God will be able to take his rightful place. We cannot possibly add anything else to God’s glory by what we do in worship. God is Most High no matter what we think or feel. In worship, God is the subject, the great Mover and Shaper, and we are the ones being moved and shaped by God’s story.
I know it sounds and feels sooo good to say that God inhabits our praises, but I don’t think we can get there from this text. I certainly don’t say it anymore, and if you share any part of my doubt, I’d encourage you to do the same.