“The Politics of Praise” Excerpt: Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

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Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

Some years back I took a tour of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The religious nature of the place struck me. I do not mean Christian, but religious. The giant buildings, the beautiful architecture of the monuments, the larger than life sculptures of national figures all evoke awe and wonder from visitors. When I stood in the Capitol Rotunda at the east end of the Mall, I looked up at the giant fresco Constantino Brumidi painted on the inside of the Capitol’s Dome. In “The Apotheosis of Washington,” George Washington, representing America as a whole, sits in the heavens, surrounded by goddesses and figures of ancient mythology as he becomes a god. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial people mourn and pray for loved ones who died in that war. The area around the black stone wall is as hushed and solemn as a church sanctuary before a funeral.

At the west end of the National Mall the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits on his throne gazing out over America like the Greek god Zeus. Consider the epitaph, dripping with sacred terminology, inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The National Mall’s architecture and sculpture are as religious as the Vatican’s. The buildings and statues urge us to revere the nation and the government they represent. Being at the National Mall reminded me religion and politics inhabit the same space. Politics will adopt religious language and symbolism and religion has its own political agendas.

Many people find the idea of mixing Christian faith with politics troubling. We worry religion will force itself on the state and seek to establish a theocratic dictatorship, or the state will co-opt religion for its own purposes, confusing patriotism for our commitment to God’s kingdom. To be sure, we have historical examples of these negative outcomes happening. Thus we hear voices telling us not to mix faith and politics, to keep faith out of the seats of government, and to keep politics out of the pulpit.

Eugene Peterson addresses our hesitation to mix religion and politics:

The people who warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills—crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “Mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer.[1]

For followers of Jesus, keeping religion and politics separate is a dangerous move that relegates faith to the private sphere where we reduce prayer to mere requests for personal comfort and blessing. We also reduce Jesus to a self-help guru whose only concern is our fulfillment. Despite the serious malfunctions of Christianity’s political involvement, we also see magnificent benefits for the common good when Christians have brought their faith into the public square—the Civil Rights movement in the United States under the very religious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. being an obvious example.

Readers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures cannot escape the deeply political nature of these texts. God does not deal only with the private lives of the people of Israel and the Church. We see God shaping and clashing with people groups, including nations and governments. Neither does God use political terms like justice and peace as if they are empty containers void of any concrete meaning. Rather, God defines these concepts. We read about Yahweh’s expectations for neighbors to peacefully interact with each other. The Bible brims with God imploring people to act justly toward the most vulnerable people in society.

The majority of God’s people throughout history have learned to pray using the psalms. If we mediate on them they will teach us how to pray for our civic life, that is, how to safely mix religion and politics. This devotional will guide readers through praying Psalms 72 and 146, two psalms that shaped the political and religious life of the people of Israel. These psalms offer us a vision of God’s political agenda and give us the means to hold our leaders accountable. They do not exhaust all the Book of Psalms or the Bible say about politics, but the pictures of justice and wellbeing found in them are consistent with other political passages in Scripture.

Readers will pray through Psalm 146 first. This brief hymn minimizes the importance of government leaders, praises Yahweh for being eternal and powerful, and describes God’s political agenda. Praying Psalm 146 will correctly order our relationships with God and our political leaders. The psalmist reminds us of the transience of government officials and their agendas. If we were to only pray Psalm 146, however, we might think God says governments are unimportant. Therefore readers will then pray through Psalm 72, a prayer for governmental leaders. The psalmist describes the kind of good governance that God blesses. This prayer becomes our measure for how well our leaders do their job.

How do we maintain our focus on God when we stand before those majestic statues on the National Mall? How do we keep our commitment to Yahweh first even as other powers, especially our governments, demand our allegiance? How do we pursue God’s agenda in public and hold our leaders accountable to that agenda? I believe the answer to all these questions must start with prayer. In this devotional guide I will not offer a comprehensive vision for how Christians are to engage in public and civic life. I do know, however, that a comprehensive vision of mixing faith and politics will be anemic if it does not begin and remain saturated with prayer.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) Kindle Edition, locations 103-105.

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New Book Release, “The Politics of Praise”

I have published a new daily devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146In the book readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146, meditating on one verse at a time. These prayer-poems formed the political life of ancient Israel. If we pray them we will also find God shaping our values and political agendas. The writer of Psalm 146 minimizes the importance of governmental leaders as he recounts Yahweh’s acts of great power and commitment to justice for people on society’s margins. Psalm 72’s author offers a prayer for the king to rule justly, care for the oppressed, and have God’s blessing. Paired together these psalms exhibit a dynamic picture of God’s political agenda.

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When we face the temptation to confuse our commitment to the kingdom of God with our commitment to our country, the writer of Psalm 146 reminds us hope and salvation come from Yahweh alone. When we want to write off governmental leaders as useless at best or obstructions to God’s purposes at worst, the writer of Psalm 72 gives us words to pray for our leaders so that they might be held accountable to God’s political agenda.

Along with thirty-two daily readings and reflections, The Politics of Praise also contains brief essays on Yahweh’s political agenda and how praying these psalms aligns our priorities with God’s. Other essays explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. Two appendices at the end of the guide describe some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalms, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

The Politics of Praise is available at Amazon.com for $3.99 on the Kindle format, or $7.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

I have written three other self-published devotionals on various psalms: Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. Eddy Ekmekji and I co-wrote an Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light. All these books are available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author pages at Amazon and Facebook.

Our First and Last Word: “On the Glorious Splendor” Excerpt

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

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Our First and Last Word

Praise is the beginning and end of our prayer life, framing all of our speech directed toward God. When we first meet the powerful creator God of the universe, we naturally respond with awe and worship. We realize we are not God, nature is not divine, and our nations, economies, militaries, material goods, and families are not supernatural. In praise we meet Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is in control, loyally loving all of creation, establishing justice and peace. Coming before Yahweh and exclaiming praise is the intended state for humanity. Therefore in the Book of Psalms we find numerous examples of and calls to worship Yahweh. A right relationship with this God requires exuberant, abundant praise.

This short guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 145, a prayer-poem that enthusiastically expresses “glad astonishment”[1] at God’s greatness and goodness. The psalmist marvels at the great power of God seen through works of creation, sustenance, and salvation. The psalmist also proclaims Yahweh’s goodness is evident through God’s graciousness, mercy, patience, and deep commitment to people.

Psalm 145 is a model of praise. The psalmist focuses all the attention on Yahweh, not on himself, or even on what God has done for the psalmist. Though the psalmist mentions God’s works, he does so only in the most general terms. The emphasis lies on what those works reveal about Yahweh’s character. The psalmist shows praise is incomplete until we declare God’s greatness and goodness to others.

The God-focused nature of biblical praise may come as a surprise to Christians in the West since so much of the church music we call, “Praise and Worship,” seems to be more about the singer and his or her psychological wellbeing than about God’s greatness and goodness. The psalms of praise correct our self-absorption, or as the Hebrew Bible scholar Claus Westermann explains: “In praise I am directed entirely toward the one whom I praise, and this means, of necessity, in that moment a looking away from myself.”[2]

The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer and praise if we simply slow down and allow their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.

Praise, however, is not just an appropriate response to encountering Yahweh’s greatness. It also sets norms and expectations for our relationship with God. The praise psalms describe the world as it should be. In them we see God is gracious and patient and we humans are to respond with worship and obedience. The content of our praise allows us to move to the other forms of prayer found in the Psalms. The claims we make in worship become the basis of our lamentation when we encounter injustice and suffering. God should be in control, life should be characterized by peace and justice. The psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 88) acknowledge we have moved away from the ordered peace of the praise psalms and they call out to God to again assert control and deliver us. The writers of the lament psalms often hope and promise to return to praise once God rescues them from the calamity. The psalms of thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 34) are that return to praise, recalling both the trouble the writer experienced, as well as the salvation Yahweh brought about. In their own way, lament and thanksgiving assert a life dedicated to worshiping Yahweh is the best life possible.

As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. If you are in a season of peace and justice, gladly follow Psalm 145’s worshipful design. Let the psalm usher you into a reality in which God is active and gracious, showing deep loyalty to all of creation. If you face trouble and question where God is, it may be more appropriate to spend time with a psalm of lament, or perhaps you can let the words of Psalm 145 shape your prayers by saying, “God, aren’t you supposed to be great and good, like the descriptions I read in this psalm?” The author of Psalm 145 calls us to meditate on God’s powerful works and what these acts reveal about Yahweh’s abundant goodness. Receive the invitation to drink deeply from these words. Do not rush. Allow the wonder of Yahweh to overwhelm you.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 60.

[2] Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 27.

New Book Release: “On the Glorious Splendor”

I have just published a new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. The book helps readers meditate one verse at a time through Psalm 145, a beautiful prayer-poem of worship that praises God for being powerful and generous. The psalmist stands in awe of God’s works of creation as well as Yahweh’s loyal commitment to people. By meditating on the evocative imagery in the psalm, we are encouraged to find new ways to express our wonder.

While praise may at times spontaneously burst forth from our mouths, the people of Israel and the Christian Church have also learned worship is a discipline. It requires practice. Too often we believe the voices around us who tell us God is not real and we have to control our own destinies. Praise brings about a correct orientation in which Yahweh is acknowledged as the God who is in control. By giving our allegiance to this God, all the other gods in our lives — nations, economies, etc. — are put in their right place.

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Along with the daily readings and reflections, On the Glorious Splendor also contains brief essays that explore power of praise to create a new world as well as explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

On the Glorious Splendor is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format, or $5.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

My first self-published devotionals, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 and My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88 are also available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author page at Amazon.

Surprise, Lament, and the Maladjusted

This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He describes our need to foster surprise. I would say that surprise is a necessary part of our relationship with God. Our surprise at God’s greatness and goodness leads to praise. Our surprise at evil and suffering allows us to lament. And our surprise at salvation gives rise to thanksgiving. I’ve used this quotation before, but it is so good that it demands repeating from time to time. Heschel said:

I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

The psalms of lament similarly show a lack of accommodation to evil and violence. In fact the writers of the laments are utterly surprised by evil because they believe that God is good and that peace and justice are supposed to define this life. Out of their surprise the psalmists complain and protest. The psalms of lament keep us maladjusted and give us words to combat injustice.

For those who want to explore the prayer of lament more, I have written a brief devotional on one of the psalms of lament, entitled, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. It is available both as an eBook in the Kindle format and in paperback.