“Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. May the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.” (Psalms 134:2–3 NIV)
Here we are at the end of the Psalms of Ascent. This pilgrimage is over – perhaps a new one is about to begin. Our worshippers are in, or imagining themselves being in the sanctuary.
“Sanctuary” means the place of ‘holiness’. It could mean that they desire to worship in a holy way, or that they wish to worship in a holy place. Could it mean both? The place could be the whole temple area, the courts or the building reserved for the priests. For a Christian all places are ‘holy’ for worship and praise.
Praise is also a command. Praise is the goal of the trip, not the arrival, or the distraction of being a ‘tourist’ in Jerusalem. It is as if they are saying to themselves, “Now you are here, bless God”. Our praise is not dependent on our feelings. Praise helps us get our feelings back in the right place so that our emotions are our servants, not our masters, subjugated to God like all things we own. As Peterson says in, ‘A long obedience in the same direction’, “..your feelings might be flat, but you can control your muscles: lift up your hands.” There is great joy in heaven – there can be on earth too!
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
‘Bless’ appears in every verse of the Psalm – it is the key word. Earlier in the Psalm it is man blessing God, and now the roles are reversed. The difference is that man can only give God what he already has, while God’s blessing gives man what he does not have, and makes him what he is not. When God blesses us he takes into account all our needs and sets out to meet them. When we bless God we take into account his divine qualities and worship him.
The reason we praise/bless God is because he is worthy of our praise and stoops to bless us. He is the one who has taken the initiative to introduce Himself to us. We are blessed, so we bless. We give back that which we have received.
God is blessing us from Zion – in other words not a far off undiscoverable place,
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11–14)
The true Mount Zion is Jesus and he is in the midst of us for evermore,
“You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:23–24 NIV)
No wonder we praise and bless God – He is our joy.
“Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD.” (Psalms 134:1 NIV)
We have reached the final Psalm of Ascent. We began in far-distant Kedar (Psalm 120:5) and we are ending in the temple where we bless God and He blesses us. There can be a sense of anti-climax at the end of something, but not in this case. We are invited to join in the celebration and put aside whatever has been going on during the journey.
‘Praise’ can also mean ‘bless’ (the Hebrew word is ‘berakah’), both here and in verses 2 & 3. This is what God does to us and around us in our community of faith. Not only does He welcome us into covenant with Him, but He also shares His own life with us, and we get to participate in all the joys of His Spirit. The creation that belongs to Him is shared with us, and, to cap it all, the most special joy of redemption is ours too. If that is not blessing that is worth singing about I don’t know what would be. And this joy is worth sharing with others. A joy un-shared is a joy only half enjoyed.
What is going on here at night? It might be that the priests and levites are on night–duty in the temple/tabernacle. Alternatively it could be a group of pilgrims having a time of devotion during the night, or maybe keeping the Passover night festival,
“Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honour the LORD for the generations to come.” (Exodus 12:42 NIV)
In 1 Chronicles the Levitical singers are on duty day & night,
“Those who were musicians, heads of Levite families, stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night.” (1 Chronicles 9:33 NIV)
Moses summed up the role of this tribe in Deuteronomy,
“At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today.” (Deuteronomy 10:8 NIV)
Once the temple had been built they had updated duties, but worship was still the primary thing,
“They were also to stand every morning to thank and praise the LORD. They were to do the same in the evening” 1 Chronicles 23:30
The word ‘minister’ literally means ‘stand’, ‘accepted’, ‘secure’. This might not be about performing a ritual but to the fact that some priests’ job was to guard the temple at night. The temple was guarded 24/7 to make sure that it’s holiness was not compromised and so that nothing was stolen. This might seem very ‘ordinary’, but even this was seen as worship. Even our most ‘ordinary’ acts are worshipful if done with the right attitude.
Praise and blessing are the theme of this Psalm. It is as if the pilgrims are overwhelmed by the very real presence of God as they finally arrive at their destination. May this be our experience as we approach Him in humility and gratitude.