Hallel: An anthem of praise and thanksgiving
A national anthem is a song that celebrates a nation’s history, struggles and traditions. It’s a patriotic song that’s sung at important events. The book of Psalms was the Israelites song book. They would have memorized these songs and sung them regularly. The Hallel psalms (113-118) were sung at their three main festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:1-17). They seem to be equivalent to a national anthem in ancient Israel.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted at the last supper when Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. The Biblical account finishes, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26NIV). The hymn they sang (chanted) was probably one of the Jewish Hallel (praise) psalms (Ps. 113-118). Apparently, Psalms 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal and Psalms 115-118 after the meal. So, the final song may have been Psalms 115-118 or Psalm 118. The Hebrew verb halal (Strongs #1984) means to praise, celebrate, glory or boast. And Hallelujah (hallel-Yah) means to praise Yahweh (the Hebrew word for God).
The Hallel psalms show that God’s people can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. This pattern of songs of praise and thanksgiving can be traced back to the exodus (Ex. 15:1-21). After the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a “song to the Lord” about what God had just done (defeated their enemy) and what He was about to do (the conquest of Canaan).
Here’s a summary of the Hallel psalms.
The theme is to praise God because He is great and gracious. To be gracious is to be kind and generous. He is great because He is matchless and omniscient (all knowing). He is gracious because he helped the needy then and He helps us in our spiritual need. So the Jews praised God because of His attributes and His actions. This psalm begins and ends with “Praise the Lord” (or hallelujah in Hebrew). We can also praise God for who He is and what He does. He is still great and His kindness is shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus. If you are needy, call upon the great God to be gracious to you.
The theme is to respect God’s awesome power in the Exodus. His power was shown in crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. And in the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai that caused the Israelites to tremble in fear (Ex. 19:16-18). And providing water from a rock. These miracles were a demonstration of God’s power. We can also respect God’s awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
Before the meal
At the beginning of the annual Passover celebration, the Jews chanted psalms 113-114. This reminded them that their God was great and gracious and that this was demonstrated in the exodus. Like the Jews recalled psalms 113 -114 before the Passover meal, we can praise God when we recall God’s greatness and kindness shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus, and His awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
So, let’s praise the Lord – “Now and for evermore” and “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets” (Ps. 113:2-3). That means continually and everywhere! That’s what the Jews did in the Hallel and what Christians did in the early church (Acts 2:46-47).
The theme is to praise the Lord for His love and faithfulness. The absence of miracles caused foreigners to question the existence of Israel’s God. But Israel’s invisible God is greater than their idols. God is trustworthy and will reward the Israelites. It looks ahead saying that God will bless those who trust in Him. And it ends with “Praise the Lord”. We can also praise the Lord for His love shown through the sacrifice of Jesus. Let’s glorify God in all we say and do (1 Cor. 10:31). And not use Him like an idol to get what we want. Are we willing to trust God in difficult circumstances?
The theme is to praise God for deliverance from death. When in a dangerous situation, God heard the psalmist’s cry for help and he was rescued. His grateful response is to obey and serve the Lord. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. The Jews applied this psalm to their exodus from slavery in Egypt. We can also praise the Lord and obey and serve Him for our deliverance from spiritual death through Jesus and for the resultant spiritual blessings.
The theme is for the Gentiles to praise God for His great love toward Israel. God’s love for Israel affects their destiny. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. Indeed, today God’s salvation is available to people of all nations. We can also praise God for His great love for us in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The theme is to thank God for deliverance from enemies. He answered their call for help. The psalm begins and ends with thanksgiving, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever” (v.1, 29). The Israelites give thanks for deliverance and victory over their enemies (v.5-21). They repeat “God has become my salvation (or deliverer)” (v. 14, 21). They are reminded of the exodus (Ex. 15:2). God rescued them from their enemies. And they respond with rejoicing (v.22-27).
They sing, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22). This probably referred to the king who was now exalted instead of being rejected. It’s a metaphor that describes his changed circumstances. He was like a stone which was discarded by the builders as useless, but now he is important to God like the cornerstone of a building. Imagine Jesus singing “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” on the night before He was rejected and crucified. The Bible applies this verse to Jesus (Mt. 21:42; 23:39; Acts 4:11-12; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pt. 2:7). We can also apply it to Jesus. Let’s exalt Him in a world that rejects Him.
They also sing, “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” (v.24NET). They were rejoicing on the day of their victory and deliverance. Imagine Jesus singing “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” on the night before He was crucified. He brought about a great victory and deliverance for us that we can be happy and rejoice in.
They also sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This probably refers to the one who with God’s help has defeated the enemies. The crowds shouted these words during Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mt. 21:9; Mk. 11:9; Lk. 19:38; Jn. 12:13). Imagine Jesus singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” four days after the crowds had shouted it to Him and knowing what was about to happen! We can also apply it to Jesus. He indeed was sent by God the Father.
Psalm 118 ends with praise and thanksgiving, “You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you” (v. 28). And everyone joins in, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever”. God delivered the Jews physically, while Jesus delivers us spiritually. Let’s praise and thank God for delivering us from the penalty and power of sin.
This psalm may also be sung at the second coming of Christ by those who believe in Him during the tribulation. In this case it celebrates God’s final victory over evil.
After the meal
Like the Jews recalled psalms 115 -118 after the Passover meal, we can praise the Lord for His love in delivering us from spiritual death (which is the penalty of our sin) through the sacrifice of Jesus. That was a great victory for which we should be grateful, thankful, and joyful. It also means to respond by obeying and serving the Lord. It’s a change from slavery to service.
An anthem of praise
In the Hallel we see that God raises the needy (113), delivers the oppressed (114), is superior to idols (115); receives personal praise (116), national praise (118) and will receive global praise (117). Praise is mentioned nine times and thanks is mentioned six times. And four of the six psalms finish with “Praise the Lord”. So the theme of the Jewish “national anthem” is praise and thanksgiving.
In the Hallel the Jews looked back with gratitude to God’s past acts of salvation (the exodus and the giving of the Torah) and ahead with confidence to God’s future blessings. We can also look back and look ahead. Back to Christ’s death and resurrection, which is God’s greatest act of salvation. And ahead to the finalization of our salvation when we leave this earth to meet the Lord in the air. And to when Christ returns as the powerful Messiah to establish His kingdom on earth. That’s why we can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. What’s your anthem? Is it characterized by praise and thanksgiving?
Written, July 2017