Believe it or not, noise was an important part of Hebrew worship. Today’s responsorial psalm is the noisiest psalm in the entire Book of Psalms, Psalm 150. To better understand this psalm, we have to look at the entire book as a unit.
Many of the psalms have what might be called a “key signature.” By that I mean that the first verses of the psalm are directions on how and when it was used. Sometimes these verses also tell us under what circumstances the psalm was written. However, the first two psalms lack any indication whatsoever as to how to use the psalm and when it was written. Instead, Psalm 1 and 2 form what might be called a “Forward” or “Preface” for the Book of Psalms.
Psalm 1 tells us “Happy the one who delights in the law of the Lord.” The Torah or Law was the foundation of Hebrew faith. It was regarded as the path of wisdom, the way of the righteous. One who delighted in the Law of the Lord was in right relationship with God.
Psalm 2 is a meditation on the results of failing to heed the advice of Psalm 1. Those who conspire against the Lord, who rebel against God’s reign, are doomed.
These two psalms prepare us for the prayers that are to follow. By praying the psalms, we will be schooled in the Law of the Lord and will find ourselves walking the path of right relationship with God.
The rest of the Book of Psalms can be likened to five hymnals. To be sure, there are psalms throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that are not contained in the Book of Psalms. (To avoid confusion, they are referred to as “canticles.”) However, most of the prayers of the Israelites are gathered together in this book. It was literally put together by taking five different groups of hymns and prayers and placing them in succession. Each of the groupings ends with a doxology, a statement of praise of God. The most common doxology in the Christian Church’s prayer life is the familiar “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
The last five psalms of the Book of Psalms (Psalms 146 through 150) are all doxologies, each of them calling on all of creation to praise God. Psalm 150, which forms the response for today’s liturgy, is pure praise, calling upon the people to praise God with every kind of musical instrument known to the children of Israel – trumpets, cymbals, strings, pipes, timbrels, harps, and lyres. One can imagine the cacophony such a gathering of instruments might produce.
The people of that day believed that they had to make a “loud noise” to wake up their gods. The children of Israel did not believe that their God slept or slumbered. However, they too made a loud noise when they worshipped God, not to wake their God but to send a message to those who placed their trust in idols and false gods. Think of the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. Armies that were about to clash used to raise a loud hue and cry before attacking. Making a loud noise was a way to strike fear into the heart of the enemy. It also became a way to celebrate God’s victory over the forces of evil.
So it is that the final psalm uses noise to praise God for all that has been done for the nation of Israel. It is not difficult to picture these people clanging and banging and blowing and strumming while they danced before the Ark of the Covenant. I have had the joy of singing musical settings of this psalm by many composers. Each of the compositions emphasizes the volume necessary to sing the psalm well. Make a loud noise unto the Lord.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator