Hallel Psalms and Christian Worship – Dr. Scott Redd

Hallel-FinalcoverFor every compilation we release we ask someone to write a short article to frame the collection of songs.  I’m especially excited for you all to read this article by Scott Redd for our most recent compilation on the Hallel Psalms (113-118).   Scott and I went to seminary together and I worked briefly with him a few years back at my current church in Raleigh – Christ the King.  Besides being the newly minted president of RTS-DC he is a brilliant scholar (PhD in OT), pastor, and friend.

“Hallel Psalms and Christian Worship
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The Psalter is not only ancient Israel’s hymnal, consisting of corporate praise and prayer to God; it is also its teaching, preaching exhortation, and admonition to the assembly. As Israel’s earliest liturgical expression, it proclaims the good news of the covenant that worship transmits down the generations.[1]

The psalter has presented readers with a multitude of ways to divide, categorize, and sort its collection of songs, poems, prayers, and hymns, but one of the oldest classifications is the small subgroup known as the hallēl psalms.  The term hallēl  is a Hebrew classification derived from a word meaning “to praise” or “to cheer.”

The Egyptian Hallel

These psalms have a long tradition in both Jewish and Christian liturgical practice.  Among the more frequently used of the Hallel are the “Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113-118), so-named because of the description of the Exodus in Psalm 114 and their connection with the Passover Seder meal. It is interesting to point out that the Greek translation of these psalms all begin with the Greek transcription of the Hebrew verb allelouia meaning “praise the Lord,” even though the Hebrew word is only present in the Psalms 113.[2]  This addition in the Greek translation of these psalms indicates that they were understood to comprise a subcategory already at an early stage of the development of the Psalter

The Egyptian Hallel (EH) were commonly used during the great festivals of the Old Testament period.  Early Jewish texts describe how they were sung during Sukkoth (Booths), Hanukkah, the first day of Passover, and the Shabu’oth (Pentecost or Weeks).  During the Passover Seder meal, Psalms 113-114 were sung prior to the second cup of wine (following the answering of the children’s questions [see Exod 12:26-27]) while Psalms 115-118 were sung near the end following the hand-washing and right before the fourth cup of wine.[3]

It is also historically likely that the EH comprised the hymn sung by Jesus and his disciples following the Last Supper as recorded in Matt 26:30 (cf. Mark 14:26).[4]  Over the course of its history, the Christian church has incorporated the EH into its liturgical repertoire, and it is not hard to understand why in light of Christ’s apparent usage of the psalms.  The possibility of worshiping as Jesus worshiped, not to mention the suitability of the Psalms 113-118 to the setting of the Passover Seder meal and the subsequent Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is a prospect so exhilarating that it would be difficult for the follower of Jesus to pass it up.

The use of the EH in the Last Supper, as a Passover meal, provides us with one of the few instances of a liturgy being directly connected to an actual sacramental practice.  One thinks perhaps of the Aaronic blessing (Num 6:23-27), but there are not many such cases of liturgy and sacrament, of even liturgy and sacred calendar, being so closely associated (for example, the “Songs of Ascent” [Psalms 120-134] and the yearly feasts).

Because of their use in the Last Supper, the EH have been incorporated in the Christian liturgy surrounding the Lord’s Supper.  Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) developed an approach to Reformed eucharistic liturgy that included a recitation not only of the Gloria and the Apostles’ Creed but also Psalm 113.[5]  The 1542 Genevan Psalter of John Calvin called for use of several of the EH in the Communion liturgy.  After the sacrament had been received by the people, they were to respond with, among other psalms, Psalms 113, 116, 117, or 118.  The Genevan sacramental liturgy then was completed with the administration of the Aaronic blessing (Num 6:23-26).[6]

For the Worshipping Community

As mentioned above, the EH seem particularly suited to events of Passover and the Lord’s Supper.  Their recitation populates these sacramental meals with images of deliverance, covenant, and thanksgiving, and their poetic rhythm brings all of the participants together in a corporate act of claiming God’s blessings in both the past and the future.

As a collection, the EH offers a succinct liturgical text that engages multiple aspects of the worshiping experience.  With the words of the EH, the worshipers are able to participate in uniquely covenantal worship[7]:  prayers of supplication, appropriation, story-telling, and praise.

1. In supplication, the worshipers place the needs and desires before the Lord, relying on him for these particular concerns as well as every blessing of life.  See Psalm 115, 118.

2. In appropriation, the worshipers lay claim to God’s blessings by the very act of thanking and praising him for them.   Old describes appropriation like this,

By giving thanks for God’s gifts, one appropriated them to one’s own use (see 1 Tim 4:3-4).  This is an old principle of biblical prayer.  Giving thanks blesses or consecrates the gifts one has received so that one may use those gifts for one’s own enjoyment and profit.[8]

By acknowledging the Lord as the source of their blessings, the faithful implicitly lay claim to the fruit of that blessing and their subsequent use of it.  This is an important, but often ignored, aspect of biblical worship. See Psalm 113, 118.

3. Story-telling is similar to appropriation though it extends beyond it by giving expression to the history of redemption as the autobiography of the worshiping community.  The gathered community recounts to each other the story of their salvation and the hope that they expect from the future in light of it.  In the case of the Lord’s Supper, the recitation of the story is also performed in the sacrament, which is both representative (sign) and powerful (seal) as a means of grace.[9] See Psalm 114, 116, 118.

4. Lastly, praise is worship that reflects the glory of God back to him, celebrating his attributes, recruiting the nations to similar praise, and acknowledges God’s uniquely worship-worthy character. See Psalm 113, 115, 117. [10]

If read in succession, the EH are plainly covenantal in that they lay hold of the blessings of the past, e.g., justice for the weak (Psalm 113,) Exodus (Psalm 114), God’s faithfulness and lordship (Psalm 115).  They provide an individual song of petition and thanksgiving (Psalm 116),  a call for global worship (Psalm 117), and a royal song of future victory for God’s faithful (Psalm 118).

The EH bring the worshiper into the drama of the redemptive act.  In the context of the Last Supper, it is particularly poignant to read the lines of Psalm 118 in light of the betrayal that is to follow it for Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane:

I will not die, but I will live,

and proclaim the works of the LORD.

The Lord has surely disciplined me,

but he has not given me over to death.

 Open for me the gates of salvation,

that I may enter into them; I will thank the Lord.

(Ps 118:17-19; my translation)

In the ancient Israelite setting of these verses, the resolute stance of these lines looks forward to a day of opposition and resilience, preservation perhaps in the face of persecution.  On Christ’s tongue, however, they take the shape of an imminent existential dilemma.  How will he die and yet be delivered from death that he might enter the “gates of salvation”?  Of course, the answer goes to the heart of the Christian’s hope, that through death, Christ conquered death so that he and those he brings with him might live again to proclaim the works of the Lord.  This final psalm of the EH is part of that hope, because, in itself, it represents the proclamation for which the singer yearns.

EH in Practice

The EH are well-suited to the calendar of Holy Week for those who observe the practice of the sacred calendar.  The six psalms can be divided up among the six days that lead up to the Easter Sunday worship.  Each day can be opened and closed with a reading and meditation on its respective psalm, not only as a text by itself but in the broader story of redemption and its climax in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The EH can be read morning and evening of the three days of the Triduum (Evening of Maundy Thursday through Resurrection Sunday), so that Psalms 113-114 are read morning and evening respectively on Good Friday, Psalms 115-116 are read morning and evening respectively on Holy Saturday, and Psalms 117-118 are read morning and evening respectively on Resurrection Sunday.  The thematic arc of the EH fit well with the themes of these days within the Holy Week.  The tone of thankfulness for past blessing (Psalms 113, 114) sets the mood of Good Friday.  Faithfulness in the face of doubt (Ps 115:2), and desperate prayer for deliverance (Ps 116:1) attend to the solemn tone of Holy Saturday.  The triumphal proclamation (Psalms 117, 118) gives voice to the joy of Easter.

Furthermore, many churches observe a Good Friday service, which could be structured around a reading, both individually and collectively of the EH, interspersed with a short homily or meditation of each psalm.  For those churches with the resources, some of the EH (Psalm 116 or 117, for instance) could be put to song.

In corporate worship, the EH can be sung antiphonally, as was the practice in rabbinic Judaism and is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sotah 30b).  The worship leader might experiment with call and response where the congregation responds with a refrain, whether from within the particular psalm or from Psalm 117, which serves as a sort of refrain for the entire EH family.

Regardless of how they are used, the EH provide a poignant, biblical liturgy by which a worshiping community can give vibrant expression to the personal work of the redemption they have received due to the accomplished work of Jesus Christ.  Using the EH for Easter worship, or simply as a text for the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning, is a wonderful way to connect one’s community to the doxological practice of the communion of saints in history.

[1] Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 195.

[2] In the Greek, Psalm 113 unites what is Psalm 114 and 115 in the Hebrew, and so there is no discrete psalm equivalent to the Psalm 115 of the Hebrew text.  As a result Psalm 113:9 of the Greek matches Psalm 115:1 of the Hebrew, but the transcription allelouia does not appear in either text.

[3] See Pesaḥim 9.6-7.  The Mishnah also describes how the Levites sang the EH as they prepared and slaughtered the paschal lamb: “If they finished [the EH], they sang it anew, and if they finished it a second time they sang it a third time, although it never happened that they thrice completed it.  R. Judah says: Never during the turn of the third group did they reach so far as I love the Lord because he had heard [my voice], since the folk in that group were but few” (Pesaḥim 5.7).

[4] Lightfoot is confident on the question.  After describing the use of the Hallel in later Passover meals, he write, “it is certain he used the hymn, as the evangelist tells us” (J. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica [4 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859; repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997], 353).

[5] Old, Worship, 128.

[6] Old, Worship, 130.

[7] Old classifies this as covenantal doxology, because it “emphasizes that when the assembly of God’s people is united in sacral bond, giving thanks for the works of redemption, confessing their covenantal obligations, and witnessing to the faithfulness of God, then God is worshiped.”  Hughes Oliphant Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology: Some Thoughts on the Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), 111; He categorizes Psalm 116 as such  (pp. 126-127).

[8] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2002) 113.

[9] James K.A. Smith discusses this aspect of liturgy, both sacred and profane, in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Volume 2 of Cultural Liturgies; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013) 108-110.

[10] Old’s term kerygmatic doxology would refer to praise in the main though it would no doubt refer to several of the above categories (Themes and Variations, 91).

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