The Expressions of Praise: Our Hebrew Legacy
by Dr. Roy Blizzard
The many songs of praise found in the Old Testament, notably in the Psalms, give abundant evidence that praise formed a significant part of Hebrew worship. Praise is equally important in our Christian experience; indeed, it is part of the rich heritage of the Jewish roots of our faith. Too often, however, we do not understand praise in its full biblical expressions.
What is praise? How do we praise? In English, the word "praise" simply means "an expression of approval, esteem, or commendation." Although this can help us understand how we use the word, it does not begin to explain what praise is meant to be in a biblical sense, or how it is to be utilized in our daily lives. To find the answers to these questions, we must look at "praise" and examine it in light of how it was first used in the Bible.
As you probably know, much of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew. And in the Hebrew language there are many different words which have been translated into English as "praise." There also are a number of words that relate to the concept of praise. Let's look briefly at a few of these words, see how each is used, and then note their various shades of meaning.
The first word we will note that is translated as "praise" in English is the Hebrew word barach (bah-RACH). Barach means "to kneel," "to bless," or "to adore with bended knee." When used by man with reference to God, it means "to endue with power for success, prosperity, and long life." To barach (or bless) the Lord is to adore Him on bended knee in reverence and love. To adore the Lord literally means to worship Him. But here we are faced with a dilemma: if we worship Him, what do we do? When we hear the word "worship," most of us think of form or ceremony or ritual--but this is not what worship means at all. Worship is simply an attitude of our innermost being directed toward God. Barach is a beautiful expression of that attitude, as shown by David in Psalm 103:1-2:
Bless (barach) the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me,
Bless his holy name.
Bless (barach) the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all his benefits.
The next Hebrew word translated many times as "praise" is halal (hah-LAHL). Halal comes from a Semitic root that means "to shout" or "to cry aloud," and it is used in almost 100 passages in the Old Testament. To halal praise is "to shout for joy, to rejoice, to be sincerely and deeply thankful."
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens;
Praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his messengers;
Praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon;
Praise ye him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
And ye waters that are above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord;
For he commanded, and they were created.
In this passage, every time the word "praise" is used in English, it is the Hebrew halal.
Another Hebrew word that is used in the context of "praise" is the word gadal (gah-DAHL). It is translated into English principally as "magnify." This is an important word for us because it is used many times in poetry as a synonym for praise.
O magnify (gadal) the Lord with me;
And let us exalt his name together.
Gadal literally means "to cause to become great," and it calls on the worshiper to ascribe greatness to the Lord and to His name.
Zamar and Shir
The Hebrew word zamar (za-MAHR) means "to make music to God." A zimra is "a song" or "music." Zamir means "to sing," and a mizmor is "a psalm."
Shir (sheer) means basically "a song," and carries with it the more specific meaning of vocal music. The rabbis explained that a mizmor was a psalm with instrumental accompaniment, while a shir mizmor was a choral group.
I will sing (shir) unto the Lord as long as I live;
The making of the music can be either with voices or instruments, as singing is not always implied in the usage of the word zamir.
I will sing praise (zamar) to my God while I have my being.
Perhaps the most significant of the Hebrew words translated as "praise" is yadah (yah-DAH). It is important because it refers to prayer as well as praise, and its meaning lies at the very heart of worship. The root yadah literally means "to throw" or "to cast." When it is used in the biblical text, it takes on the meaning of confession or declaration of who God is and what He does.
Public proclamation or confession of God's attributes and actions is certainly regarded as one of the most important aspects of true praise. But confession of God's greatness is not all that yadah means. The root word has another meaning, perhaps even more important. Yadah, when applied within the context of prayer, still retains the root meaning of confession. However, instead of it being the confession of God's attributes, it becomes the confession of our sins unto God.
O give thanks (yadah) unto the Lord,
For he is good:
For his mercy endureth forever.
Praise in our Lives
We can see that there are many different forms of praise, and that each form is designed to express unique elements of worship. Knowing these things, an important question still remains: How do we offer praise in a manner worthy of engaging the attention and response of God?
I believe that the key to answering this question can be found in two passages of Scripture from the Book of Judges:
And it came to pass after the death of Joshua, that the children of Israel asked of the Lord, saying, Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them? And the Lord said: Judah shall go up [first]; behold, I have delivered the land into his hand.
And the children of Israel arose, and went up to Bethel, and asked counsel of God; and they said: Who shall go up for us first to battle against the children of Benjamin? And he Lord said: Judah [shall go up] first.
How interesting! In battle, Judah is to go up first. God gives the directive: "When you go up into battle let Judah go up first." Why Judah and not one of the other tribes, such as Levi? One could assume that Levi should have gone up first since it was the priestly tribe. But no, God says, "Let Judah go up first." Maybe, one could suggest, it was because Judah was the tribe from which the promised Messiah was to come--the tribe of the House of David. But I do not believe that this really explains it.
What does Judah mean? Judah comes from the Hebrew root yadah, and as we have already learned, yadah has a two-fold meaning: the confession of God's attributes and actions, and the confession of our shortcomings (or sins). Can you catch the spiritual significance of God declaring that, in battle, "Judah (yadah) shall go up first?"
Our battle against the enemy of God is a spiritual one, which we, as believers, must face daily. But God has given us the directive: "Let yadah go up first!" As we confess the attributes and actions of God (yadah--praise), we realize who and what God is. And this leads us, as believers, to realize and confess (yadah--prayer) our own inadequacies and our need for repentance and reconciliation, thereby establishing a proper relationship with God.
In other words, as we realize and confess who and what God is, by this very act of confession, we simultaneously recognize the omnipotence, magnificence, and true greatness of the One who "...is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:7). Our confession of sin is a declaration of His ability and willingness to forgive, and in bestowing forgiveness, to make us what He is--righteous.
In the recognition of God's nature, we begin to understand something of our own nature, and in this understanding of our true identity, all the other forms of praise spontaneously burst forth.
As believers in the 20th century, we are often unaware of our rich Hebrew heritage. Our understanding of praise can be greatly enriched by returning to our Hebrew roots--examining our Old Testament heritage of praise--and then beginning to incorporate these principles into our daily lives.
Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
To Beit HaDerekh
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Last update 14 February 2020