Why Are We Asking Birds and Beasts to Praise God? (Reflections on the Hymn, "Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah")

In a time in which the Holy Spirit empowered people to speak in foreign languages, Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). In context, he was encouraging the Corinthians to sing in commonly understood languages even if they found themselves empowered to do otherwise. Since he wrote these words, the miraculous gift of tongues has ceased, just as Paul said it would (1 Corinthians 13:7). Still, his words have relevance to us. While we typically sing in a known tongue in worship, we sometimes sing words or phrases that aren’t common or that we might not understand without reflection. This article is part of a articles examining some commonly sung hymns with the aim of ensuring that like Paul we can sing with understanding when we sing them. Use the tag "Song Studies" to find more.
One of the more popular hymns among groups I’ve been privileged to work and worship with is, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” It was written by William J. Kirkpatrick over a hundred years ago. In spite of its age, it maintains its relevance, owing not just to a catchy tune but also to Kirkpatrick’s inspired source material. The hymn is heavily influenced by Psalm 148. Though the hymn is lifted almost line for line from the pages of the Bible, the older translation Kirkpatrick used as well as some of the thoughts from the Psalm itself bear closer examination.

Who is Jehovah? Sometimes rather than translating a word from one language into another, a translator will simply bring the word into another language letter for equivalent letter. This process is called transliteration. The word “Jehovah” actually reflects two transliterations. Iehouah (with or without the second “h”) was a medieval attempt at bringing the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites (cf. Exodus 3:13-15) from Hebrew into Latin. When that Latin word gets transliterated into English, it becomes “Jehovah,” whereas when the Hebrew word is transliterated directly into English, it is spelled “Yahweh”. You’ll notice though that most English translations don’t use either word but instead feature the word LORD in all capital letters. This is done in keeping with the Jewish tradition of reading the word “Lord” whenever “Yahweh” occurs in the text. So, simply put, when we praise Jehovah, we’re praising the God of the Bible.  

What’s a hallelujah? Hallelujah is also a word that has been transliterated, this time from Hebrew to English. As an aside, occasionally hymns will spell it “alleluia,” but this spell is simply a transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the word. In both cases (English or Greek), two Hebrew words were combined to form one new word. The first word is hallelu, from hallel, meaning “to praise,” and the second is Yah, a contraction of Yahweh, which again is the name by which God revealed Himself in the Old Testament. These words are typically translated instead of transliterated in Psalm 148:1 as, “Praise the LORD!” So, effectively, when we sing, “Hallelujah, praise Jehovah!” we’re singing, “Praise the LORD!” twice. This repetition mirrors the first verse of Psalm 148.

Why are we asking angels, heavenly bodies, birds, beasts, and other parts of the created world to praise God? Though evangelism (telling the good news about God and His salvation) is sometimes thought of as a New Testament concept, it was in fact present in the Old Testament. Psalm 67 for example asks for God to extend mercy to the singers (presumably Jews) so that God’s salvations could be known “among all nations” (Psalm 67:2). The aim of evangelism in that Psalm isn’t to save souls; instead, it is so “the peoples [can] praise” and “the nations […can] sing for joy” (Psalm 67:3-5). Effectively, the author of Psalm 67 wanted more people to be saved so that there could be more voices to praise God. This desire is also present in Psalm 148 and therefore in the hymn that we sing. Both Psalm 148 and Kirkpatrick’s hymn effectively affirm, “My voice alone in praising God is not enough. I want all voices, no, all of creation, everything, to praise God.” The chorus of the hymn mirrors Psalm 148:13 and reminds us of why everything needs to praise God: so that our worship can be more appropriate for God’s exalted glory.

What about the “dragons” in the second stanza? “Dragons” is found in older translations of Psalm 148:7 such as the King James Version and the Revised Version. Kirkpatrick likely drew inspiration from one such older translation. Newer versions tend to read “sea monsters” or “sea creatures.” It’s hard to say what animal the Psalmist had in mind, and many Hebrew animal names are difficult to translate. It is interesting though that God Himself highlights His power over the behemoth and the leviathan in Job 40-41. Both creatures are described using language more befitting the fossilized remains of dinosaurs than any creature we know, and the leviathan in particular mirrors many ancient descriptions of creatures known as dragons. Could mythological reports of dragons actually have been exaggerated descriptions of dinosaurs? Whatever the case, even dinosaurs, the great and terrible lizards, were less glorious than our God.

Like the Psalm that inspired it, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” calls us to remember at least two things. One, our God is glorious and far above anything in the natural or spiritual realm (i.e., angels). Two, our duty here on earth is both to praise God and to invite others to praise God so that our worship can be more befitting God’s glory.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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