What a little, bitty word that carries such meaning. According to the dictionary, praise is, "The expression of approval or admiration for someone or something."
That's what praise is, Mr. Webster. But, what does praise look like?
In the business world, it would look like the 5 star google review, the "Like-ability" on their Facebook page. To the student, it would look like the gold star shining on your paper and to the teacher, the shiny apple sitting on your desk. The athlete would see praise as the trophy proudly displayed on the mantel while the actress sees the star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
And what about in "the church world"? Like Mr. Webster, it's easy to define what praise is if you are a believer: it's giving our admiration to God. But what it looks like? Well, that may be up for debate. Some believers would say praise is when the organ plays or when the choir sings. Some may say it's when we all stand with a hymnal in hand, singing ancient melodies to God. Some may even say that it's when the old ladies start dancin' a jig and their hair pins start flying out. However you define it's expression, this much I know - if you've been in church culture long enough, you have most likely heard that praise is the fast portion of a song service; ya know - the part where we Charismatics clap our hands and tap our feet! While I say this a bit in jest, there is an element of absolute truth here. Why? Because praise is all about expressing admiration to God and, biblically speaking, that expression is one that is...well...very expressive! It often is "happy and upbeat" because we are expressing our admiration for something our great God has done! While worship is an internal, spirit response to who God is, praise is an outward, physical one for all He's accomplished.
And this idea comes right out of the bible. While Webster's dictionary tells us what praise is, the bible tells us what praise looks like. To the Hebrew people, praise was a physical expression of an inward reality. “Praise” was not a style or a hip music trend to them. It wasn't even really a word to them. Why? Because the word, "praise" doesn’t describe the specific action necessary for different situations. Think of it like this: when I was a child, the words "clean your room" meant completely different things at different times. Depending on how dirty my room was, my mom's expression of "clean your room" would change. The specific situation (in this case, the specific disaster level of filth present in my room) called for different expressions of cleaning. The expression of "clean" therefore, would sometimes look like making my bed while on other occasions, it would be mean "get out the backhoe and start shoveling up that mountain of junk on your floor." Different actions were required for different situations.
King David and his 4,000 musicians in the House of Prayer would have understood this (1 Chr. 25:7). Within our bible we have the hymn book that they wrote to instruct God's people on the different actions necessary for different situations...the how to handbook of praise. We call this book, "Psalms".
To Western eyes, the book of Psalms doesn't give us tons of instructions - just the obvious lifting of hands, playing instruments, and singing. Most often, the book of Psalms says to simply "praise the Lord." But that tiny little word "praise" can be interpreted in the original language as 7 different actions! Like I said, the Hebrew people didn't have a word "praise" - they had words like "Halal" and "Shabach" and "Tahillah". All of these words are action words; they communicate movement and sound. So, what are the 7 Hebrew words for praise?
The 7 Words for Praise
1. Halal – (praise) to shine, to boast, to rave, to be clamorously, loudly foolish, to act like a mad man.
This word is used more than any other in scripture for ‘praise’ - 99 times! It's the familiar phrase, "Hallelujah". We can see it used in such scriptures as:
1. Ps 84:4 – I will ever be Halleling You
2. Ps 102: 18 – I am created to hallel
3. Psalm 113:3 – All day I will hallel
4. Psalm 119: - 7 times a day I will hallel
If this is the one word used the most for praise, what does that speak to us? It's a praise that is loud, showy, foolish! One may even say - annoying to those observing it (go read the story of David's wife, Michel). With that in mind, one thing it means to me is that praise is meant to humble me and exalt him. It also speaks of a partnership with creative sound, dance, and light. It’s rooted in Genesis 1:3, when God said, “Let there be light," and all of creation burst forth. So, it’s a creative praise - It’s a creative, atmosphere shifter! It's a power packed word meant to bring power packed expression.
2. Yadah – (praise) to extend the hand, to throw out, to shoot out the hand (in thanks)
This expression is used 90 times (yad means hand). It is first found in Genesis 29:35 when Judah was born to Rachel. She lifted her hands in thanks to God for giving her a son and named him, "praise." Through what God did in her life, praise was born in more ways than one.
We also see this word used in the midst of a battle. We see in 2 Chronicles 20:2, "He appointed those to Yadah the Lord in the beauty of holiness as they went out before the army". Part of the strategy of God, then, to save a nation in war was for them to give Him, not just a song, but their whole body in full agreement with His worth. Yadah, therefore, is tied to victory over your enemies
3. Towdah – (todah; praise) to extend the hands in confession & thanksgiving for what God is GOING to do…
This word is used 32 times in scripture and can also be translated 'thanksgiving'. And while it is similar to yadah, there is a difference. While yadah is tied to thanking God for what he has already done, towdah is tied more to the future. This praise is more prophetic - praising God for future victories and breakthroughs. We see it in such scriptures as:
1. Ps 50:23 - whoever offers towdah, glorifies Me
2. Ps 95:2 – Let us come before His presence with towdah
3. Ps 100:4 – enter into His gates with Todah
This is a praise that hasn’t experienced the victory yet but proclaims it because we know our God.
4. Shabach – (praise) to shout or address loudly; to expel the breath in outrageous expression; to roar (it can also mean to be free from care; to still/soothe with ones words)
This word is used 11 times. Some examples are:
1. Ps 63:3 - Because your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall shabach you
2. Ps 145:4 - one generation shall shabach your works to another
It seems strange that the word "shout" can also mean "to still." But this is the power of proclamation - a shout of triumph can soothe a situation. A shout of victory can calm the heart.
5. Barak – (praise, bless) to bend the knee or kneel down; to salute; to bless; to declare
This word is used 70 times. It is often translated "bless." The best way to really describe this is in the context of royalty. When a king entered into the room, you blessed him, praised him, by bowing the knee to his worth. When a king enters the room, you don’t take your eyes off of him, you give him your full attention, and you bow down before his majesty.
An example is found in Ps 103:1-2 – Barak the Lord, o my soul, and all that is within me barak His holy name.
It's a praise that gets you low while lifting Him high.
6. Zamar – (praise) to pluck the strings of an instrument; to sing; to twang
Musicians will like this one! It is used 40 times and is the only word for praise that is directly connected to an instrument. Any time you see the phrase “sing praises” in Psalms, this word is used.
The Jewish Talmud, writings of Josephus, and other Jewish books show there were clear instructions given to tabernacle musicians…to the point that there were instructions on how to change the strings on certain instruments, what to do if a string breaks during worship, which instruments to use to produce the sound of joy, which ones to use to produce the sound of war, which songs to play with a pick verses plucking of the hand, etc… Why? Because the Hebrew people understood the connection of sound and poetry, atmosphere and praise.
7. Tehilla – (praise, sing) High praise; a spontaneous, burst of a creative previously unknown song; born of the spirit
This word, not to be confused with tequila, is used 50 times, but it is of such importance! It is born out of the word “Hallel” and, I believe, it is God's favorite praise.
Ps 22:3 tells us that this praise is the one God inhabits. He responds to all praises but settles in and makes himself at home in one kind. We think spontaneous worship is some new kind of Charismatic trend, but it's not. The Hebrews understood its importance thousands of years ago.
But it's not only for God's inhabitation that this praise is so important. Look at these examples:
1.2 Chronicles 20:22 – as they began to sing and to tehlillah, the Lord set ambushes
2. Is 61:3 – put on the Garments of Tehilla for a spirit of heaviness
This tiny little word carries a big punch! It is used for warfare, for victory, for soaking in His presence, and more. We all need more tehilla in our life.
Now, Psalms is filled with many other expressions to be used in praise - alaz, gil, simchah, ranan, and more. In the coming weeks, I will be diving into these words and all of the Hebrew words for praise, as I journey through their How to Handbook - the book of Psalms. In these growing days of chaos and confusion, hopelessness and fear, we all need to anchor ourselves deeper in praise. It's the weapon God has given us to take our eyes off our circumstances and on to Him.
So come with me as I journey through the Psalms. It will teach us how to praise him in our current crisis and how to prepare for the ones to come. Together, let's show the world how to navigate the storms of life, let's teach our children how to hope in darkness, and let's give Him a praise that is worthy of His name.