The Diamond of Praise – Barakh (Bless on Bended Knee)

The Diamond of Praise – Barakh (Bless on Bended Knee)

A Facet of Praise – Barakh (Bless on Bended Knee).

The area of ancient Israel’s greatest creativity, and so what they did best, was the praise of God.” (Ellen Davis, Getting involved with God). “I will extol Thee, my God, O King; And I will bless Thy name forever and ever. Every day I will bless Thee, and I will praise Thy name forever and ever. Great is the Lord Yahweh, and highly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise Thy works to another, and shall declare Thy mighty acts, the glorious splendor of Thy majesty, and on Thy wonderful works I will meditate.”  (Psalm 145, a song of praise by David).

Scripture doesn’t define the word “praise,” but it offers plenty of descriptions. Praise can be described as an outward expression of gratitude for all that God has done for oneself, for the community, for the world. Praise is a recounting of the many blessings that God has provided in His grace and mercy. Praise is a grateful appreciation of God’s mighty works. Praise is an expression of thanksgiving to the Lord, an acknowledgement of God’s righteous deeds. To praise God is to thank God and celebrate His presence in the world.

Praise is what we were created to do, it is the chief of our ultimate satisfactions, and we won’t find personal fulfillment unless we develop the habit of forgetting ourselves and praising God. Most of us Christian believers are not following in the footsteps of our Jewish brethren and praising God with an inspired creativity. The fact is, the Hebrew Bible reveals a vocabulary of praise that will help us in our bid to be more expressive of our praise, more imaginative, more creative. The Hebrew Bible reveals praise to be a diamond with an almost uncountable number of facets. There are many words in Scripture that may translate as praise, but the reality is praise has an abundance of angles and facets and dimensions that we need to learn if we want to mature in our praise of God. The Hebrew language is loaded with words that contain the element of praise but with added qualities that expands our view of what praise could mean to us in our walk of faith. Knowing these words will help us to participate more fully and deeply in praising our God, in expressing our thanksgiving to Him in every way humanly possible. “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Thy praise (tehillah, see below).” (Psalm 51:15 )

Praising God involves all of us, not just our intellect to think with or our bottoms to sit on. Praise and worship in the Jewish tradition is a physical experience as well as spiritual, with lots of meaningful postures and gestures, singing, multisensory, thoughtful yet expressive. Praise and worship in the Hebrew Bible invariably incorporated music and melody and instrumentation. Praise is not a spectator sport, but one that asks for full participation. As Dwight Pryor once said, “Praise is not afraid of feelings, but they are not based on feelings. If praise were a train, the engine that needs to constantly be stoked is God-focus and self-forgetfulness, and the emotional feelings are basically the caboose… still a part of things, but not what’s running the train.”

Praise is our exhale of gratitude and devotion after our inhale of God’s inspired presence. God initiates, we respond. So praising God is like our respiratory system, and unless we are breathing in God and then breathing out praise, we will spiritually expire. If we don’t learn how to respond to God’s goodness with heartfelt praise, our faith will soon become lifeless. Consider this category of “The Diamond of Praise” in the blog to be my meager attempt to polish each facet on this sparkling diamond. Each Hebrew word in this expanded vocabulary of praise will convey a different aspect of praise, and is intended to help us be more creative in our praise, more expressive, more biblical.

Being Physical with Worship. The spiritual and the physical belong together, and are in fact inseparable. We were created as whole beings with a mysterious fusion of body and spirit and soul and body and everything else that constitutes our personhood. Not only that, the Incarnation reveals how important the body is to Creator God. In a sense, the idea, the reality, of God taking on a physical body was actually a spiritual act. We need to make sure we incarnate our worship. So worship of our Creator needs to include the body if we want to worship with our whole selves. Physical acts of worship become meaningless if it is done thoughtlessly, without its intention of worshipping God. But worship is not limited to the nonphysical, the so-called spiritual either, or one is not truly involved fully in the act of worship. As Rev. Josef Ratzinger once wrote in his excellent article, The Theology of Kneeling, “The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is worship. Without the heart of worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act itself must of its very nature express itself in the bodily gestures.” So physical gestures are invaluable in the act of worship. They can point to spiritual truths, they can stimulate worshipful acts, and they can enable a fuller expression of awe, lament, adoration and worship. Using the body helps us to put the Gospel message into motion. The movement of one’s body can be a sign that communicates a message… Do you want to signal to God that you submit to Him, that you want to confess to Him, that you adore Him, that you intend to follow Him in trust? There are gestures and postures and movements that can express what is on your heart without any use of words. Body language is vital to spiritual life and expression. In this blog series entitled “Physical Worship,” I will focus on the worshipful use of the body through such gestures and movements as: prostration before God; sitting at the feet of Jesus; standing in respect and oneness; kneeling in submission; walking in order to follow; running the good race; jumping for joy; lifting up the heart and hands; offering the kiss of peace;; and the act of crossing oneself with the sign of the Cross. This is important: Physical postures and actions during worship reflect the attitudes of the heart, but they can also help produce the attitudes of the heart.

Kneeling. Bending the knee is no light matter, and can even be difficult to do, depending on one’s age and physical status. Kneeling is a vivid picture of honoring your Superior and submitting to your Sovereign. Kneeling is a symbol of humility, because if one is serious when doing it, it requires a swallowing of one’s pride. Hebrew tradition has long considered one’s knees to be a symbol of strength, so bending the knee to honor Someone means one has accepted one’s weakness, acknowledged one’s insufficiency. Bending the knee is submitting in faith to an almighty God who is all-sufficient and worthy of worship. The Hebrew word for bless is “barak,” which is literally translated as to kneel down, to bless and adore God on bended knees. One kneels when taking the lower place in the presence of a higher authority. Before the King of kings, we can add awe, reverence and worship. We kneel low to raise God high, to honor His glory and holiness. When we kneel, we are physically demonstrating that we desire to yield to the King of the universe. To bless the Lord is to kneel down as an act of adoration and praise. One Hebrew scholar, Dr. Dwight Pryor, said that to barakh the Lord, to bless the Lord, is literally to “knee God.”

The Jewish worshipers were genius at blessing the Lord on bended knee. Their best-known form of prayer is called the “Barakhah,” the Blessing. And every single time before reciting anything in the Torah, they exclaim “Blessed is the God who is blessed!” Traditional Judaism expects its believers to say at least 100 blessings a day, for everything imaginable. Most of the blessings begin with, “Blessed are you, O Lord…” An example is before a daily meal at the table, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Or during the Sabbath before the wine is tasted, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who provides the fruit of the vine.”  The New Testament word for blessing is “eulogia,” which means good word. So to offer a blessing to God is to offer Him a good word constantly during the day, a word of gratitude and thanksgiving for the most ordinary of blessings. Christians would do well to follow the example of the experts in blessing from our Jewish brethren.

The Hebrew Bible is full of references to the physical act of kneeling in worship. A synonym of barakh is Kara, which gets us closer to prostrating oneself, to sinking down, bowing down. And so they are often paired together. As the psalmist invites believers in Ps. 95:6, “Come let us bow down (kara) in worship (shachah), let us kneel (barakh) before the Lord our Maker!” To bless the Lord was to kneel down before Him in homage and worship, and practically everyone who believed in Yahweh bent the knee. As the Lord Yahweh Himself declared in Isaiah 45:22-23“Turn to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other… Before Me every knee will bow (kara)!” The Judeo-Christian, biblical faith considers the act of kneeling to be vital to worship, if only to bow the knees of the heart.

The classic homage to barakh, to blessing the Lord on bent knee, is Psalm 103, “Bless (barakh) the Lord O my soul! All that is within me, bless (barakh) His holy name! Bless (barakh) the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits…” (Ps. 103:1-2). Another beautiful use of barakh is seen in Psalm 100, the best psalm for a child to memorize as early as possible. Verses 4-5 reads, “… Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and bless (barakh) His name. For the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting, and His faithfulness endures to all generations.”

Proskynein. The New Testament includes a Greek word for “adoration on one’s knees,” which is “proskynein.” It is found in about 60 different passages in the New Testament, including 24 times in John’s Revelation alone. This powerful word is usually translated as worship. The word is found often in that especially poignant scene with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. In fact, between the two of them, they mention kneeling in adoration nine different times as they discuss worship. In the gospel era, kneeling in adoration was inseparable from the worship experience. Two wonderful examples of proskynein are:

(1.)  The disciples are out in the boat in the midst of a fierce storm after the miraculous feeing of the 5,000. They become petrified as they see Jesus walking on the sea toward them with all the waves and strong winds. Jesus reassures them as He draws near, tells them to take courage, stop being afraid, for He is the Great I AM. Peter asked Jesus if he could walk on the water out to Him, and Jesus said to come right out of the boat. Peter started out strong, but as he felt the strong wind, he started to doubt and began to sink. Jesus held onto him, rebuked Peter for his faltering faith, and they both climbed into the boat with all the other disciples. The disciples were flabbergasted, of course, so what else could they do after witnessing that? “Those in the boat knelt down on their knees in adoration and worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly, You are the Son of God!” (Matt. 14:24-33).

(2.)  Jesus heals a man born blind at the pool of Siloam, and he immediately starts to grow in his understanding of just Who it was that healed him. At first he called Jesus a “man,” then a “prophet,” and then finally “Lord.” “The man called out, ‘Lord, I believe! I trust you and I cleave to you!’ And he knelt down on his knees in adoration and worshipped Jesus.” (John 9:38).

Gonypetein. The other Greek word for kneel in the New Testament is “gonypetein,” and it literally means to fall on both knees with the head bowed, which is actually a lesser form of the full prostration. It is used a number of times in the Gospels, including: The healed leper (Mark 1:40); The earnest seeker (Mark 10:1); The loving father (Matthew 17:14).

The Gospels and Acts are chock full of people kneeling, from Jairus (Mark 5:22), to the devoted Mary of Bethany (John 11:32), to the Roman soldiers who kneeled in mockery at His kingship when beating Him and spitting on Him and humiliating Jesus in every way possible (Matt. 27:29) to St. Stephen while he was being executed (Acts 7:60), to Peter and Paul and the whole Christian community (Acts 9:40, 29:36, 21:5).

Foot-Washing. Perhaps the most powerful scene of kneeling is in John 13, when Jesus, during the Last Supper, wanted to demonstrate something important before things got out of hand with His coming Passion. At the end of their Passover meal, Jesus “got up from supper, took off His outer garments, and taking a servant’s towel, He fastened it around His waist. Then He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel.” (John 13:4-5). Of course, Jesus had to kneel throughout all this foot-washing, and then when completed He “sat down again.” (John 13:12).

Try to picture yourself as one of the disciples. Imagine yourself in the Upper Room on Thursday night at the Last Supper. The Passion is starting in earnest. Jesus is just beginning to kneel down and wash the dirty feet of each one of His disciples, including Judas. This was certainly the work of the lowliest house servant, not the Lord, the Master, the Messiah! No one else offered to do this simple, menial act of hospitality, so Jesus stepped right in. Here we are again, Jesus thinks, right in the middle of a very important teachable moment. Jesus took off His robe, wrapped a towel around His waist, filled a bowl with water, knelt down like a slave and proceeded to wash everyone’s feet. This was undoubtedly very startling and confusing to the disciples. They have just experienced three years of astounding miracles and spellbinding teachings. Certainly this task was beneath Him! The Master acting as a slave? But Jesus wanted to teach the disciples this important lesson about humility. He wanted to demonstrate what He wanted His disciples to do after He has left this world. He desired to be an example of the spirit in which to engage in their ministry in His name. He yearned for His disciples to be humbly willing to serve each other and the world at large. Jesus is saying, If I can be this humble, so can you. If I can put my meekness into practice like this, so can you. You need to understand that there is nothing beneath you as you minister for the Kingdom. There is nothing too menial or basic or dirty. This foot-washing was a defining moment. This was a sacred moment, and the Upper Room was holy ground. Instead of a consuming fire or a burning angel, we have a bowl of water and a clean towel. It only seems right that everyone had to take off their sandals. And in their ministry soon thereafter, they were comfortable touching the untouchable, just like Jesus. It all started with the humble act of kneeling.