Don’t put your faith in the powerful of the world,
nor in humans incapable of saving:
as soon as they’ve breathed their last sigh
they return to the earth
and in that very instant their projects vanish.
Happy those who lean on God,
whose hope is in the eternal God.
(author’s translation of Psalm 146: 1, 3-5, 10a)
I remember only five words from the Hebrew class I took almost 20 years ago; of these, Hallelujah remains my favorite. What pleased me so much is that I finally understood what it actually meant: hallelu=second person plural command form of “hallal” (praise) + Yah (a shortened version of the name of God: YHWH). So literally Hallelujah means: “y’all praise God!” I was inordinately pleased to discover that I’d been speaking (a teeny bit of) Hebrew all my life.
This Lent as I’m reading Psalm 146 a bit of that pleasure lingers on, but it’s picking up some additional harmonies.
Yes, Hallelujah is a primal shout of worship. I’m also growing in my appreciation that it is an affirmation of devotion bellowed in a context of competing calls for allegiance.
The central problem Psalm 146 addresses is that we are mortal, vulnerable. This is not news. It is also no easier to face into than it was when the Psalm was first written.
In a world fraught with tragedy the temptation is to grab hold of whatever will make us be, or feel, more secure.
The Psalmist (as wisdom teachers sometimes do) paints the contrasting options in pretty stark terms: will we hallelu and trust Yah—or will we hallelu and trust human power, the power of wealth or influence or domination? I will confess my default is to go with the latter, though I have lived long enough to dress up this choice in more acceptable terms: I am being prudent or careful or professional or responsible.
The Psalmist is not interested in rationalizations: conventional human understandings of power, effectiveness and control do not amount to much in the big scheme of things: when humans die their projects die with them. Not so with Yah, the one who made the heavens and the earth, the one who keeps faith forever. We have a choice about who, or what, we hallelu, and that choice makes a difference, says Psalm 146.
If we take seriously the Psalm’s command to hallelu, to trust, Yah, what does that mean? I am increasingly convinced that trusting Yah is paradoxical. By this I do not mean that it is impossible to understand, or some weird conglomeration of opposites, but rather that it is an endlessly compelling and endlessly open project.
In our baptism, we pledge allegiance to Yah; we then work out daily what that pledge entails.
One of the very practical things involved in working out that pledge is recognizing and wrestling with the reality that we both have power and that our power is limited.
Hallelu-ing Yah means first of all that we resist the temptation to be all tragic about our (real but not monolithic) powerlessness or all insistent about our (real but not monolithic) power. We accept that we have both real and limited authority and we put that limited influence at the service of Yah rather than insisting on our own way. We recognize that trusting Yah, hallelu-ing Yah, is a moral imperative; trusting humans (including ourselves) is not.
Secondly, hallelu-ing Yah clarifies that our power/powerlessness is not constant: in other words it is not the same in every situation or at every time in our lives. To think about and use power flexibly, recognizing both its relational and systemic components and the ways these function differently in different contexts, calls us to exercise self-awareness, imagination, a willingness to fail and resilience.
Thus choosing to hallelu Yah and nothing and no one else clears away the reactionary habits we have been cultivating politically and culturally in our denomination.
It puts us on the solid ground of what matters and lasts: who God is and what God is doing. From this foundation, we can act in any way that makes a difference without making ourselves crazy or bitter because only one kind of difference “counts.” Hallelu-ing Yah connects us to the source of life without which our attempts at justice fall flat or fade away; it commits us to persistence that does not insist on its own way. So Hallelu Yah, y’all.
Rachel Miller Jacobs is a spiritual director and assistant professor of congregational formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She and her husband Randall are members of Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.