On which side of the bless/praise divide do you find yourself?
If you’ve been in the Bible for decades, you probably first encountered Psalm 103:1 in King James, “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” And if you’ve been in the church for decades, you might hear voices in your head singing one of the many musical settings of these words. Maybe you start singing one or more of them yourself. I do.
I was shocked when I first saw the New International Version’s rendering, “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” It still surprises and/or annoys me each time. I love this Psalm, but I want it to say “bless.” Like I remember it.
So I decided to do some concordance work and track down the Hebrew words behind bless and praise and see how they differ. Armed with a magnifying glass, I attacked Strong’s Exhaustive and Young’s Analytical.
Several different Hebrew words translate into praise in Psalms. There’s halal, from which we get Hallelujah. Halal can mean to praise, cheer, extol, or thank, but depending on its Hebrew case, can also mean to act like a fool or be arrogant. How strange is that?
Then there’s yada, which means to speak of the excellence of someone or something.
Another word is saba, to glorify, commend, or extol, but also to keep still. I like that.
There are even more Hebrew words for praise, but none appears in Psalm 103. In this psalm, it’s barak all the way. (Yes, our president’s name means bless.)
Barak has the same root as knee and kneel. James Strong (who put his concordance together many years ago with human assistants and no computers) writes, “This can mean to speak words invoking divine favor (bless) or speak of the excellence of someone (praise).”
So is there any difference between bless and praise? Did David the poet detect some Hebrew language nuance I can’t? Was he going for the sound as poets sometimes do?
In English, I sense a slight difference in connotation. (Maybe it’s my imagination.) Praise recognizes the worth of God and states it. Bless feels like actually giving something to God. When I say I’ve received a blessing, I mean something good, whether tangible (dark chocolate) or intangible (understanding from a friend). So I think to bless God carries the idea of giving him something that makes him happy.
My friend Karen has a bumper sticker on her car: America, bless God. That approaches what I’m thinking. Instead of always asking God to bless me, I need to bless him.
Verse 4 says, “…and forget not all his benefits.” I was so hoping the Hebrew for benefits would be blessings, but it’s not. (It’s gemul, deeds.) The psalm goes on to list many benefits of belonging to God. Whether your favorite Bible says bless or praise, you’re going to want to when you read all he has done and continues to do for you.
Psalm 103 is comfort food for the soul. Enjoy it often.
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