Does God Really “Inhabit The Praises of His People”?
One very often-quoted verse used by worship leaders is from the King James translation of Psalm 22:3 “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Commenting on the frequent use of this verse, worship pastor Zach Hicks confesses, “In an effort to elevate singing to nearly ‘sacramental’ status, (many have observed that evangelicals . . . have made congregational singing the ‘third sacrament’ of Protestantism because of how much weight we give to experiencing God’s presence in the midst of singing), this verse would be a slam dunk argument in less than ten words.” 1
After a very careful examination the original Hebrew translation, Hicks confesses, “Ultimately, it comes down to integrity. Will I approach the Scriptures as honestly as possible, and will I model that honesty thoroughly before the people I lead, even when it eliminates what I considered a major tool in my ‘worship theology shorthand’ arsenal? Sometimes (and I am guilty of this, too), we allow a little mis-exegesis to slide because ‘it’s just too good.’ “ 2 (You can read Hick’s blog and certainly do your own study).
Most scholars agree, and I am convinced, that the correct translation reads: “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.” (NIV). “But you are enthroned as the Holy One, the one whom Israel praises.” (GNB). Young’s Literal Translation reads, “And Thou art holy, Sitting—the Praise of Israel.” Hebrew scholar, John Goldingay states, “the idea of Yhwh’s being enthroned on or inhabiting Israel’s praise is unparalleled, and if either of these is the Psalm’s point, one might have expected it to be expressed more clearly.” 3 His conclusion is that the idea of God “inhabiting” our praises is not a normal translation and not emphasized elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Worship pastor and blogger, Jonathan Aigner notes,
There’s another huge context clue we’ve got to look at. Read the whole of Psalm 22, especially the first half. It’s written out of the unpleasant and uncomfortable reality that God seems to be absent. It’s a powerful lamentation, crying out for an invisible God. It’s similar in tone to Jesus’ anguished cry on the cross (Psalm 22 the lectionary Psalm reading for Good Friday). While this Psalm is certainly valuable for those of us who have felt God’s absence, the glib way we use verse 3, either as manipulation or justification, simply does not fit here. It is not a description of God reveling in human celebration. 4
The bottom line is this: the verse doesn’t give us carte blanche to sing (or preach, or pray) whatever we feel. Worship is not simply about singing and feeling nice things to God so that God will be able to take his rightful place. We cannot possibly add anything else to God’s glory by what we do in worship. God is Most High no matter what we think or feel. In worship, God is the subject, the great Mover and Shaper, and we are the ones being moved and shaped by God’s story. I know it sounds and feels sooo good to say that God inhabits our praises, but I don’t think we can get there from this text. I certainly don’t say it anymore, and if you share any part of my doubt, I’d encourage you to do the same. 5
I would simply reiterate that there is no New Testament verse teaching that music is a means of making God more than He already is — or in any way mediating the presence of the Holy Spirit. In some gatherings I’ve witnessed, it appears that the worship leaders are trying to improve God’s status or “channel” the Holy Spirit through the music which is far more akin to mysticism than to biblical Christianity.
3 John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 1: Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 327-328.