Taken together, Psalms 113-118 are known in Hebrew practice as The Hallel. Each psalm is a separate message of praise to the God of creation, the covenant God of Israel. Here’s the first one:
Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!
The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord! - Psalm 113:1-9
These six psalms were thought to have been used in the Passover celebrations each year. Some Jewish customs today still require reading of a few of these Psalms just before the Passover meal and the rest at the end of the meal. The Hallel is also recited in synagogues during festival services.
If that is the case, it is likely that The Hallel, or a portion of it, is what Jesus and his disciples sang when after the Passover meal, we are told they sang a hymn and then went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:30). We can only imagine what was going on in Jesus’ mind and heart as he knew what he was about to face and still sang hymns of praise to his Father.
And it was not the first time these psalms played a part in the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. Take a look at this portion of Psalm 118, the last psalm in The Hallel:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! - Psalm 118: 27-29
The welcoming crowds quoted from this psalm while they spread their clothing and palm branches in front of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem at what we now call The Triumphal Entry. The only words they used from Psalm 118 were, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Matthew 21:9), but many in the crowd knew the entire psalm by heart and would remember the reference to the “festal sacrifice” which, at this time, was the very Lamb of God.
Hallel means praise. When we add the suffix jah, we get the word hallelujah which means praise God (jah is a shortened form of Jehovah, which means the self-existent and eternal one).
Praise. That really is an easy place to start if we want to build relationship with God, isn’t it? Think of something he has created. Surely there is something to praise him for: sunrise, your dog, peaches, trees. Look around you and start to give him praise.
Or think about relationships in your life. Praise God for the people who matter to you and who have been placed beside you for a purpose. Thank him for his patience with you in those relationships.
It just makes sense to start our prayers with praise. Then, after we have praised well, we can speak out other things: confession (Romans 10:9), requests, thanks, worship, and even complaints (that’s OK – really – we’ve already seen that the psalmists do it).
Do you see that it’s all about words? We cannot love God and relate to him with growing intimacy if we don’t use words. “Words”, as Dallas Willard said, “are the tools by which all relationships and all kingdoms work – even the kingdom of God.”
We can practice with words of praise (It’s so easy!), and The Hallel shows us how. Then, from there, we can move on to praying about the harder stuff. God will meet us where we are and invite us to keep on coming closer. That, too, is something for which to praise him!