“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This is one of my all-time favorite quotes from the movie The Princess Bride. In this scene, the Inigo Montoya confronts Vizzini, his boss, about repeatedly uttering “Inconceivable!” every time he notices something surprising happening right in front of them (or behind them, as the case may be). Vizzini, Inigo concludes, is clearly confused concerning the meaning of the word “inconceivable.”
His observation is simple, yet profound. For with it, he shines a spotlight on one of humanity’s most annoying tendencies: the habitual repetition of a common word or phrase by someone who lacks a clear understanding of its meaning.
As children, we initially learned how to speak by mimicking sounds and words and phrases. Unless we make a conscious choice to stop, think, and choose our own words, we may accidentally adopt a favorite phrase without giving any thought to what it means. Take for example this exclamation: “Praise the Lord!” Although you will find it throughout the Old Testament (most frequently in the Psalms), it is often misused in Christian circles today.
In this post, I’m going to make the case that “Praise the Lord!” does not mean what we think it means. And I’m going to challenge you to think twice before saying it in the hope that you will replace it with something else. Got that? Ok, let’s unpack it.
“Praise the Lord!” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word hallelujah which is the first word in a number of the Psalms. It is formed by combining the verb “hallal” (to boast or praise) with “yah” (a shortened version of the name of the LORD).
But our modern use of the phrases “Praise the Lord!” and “Hallelujah!” makes no sense, because hallelujah is a verb in the imperative mood. In other words, hallelujah is a command.
In the same way we might tell a child “Clean your room!” the Psalmist commands us to “Praise the Lord!” A more precise translation of hallelujah is “Praise ye the Lord!”
In other words, when you say “Praise the Lord,” you’re actually issuing a command: “You, praise the Lord!” (Or, as my friends in the South would say, “Y’all, praise the Lord!”)
A command to praise is typically followed by a recounting of His deeds (Psalm 135); a recognition of His majesty (Psalm 148); a recitation of His virtues (Psalm 145); or further instructions about how, when, and where to praise Him (Psalm 150). Think about this with me for a minute.
To praise the Lord is to honor and recognize Him for who He is, what He has done, and to trust His promises. Praise is neither complicated nor simplistic, but it does require engagement of the mind. I need to pause and ponder: “What attribute of the Lord’s am I wanting to praise? What has He done that compels me to praise Him? How is God making Himself known to me in this moment?” It is only after I’ve identified the reason(s) why I want to praise Him that I can truly offer a sacrifice of praise.
“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”
Hebrews 13:15 ESV
We praise the Lord when we ascribe His attributes back to Him. His character. His name. In fact, this is only this type of praise we can genuinely offer in midst of life’s harshest trials and tribulations.
We offer the sacrifice of praise with the sentences we speak; the words we write; the thoughts we think; the songs we sing; the dances we perform; the art we create; and so on—NOT through the mindless repetition of an idiom that seems like the right thing to say in the moment.
The fact is, praise itself is like an empty box, and the only way to give praise is to fill the box with actual praises, otherwise it remains empty. Cliché. Vain. Devoid of meaning.
For example, when your son, Micah, aces his math test, you don’t praise him by saying, “Praise Micah!” That doesn’t mean anything. Instead, you speak truth to him about who he is and what he did.
Similarly, when your daughter, Leah, is hired as the summer camp intern, you don’t praise her by saying, “Praise Leah!” That would be weird. Instead, you speak truth to her about who she is and what she accomplished.
In the same manner, when God shows Himself faithful, you don’t praise Him by saying, “Praise the Lord,” which doesn’t mean anything. Instead, you speak truth to Him about who He is and what He did. You could say something like, “Lord, you are amazing! You promised you would take care of us, and you did! You are awesome. Your ways are not my ways. You are sovereign. I honor you for who you are!”
THAT, my friend, is what it means to PRAISE the Lord.
I hereby challenge us to remove the empty cliché, “Praise the Lord,” from our vocabulary and replace it with authentic praise from our hearts. This might take a while and require re-training ourselves, but it is a worthy goal.
Imagine a scenario where a friend shares good news with you.
For example, “My son just got his driver’s license on the first try!” You could respond out of habit, “Praise the Lord!” But what does that mean? “Yay!”? If so, you’ve used the Lord’s name a in mindless manner. If not, you’ve commanded your friend to “praise the Lord.” Either way, you’ve tipped your proverbial hat towards Heaven with no personal investment, no acknowledgement of who the Lord is or what He has done deserving of praise.
Is that what you thought you were doing? Or were you attempting to praise God for something? If so, what? Say that!
Imagine how transforming this practice will be in our daily lives and our relationships. Instead of saying the word “praise,” we actually give praise to God. And in the giving, we glorify the Lord by expressing His goodness, His faithfulness, and His sovereignty. We testify to His greatness, and in so doing, edify each other in Christ—which bears witness to those who are seeking the truth about God.
To help us get started with this new practice, I’ve created a free printable for you with “12 Alternatives to ‘Praise the Lord!”
Click to download a PDF of the POSTER(S) that accompany this devotional.
This devotional was originally published as part of a yearlong series of devotionals called “Rooted at the Throne.” Every month spearheaded by author and speaker Rachael Carman and featured on her blog.