Hallelujah: The highest praise?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 September

I’ve heard a whole lot of people claim the Hebrew word hallelujah means “highest praise.” It doesn’t.

The word הַ֥לְלוּ/hallelú is an imperative verb which means “praise ye,” or “praise, all of you,” and יָ֨הּ/Yah (KJV “Jah”) is of course short for יְ֭הוָה/YHWH, the LORD. It literally means “praise ye the LORD.” Exactly like this old children’s worship song I grew up with. (YouTube has a version of it with cats. Yea cats!)

Hallelu hallelu hallelu hallelujah
Praise ye the LORD
Hallelu hallelu hallelu hallelujah
Praise ye the LORD
Praise ye the LORD
Praise ye the LORD
Praise ye the LORD
Praise ye the LORD

The children’s pastor would instruct one half of the room to stand to sing, “Hallelujah,” then sit while the other half stood to sing “Praise ye the LORD.” Of course the song would speed up as we repeated it, and we kids found all this jumping out of our seats to be very entertaining. It’s why you don’t see it practiced this way in a lot of adult services. Way too many creaking knees.

It’s a very simple song, but it’s meant to teach us precisely what “hallelujah” means. It’s technically not even praise! It’s the command to praise. “Praise ye the LORD” tells people to praise God… and leaves it up to us as to how we’re gonna praise him. Maybe with loud musical instruments, Ps 150.3-5 maybe with singing. Ps 150.6 Maybe with art, dance, barbecue… all of which are actually in the bible, believe it or don’t. Heck, why not a laser light show? Get creative!

But of course not every Christian has grown up with this children’s song, and a lot of us have taken our definition from another song—CeCe Winans’ 2003 song “Hallelujah Praise (The Highest Praise).” Which begins like so.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah is the highest praise, hallelujah is the highest praise
Hallelujah is the highest praise, hallelujah is the highest praise

Lately I’ve heard it in Bishop Carlton Pearson’s 2019 song “Hallelujah is the Highest Praise.” Other gospel artists are repeating the idea, ’cause it’s all over the place. But let’s be fair; the teaching didn’t originate with Winans. I’ve heard it long before her song came out.

It’s obviously not based on bible. Not just because of what the word hallelujah literally means, but because God makes it pretty obvious that saying fancy, holy-sounding biblical-language words are way less important to him than simply obeying him. Praise him aloud till your throat’s sore, but if you don’t do what he says, what good is that? “Hallelujah” in the mouth of an unbeliever or hypocrite isn’t even remotely the highest praise.

What’s the highest praise we an offer Jesus? Do as he says. Abide in him. Jn 15.4 The devout, fruitful, obedient Christian can say nothing, and by their actions praise God mightily.

What does the bible call the highest praise?

If you’re dead set on poring through the bible looking for what God considers the most profound spoken-word statement of praise we can give him… well, here are a few nominees.

HOSANNA. On 29 March 33, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and the crowds greeted him with the Hebrew saying יָשַׁע נָא/yaša na, which in Greek became ὡσαννά/osanná, which in English became hosanna.

Hosanna means either “save us!” or “oh, salvation!”, and is a form of praise; and you’ll notice the Judeans exclaimed hosanna instead of hallelujah. But this might very well be because the praise was directed towards Jesus, and if you didn’t know Jesus is YHWH, you’d understandably think it was wrong to praise a mere human with hallelujah.

THE LORD’S NAME. On 31 October 445BC, Nehemiah held a ceremony where the Levites read the Law to the people of Judea, then worshiped him like so:

Nehemiah 9.5 NET
The Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah—said, “Stand up and bless the LORD your God!”
“May you be blessed, O LORD our God, from age to age. May your glorious name be blessed; may it be lifted up above all blessing and praise.”

To these Levites, the name of the LORD himself is “above all blessing and praise.” That’s the highest praise: YHWH. The name he chose for himself; the name above every name. (That, and the other name he chose for himself, “Jesus.”)

The LORD himself indicates his name is a profound statement in his description of himself to Moses.

Exodus 34.6-7 NET
6 The LORD passed by before him and proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Not for nothing does God start by declaring his name twice. Not for nothing does he repeatedly state in the Law, “I am the LORD.” It means he’s not playing around. This is holy stuff here.

Leviticus 20.7-8 NET
7 “You must sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. 8 You must be sure to obey my statutes. I am the LORD who sanctifies you.”

And lest you’ve forgotten, we Christians invoke Jesus’s name an awful lot for the very same reason. It identifies us as his. It requests his approval and power. It invokes him; we call upon him because we want his help, and want him to be with us! Jesus is YHWH, so if the name of the LORD is high praise, so’s the name of Jesus.

Identifying our God as the LORD—recognizing the LORD is our God, and only the LORD, and not mixing him up with other gods like money and prosperity and patriotism and our own likes and dislikes—is the highest praise, for it leads us to take him seriously and actually follow him. And like I said, following him is definitely a form of high praise.

HOLY HOLY HOLY. Lastly, round the year 68, John had a vision of the living creatures round God’s throne. Which don’t praise him day and night with hallelujah. They prefer to go with

Revelation 4.8 NET
“Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful,
Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

They praise God with his holiness… and likewise invoke his name. Their words κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ/kýrios o Theós o pantokrátor, “Lord God Almighty,” are most likely a reference to Isaiah 6.3, when the seraphs said something mighty similar.

Isaiah 6.3 NET
They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Heaven’s Armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!”

These angelic creatures praise God with three statements of “holy.” Christians have historically presumed this has something to do with the trinity, but nah; more likely it’s the ancient Hebrew custom of saying a word multiple times so you get the idea they really do mean it. The LORD really is holy. And that’s how these angelic beings offer God their highest verbal praise—by invoking his name, and by calling him holy.

So there ya go: Three nominees for the most praiseworthy words you can say to God. Though I’m still gonna say the highest praise is obedience.

So why do people keep saying this?

Duh; because it sounds good. Because passing along a half-baked saying is way easier than fact-checking it with bible.

Because saying hallelujah, nice ’n loud, is way, way easier than actually learning what Jesus teaches and doing it. Way easier for our corporate worship to consist of shaking the building with our shouting and singing, than for it to consist of doing so many good deeds, of producing so much good fruit, pagans can’t help but take notice.

If hallelujah is our highest praise, our praise comes extremely cheap. All we gotta do is say a word! And psyche ourselves into saying it with feeling. There!—we’ve just done the very best we can do to praise God. He’s gotta appreciate that. Maybe stick some extra jewels in our crowns because of our fervor, yeah?

See, the more we look at it, the more ridiculous and shallow it gets to claim hallelujah is the very highest praise we can offer God. We can obviously do better. We can love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; Mk 12.30 and you notice nowhere in the greatest command does it include our voice. God prioritizes those other things anyway.

So hallelu YHWH—praise ye the LORD—with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And with singing and loud music too, but again, priorities.