An increasingly common theme in worship songs is a refrain along the lines of “let your name be lifted higher,” “we lift your name up,” “we exalt you,” or something similar. Behind those words is the idea that in our song we lift up the name of God, which is to say we exalt his attributes.
I’ve always wondered about those kind of lyrics. Is it biblical to “exalt” God? Certainly we are called to exult in God. But are what does it mean to lift God up? Does he need our help?
Bob Kauflin points out that this language is tricky in worship for the simple reason that God is not like us. In human relationships, when you praise someone in front of others, the value of the praised person increases in the eyes of those who over hear the praise. If I tell people how helpful and godly one of my friends is, your estimation of that person increases (assuming you believe I’m telling the truth). You previously didn’t know how kind and helpful he was, and now you have heard my report, so your thoughts about him are lifted higher.
But is that true of God?
Not in the same way. Surely honor given to God is magnified when more people sing it (even more so when more people live it, and even more so when they explain it). But this adds nothing to his intrinsic glory. Certainly his attributes cannot be lifted up. After all, his name is above all names. We can’t make it any higher than that.
God’s glory can be proclaimed. His name can be praised, and we praise him all the time. But can we lift it “higher” than it is?
When the Bible uses the world exalt or lift up, it means to take something that is low and raise it up. For example, Yahweh says that he will, “exalt that which is low, and bring low that which is exalted” (Ezekiel 21:26). And with that in mind, much of the Bible’s use of that kind of language has a negative connotation. Enemies exalt themselves against Israel (Ezekiel 29:25), or the arrogant lift themselves up against God (Numbers 16:3). Meanwhile God will find the humble and exalt them (James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6).
But can people ever exalt God? If we could, wouldn’t that imply that he was already low?
Well, there are a few examples of this: Psalm 34:3, which says, “ Proclaim with me Yahweh’s greatness; let us exalt His name together.” When Nebuchadnezzar was converted, he turned the theme of God exalting the humble on its head: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of heaven, because all His works are true and His ways are just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Daniel 4:27). Finally, Isaiah declares, “O Yahweh, You are my God; I will exalt You, I will give thanks to Your name” (Isaiah 25:1).
What isn’t apparent at first glance is that all of these verses have one thing in common. They all come in a context where people who are attached to Yahweh’s name in someway instead brought shame on his name. Then, because they shamed God, they were brought low by God, and when they repented, they expressed a desire to raise God’s name. As evidence of their repentance they wanted to restore the name of God to its rightful place, and those lines are really an expression of shame that they contributed to others thinking lightly of God.
In Psalm 34, David was repenting from feigning madness before Abimelech, and as part of his repentance he wished that he could exalt God’s name with God’s people. In Isaiah 25, Israel had shamed God’s reputation, and God had destroyed the city (and thus his own reputation). Isaiah’s cry is that God would rebuild the city, and with it, his name. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar had seen God’s deliverance of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and had made a decree that nobody could speak evilly of God. He was shamed about how he had treated Daniel, and—by extension—Daniel’s God, so he commanded that his subjects exalt God. He realized he had made God low, and now wanted others to fix his error.
So, where does that leave us? A few observations:
- Exalting God is an unusual phrase in the Bible. Normally God exalts us, or evil people exalt themselves against God. Only three times (that I could find) does Scripture describe people as exalting God.
- All three of those times are in a particular context: people rebelled against God, and their rebellion was spurred by those who should know better acting sinfully, and forcing God to act in judgment. His name was made low, God punishes, and in response/repentance, the one who brought God’s name low is calling on others to raise it back up again.
So when we sing songs that call on us to “lift up God’s name,” understand that it is often a statement of repentance. That doesn’t mean that it can never be used to refer to singing louder, or singing praises together. I’m not totally convinced that phrases like this can only be from a place of sorrow, and the fact that Scripture uses the concept at all means that it can also be seen as the godly expression of a humble worshiping heart. Though we clearly cannot add to the intrinsic glory of God we can recognize it (albeit through our sinful, finite understanding) and desire that God’s name be “lifted up,” or acknowledged, among men–especially if our own lives have brought shame on God’s name.
Next time you sing a song with a refrain like this, pause and think specifically for ways you have brought God’s name low among others. Repent of that, and then sing from a place in your heart where you desire God’s name to receive the glory from others that it deserves.