July 10, 2013

Can we “lift up” God’s name?

by Jesse Johnson

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?

Lift on high

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.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
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  • So, since I’m preaching through Philippians, the first text that my mind jumped to as I was reading was Philippians 1:20-21, where Paul says that his earnest expectation and hope is that Christ will be exalted, or magnified, in his body, whether by life or death. His meaning is that, whether he dies a martyr’s death at the hands of Nero or whether he is released and goes on, what is the bedrock of his joy is that Christ will be lifted up in his life — that he will live or die in such a way as to make Christ look as great as He really is.

    I think that’s called “lifting Him up” or “magnifying Him,” not because Paul actually raises Christ to a higher ontological level of greatness. I also don’t think Paul is saying this because somehow he detects that he was dishonoring the name of Christ somehow and is now repenting. I think he’s saying that Christ isn’t seen to be as great and as glorious as He actually is by so many people, as a general rule, and that Paul’s actions in his life or his death will display those glories so that those who don’t honor Christ will begin to esteem Him as He is worth.

    As Piper says, we magnify God not like a microscope, but like a telescope. A microscope takes something infinitesimally small and makes it appear bigger than it actually is. But a telescope takes something humongous, like stars and planets and galaxies, and, because of our inability to overcome the distance that’s between us, gives us a perspective on the size of those celestial bodies as they actually are: huge and glorious.

    So, when I think of exalting or magnifying God, or “lifting His name on high,” I’m thinking that I want to live my life in such a way that my life, in some measure by the grace of God, becomes a telescope by which God’s glory is shown to be what it is — which is greater than what I and others perceive it to be.

    Which is kinda what you said towards the end there. 🙂

    • Yeah, I”m with you Mike. For some reason I see two differences between Phil 1 and the songs about lifting up God’s name.
      1. In Phil 1, it is certainly the name of Jesus (and the message of the Messiah) that Paul hopes to be lifted up. And certainly that name has been made low…He was literally crucified by his own people, and his followers were literally persecuted by Paul (who ironically now faces death for exalting the name of Jesus himself).
      2. Many of those songs are about SINGING, whereas Paul’s point is about LIVING (or, as the case may be, DYING).

      The point that I was getting at, which I made with a debatable degree of success, is that you don’t exalt God’s name by singing it over and over again. You exalt his name John Piper style–by making much of his gospel in your life.

      I’m not opposed to those songs–I wouldn’t fight them on the street corner or anything. My main take away (which I should have said more clearly) is that when I sing those songs now I strive to think about the lyrics in terms of how I’m going to live my life, more then in terms of the singing at the moment. I’m still not comfortable with the idea of “the louder our voices are, the more God’s name is exalted.”

      • Thanks man. That definitely does help to clarify. And I’m on board. Maybe one thing that I’d want to add, though, is that since God is most glorified in us when we’re most satsified in Him ( 🙂 ), singing praise as an overflow that satisfaction would itself be an act that exalts God, right?

        Nevertheless, I think your point is valid. When we’re commanded to exalt God, our reaction shouldn’t be: “Ok. ‘Lord I lift your name on high,'” as if the mere speaking of those words does anything magical. It’s to be satisfied with Christ to such a degree that your life, speech, worship, etc. brings attention to His infinite worth.

        Thanks for your thoughts, Jesse. They’ve helped me to worship today.

  • Holly Mathis Tartaglia

    Job 36:24 “Remember that you should exalt His work,

    Of which men have sung.”

    Psa. 34:3 O magnify the LORD with me,

    And let us exalt His name together.

    Psa. 46:10 “Cease striving and know that I am God;

    I will be bexalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

    Can you give me some clarification on the above verses based on what you have written in this article? Thanks, Jesse!

    • Thanks for those verses Holly. I hadn’t thought of the Job 36 verse. It is noteable that there is a connection between exalting and singing there for sure.

      My main takeaway from verses like that is that when I’m singing songs about lifting God’s name up, I want to make sure that I’m viewing those lyrics through the lens of how I want to live my life. It’s not necessarily that we exalt God’s name by singing, as much as we do it by how we live, and I certainly think that’s what Elihu meant in Job 36 (as in, people sing about God’s works, so you remember that you give him praise through your life, or something along those lines).

      As for Psalm 46, I agree. God will be exalted in the earth, and he will be exalted in the nations. That is going to happen, and it is right to praise God for that, and even to sing about it. At risk of undercutting the point of post, I’m a fan of singing about the victory that God will have on this planet when Jesus returns in judgment, and I love singing about the expansion of the gospel through evangelism and conversion. My concern is that in many of today’s songs, those themes are dropped and replaced by the them of “we exalt God by singing.” I guess that is the difference I’m fishing for. I grant that I need to think more about Elihu’s words to to Job though. Thanks Holly!

      • Holly Mathis Tartaglia

        I come from a charismatic background, so I can be very critical of contemporary Christian music, something I have to be careful of! I agree that exalting does not equal singing, but may include singing. Thank you for the time you took to respond! It did clarify your point in my mind!

  • Joshua Grauman

    Also see Psalm 99:5, 9.

    • Sweet. Thanks Joshua. Those are pretty key verses that tie exalting God to worship.
      So what is your take on those kind of songs? I want to be able to sing them with a clean conscience, but I guess I feel like repeating “we exalt you” is actually successful in exalting God. What do you think?

      • Joshua Grauman

        Your post intrigued me so I just did a search and found those verses and thought I’d throw them into the mix. I haven’t studied it extensively, but it seems to me that the biblical theme to make God’s name great is really the idea of making His reputation great (God’s name and reputation are often connected in the OT at least). Obviously, as you point out, we are not actually making God any greater, but we are seeking to raise up His reputation among people because He deserves to be worshiped by all people on earth. I agree that merely repeating “I exalt you” probably isn’t the best way to actually exalt God (= make His reputation great). This would be done by telling/declaring/proclaiming of His character and works so that peoples’ estimation of Him would increase.

  • Gavin Baxter

    “And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” Luke 1:46-49. I think we (also) exalt by recognising His sovereignty over every circumstance of our lives.

    • Well said Gavin. I totally agree with the John Piper analogy (Mike references it below) about magnifying like a microscope vs. a telescope. We are called to magnify God in the telescope way, which is to say by living our lives in such a way that it takes God’s infinitely huge attributes and presents them clearly to others. But we are not called to do it the microscope way, of pretending God’s attributes are small, and us making them bigger. I think Mary certainly falls into the first category.

      Thanks for your comment Gavin.

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