A friend who is a regular churchgoer complained to me privately about the notion that God would require people to sing his praises, as if his ego needed a boost. The Bible is full of such injunctions, and most worship services are built around the idea that we owe God our thanks and praise, as if he were some sort of Middle Eastern potentate. In a sense, of course, he is. A central metaphor in Scripture is that God is a monarch, and all creation is his kingdom. In ancient times, kings ruled by divine right or were regarded as divine themselves, and they were surrounded by courtiers whose job it was to sing their praises. The hosannas that leap from the pages of Scripture may sound strange to modern ears. Sure, we play “Hail to the Chief” when the president shows up, but then we turn around and mock him on late-night TV. We aren’t predisposed to bow down to anyone, which makes it all the harder to understand all the prostrations and genuflecting that go on in some worship services.
Leave it to totalitarian regimes with ideologies that are nominally atheistic to resurrect the trappings of divine-right rule, and then some. As a kid growing up during the 1950s, I remember news footage of the May Day celebrations in Communist countries, with their parades of military hardware, the goose-stepping soldiers and the colossal images of Lenin or Mao in heroic poses hanging from the sides of buildings. Years later it was learned that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had secretly gone before the 20th Party Congress in 1956 to denounce Joseph Stalin’s “cult of personality.” Khrushchev accused Stalin of appropriating the formidable political and cultural apparatus of the Soviet state for his own glorification, including rewriting history books to bolster his role in the Russian Revolution. As if to confirm Karl Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-sung established a hereditary dictatorship in North Korea, where he was lionized by school children as the one who had “created the world.” With his son Kim Jong-il and now his grandson Kim jong-un running the show, hereditary deities have become a state religion for the first time since the heyday of Christianity.
Apparently God cannot be abolished without having to invent another one. Idolatry calls forth its own praises, which often have the same ring as true religious worship but are essentially hollow. God does not need our praises, whereas despots crave it as their sole claim to legitimacy. We do not sing God’s praises to flatter him or to fulfill an obligation. Praise and thanksgiving arise spontaneously when we come into God’s presence and are filled with wonder at his creation. We praise him because we are glad to be alive and thankful we belong to him. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” the Psalms say. And so everything does, each in its own way.