17th English churchman Thomas Fuller said that “flattery is to friendship what a wolf is to a dog.” They may appear similar on the outside, but have very different intentions! Similarly, flattery and praise tend to look alike at first glance. The distinction is not so much in the content of the remark, but in the objective. According to human development experts, flattery is based on an ulterior motive that only benefits the flatterer. Praise, on the other hand, is based in genuine appreciation and esteems or encourages the receiver for his or her own benefit.
Because of the fine line between the two, it is possible to cross over from one to the other without even realizing it. A church worship leader gives some thought-provoking questions to help discern whether this might be taking place:
· Would I offer this praise if I had nothing to gain from it?
· Would I offer this praise if that person wasn’t even on my team?
· Are these my true feelings or an exaggeration?
· Do I say one thing to my team member and something completely different to a staff leader?
This leads to the most important question of all: is it possible that some of what I believe is praise to God is actually just flattery intended to “butter him up” or, at the very least, sound more polite before dropping my list of prayer requests? If it’s a genuine and often unrealized temptation to do this with the people in our lives, then isn’t it possible that it’s entered into our prayer lives as well? Perhaps one diagnostic question we could ask ourselves to find out is “do I ever pray without asking for anything?” I am in no way minimizing our need to bring requests to the Lord. That function of prayer is both welcome and commanded as an expression of our trust! But the question remains, is there EVER a time when we pray and exclusively praise. That might sound like such a foreign concept that we may not even know what such a thing would look like. Fortunately, there is an excellent example of that very thing in Nehemiah chapter 9.
Fresh out of exile, Ezra and Nehemiah work in tandem to rebuild Jerusalem and help the nation rebuild their spiritual framework at the same time. A large pulpit is constructed and Ezra spends half of a day reading from the ancient text. The Spirit moves through the word, and conviction seizes the consciences of the Judeans, bringing tears of sorrow to their eyes as grief over their sins flows out of their broken hearts. It’s a moving scene as Nehemiah, aware of their contrition and desire to change assures them of the goodwill of their God and tells them to wipe their tears so they can begin to celebrate with joy! This spirit of revival continues throughout the month with daily scripture readings and prayers, one of which is recorded for us word-for-word in this chapter. Levites, the official tribe of ministers in Israel, stand up to lead in this remarkable prayer that is notable for the fact that it doesn’t contain any requests (except maybe one, in verse 32…. And it’s debatable whether they’re really asking for something there…). This is praise in its purest form, and suggests more than a dozen different topics of praise through which we also can give God glory. Here they are without a lot of comment. I believe the passages speak for themselves, so see if you can't read the verses yourself and see the connection...
1. Praise God for his inherent attributes (v.5)
5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.
2. Bless God for his creative power (v.6)
6 “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.
3. Bless God for his sovereign and gracious choices (v.7)
7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham.
4. Bless God for keeping his promises (v.8)
8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.
5. Bless God for his compassion (v.9)
9 “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, 10
6. Bless God for his justice (v.10)
10 and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day.
7. Bless God for his protection (v.10-11)
11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters.
8. Bless God for his Guidance (v.12)
12 By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go.
9. Bless God for his truth (v.13-14)
13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant.
10. Bless God for his provision of material things (v.15)
15 You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.
11. Bless God for his mercy (v.16-17)
16 “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
12. Bless God for his patience (v.18-19 +)
18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness
13. Bless God for his restoration (v.27-28)
28 But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies.
I did mention that there was possibly one request in the midst of this prayer and it comes in verse 32
32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day.
In modern terms, it reads “Don’t let this be for nothing.” While some see that as a request, it is just as likely to be a statement of confidence “you won’t let this, our national experience, be for nothing. Of course, even if it is asking for something, we already know the answer: According to the Apostle Paul in Romans 11, the up’s and down’s of Israel have opened the way of salvation through Christ to the nations including you and I, so that BOTH groups might be reconciled to God. Which leads us to the last point:
14. Bless God for his perfect plan of salvation!