A question like that from a child signals the emergence of something interesting and promising. A new sensitivity to the invisible has formed: seeing the wind’s effect on waving branches and drifting clouds, hearing the jangling chimes, and feeling the breeze across our faces. A curious new person, noticing all of this, is more than justified in asking, “Well, what is it then? Why can’t I see it?”
The answer—that the air isn’t empty but full, packed with microscopic particles that move in response to many variables—is not just an answer but an initiation. It ushers a child into a world where invisibility doesn’t mean vacancy. The air that surrounds them is thick with “stuff” that shifts and moves, leaps and blows. The world, they learn, is ambient.
As we mature, and our familiarity with ambience grows, we take it for granted. In the case of sound, our minds liquify the drumming of urban noise and the cacophony of nature’s cries into a pulse whose existence we sense but rarely hear. We even come to rely on it, to the point that offices and shopping centers pipe in artificial white noise because, without it, we get edgy and irritable. Without ambience, our world feels wrong to us somehow.
The sooner we begin to notice this, the better. Knowing that we live in an ambient world is an invaluable posture for life with God when everything seems empty. It’s a life that the world of Psalm 148 pulls us into and invites our imaginations to absorb.
Fullness in Emptiness
“Praise!” Six times in the first eight verses, either “Praise the LORD” or “Praise him” begins a sentence. Right from the start, the psalmist is asking us to feel the immediacy of worship. There’s a sense that worship is already underway as our imaginations step into the psalm. The scope is cosmic. Alive with praise are “all his angels,” “sun and moon . . . [and] all you shining stars,” “you highest heavens,” each of them anchored by the refrain of “Praise!” This worship, this repeated refrain of “Praise the LORD!” is the ambient backbeat of every solar system and sunspot and supernova, and it’s happening right now. You are awash in its echoes.
Not to be outdone, the rest of creation follows suit:
Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds (vv. 7–10)
With them, the ambience multiplies. And finally, after 10 verses, come the people: “Kings of the earth and all nations . . . young men and women, old men and children” (vv. 11–12). That it takes this long doesn’t feel like a coincidence, does it? In this psalm, we enter the picture only after the full frame has been set, after the ambient chorus of every piece of creation, visible and invisible, has been established.
Seeing fullness in apparent emptiness is one of the great challenges of life. What’s going on, we wonder, in all those barren spaces in the world: the great gulfs of time when nothing seems to be happening, the voids where justice and hope seem to have vanished, the abysses in our hearts where our longings scream themselves hoarse? It takes training to sense the Lord in them. It’s hard.
Psalm 148 is part of that training. It creates a space where we sit alongside all creation and, with holy imagination, learn to feel the ambient purr of worship as it fills stagnant emptiness.
Students, as you look at the future of this school year, perhaps “emptiness” is the word that best describes your experience. Maybe you’re keenly aware of being sequestered at home or on campus, watching Zoom classes alone on dodgy Wi-Fi, looking at a vacant social calendar with no activities or community on the horizon and with no hope that anything will change anytime soon. You’re squinting into the stale, vacant world of COVID-19 that surrounds you, looking for any sign of life and feeling nothing.
Let Psalm 148 take you by the hand and guide you into great news: the world is ambient with the thunderous dynamism of worship. As you read this, the praise of all creation is mixing with the presence of God whose “glory towers over the earth and heaven” (v. 13), gusting and whirling in the empty spaces of your life in ways that, like the wind, we can’t see but can feel.
The psalm concludes with a final promise: “[God] has made his people strong, honoring his faithful ones . . .” (v. 14). Amid the roaring praise that fills the cosmos, God whispers a promise that he is making you and me into something sturdy, deep-rooted, ironclad.
In every place that feels empty, we are not set adrift in nothing but are surrounded by the strongest of somethings: the ambient, invisible joy of creation’s praise that fills us with strength. This semester, when your heart quavers before whatever feels hopeless, rest your heart on Psalm 148. Feel the worship that thickens the world, and be filled with the strength that thickens your soul.
After a decade of chronic illness, I’ve learned how my body and heart speak the same language. The pain in my head tells of the twist in my heart. I’m still sleepless—mind, body, and soul. I wonder if your new realities feel sleepless, too?