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  • Jonathan Chan & Sng Li-Hwei

On ‘Total Praise’

Updated: Apr 5


In April 2024, the CCMC Gospel Choir will be presenting a rendition of the gospel music classic ‘Total Praise’ to the congregation.


Total Praise was written and composed in 1996 by gospel singer and composer Richard Smallwood. The song is composed in a style that blends gospel and classical influences, revealing Smallwood’s training in classical vocal performance and piano at Howard University.


Inspired by Psalm 121, the song’s lyrics are as such:


Lord I will lift mine eyes to the hills

Knowing my help is coming from You

Your peace You give me in time of the storm

 

You are the source of my strength

You are the strength of my life

I lift my hands in total praise to You

 

Amen



There is a simplicity and straightforwardness to the song that recalls an older tradition of hymnody. It is a song in direct conversation with the Lord, revealing an intimacy expressed between God and a speaker who is at a place of desperation; who feels cornered.


It is a situation that recalls the desperation of many figures in Scripture:

  • From Moses and the people of Israel being pursued by Pharaoh and his army (Exodus 14),

  • to Joshua being surrounded by formidable kingdoms (Joshua 7), from the fear of Prophet Elijah being hunted by King Ahab (1 Kings 19),

  • to the anguish of David in the midst of repentance (1 Samuel 23)

  • from the lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38)

  • to the imprisonment encountered by Paul and Barnabas, to which they responded with singing (Acts 16).


There is also the example of Christ Himself, feeling utterly abandoned on the cross (Matthew 27).


The ‘I’, or the speaker, of ‘Total Praise’ sings in the midst of a ‘storm’, a place of physical and mental fear and overwhelming.


The speaker’s prayer is articulated in the present tense, reminding us of our unchanging God, who is faithful in delivering His people from harm, just as He has in ages past. (Psalm 46).


The first two lines of the song echo the first two lines of Psalm 121:


"I lift up my eyes to the mountains– / where does my help come from?"


In the Psalm, the response to this rhetorical question is found in the consequent two lines: ‘My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth’.


In ‘Total Praise’, this is described as the knowledge the speaker has of the Lord’s provision and deliverance.


To look up is to assume a posture of devotion. It is to remember the faithfulness of God as a loving Father and constant companion.


To paraphrase Pastor David Ho in his previous sermons, when one lifts one’s hands in surrender, it is an expression of our acceptance of God’s loving embrace, to receive the Spirit’s power, and to praise Him when all other forms of expression fail.


The emphasis of the song lies in the ‘totality’ of one’s praise and worship, a kind of praise that demands everything of those devoted to the Lord.


It is akin to the widow who gave two coins in her alms giving at the temple in the Gospel of Luke, who Jesus extols for giving ‘all the livelihood that she had’.


Total Praise, composed in four parts and requiring substantial breathing discipline, is a physically demanding one. It requires not just complete attention from those who sing it, but a single-minded desire to praise the Lord with one’s mind, body, and soul.


It is a totality that can be observed in Psalms 41 and 72 as well, which praise the Lord for His grandeur, protection, sustenance, and marvellous works.


The song concludes with the layered singing of the word ‘Amen’, with both modulated and held parts. The ‘amens’ that conclude the song reveal an affirmation of all that has been sung, rising up like the incense that filled God’s temple in the Old Testament.


The Books of First and Second Corinthians attest to the fact that under our present covenant with Christ, our bodies have become the temple of the living God, with our praise rising like incense as He dwells with us.


In the Book of Revelation, John describes a vision of ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people’. The Lord, our redeemer, transforms our sorrows into joy as we praise Him; Psalm 30 describes how He turns ‘our wailing into dancing’ as we sing our praises, while Psalm 149 describes the expression of praise to God through music and dance.


As the Prophet Zephaniah affirms, as He restores us, the Lord also delights in us and exults over us ‘with loud singing’.


Total Praise is a song that contains powerful expressions of devotion, hunger and desire for the Lord. It is a song that lends itself to a posture of complete surrender in worship.


And as with so many hymns, there lies a moving testimony behind its composition. Total Praise was written by Richard Smallwood at a time when he was serving as a caregiver to both his mother, who was grappling with dementia, and a family friend, who was slowly succumbing to cancer.


The song came to Smallwood in a dream, which has led him to leaving an audio recorder by his bed. Smallwood had intended to write ‘a pity-party song’ due to his feelings of being abandoned by the Lord.


Yet, as he describes, ‘God pulled me to do a praise song. God said, ‘I want your praise no matter what the situation you are in, good or bad.’ It’s about trusting him.’


Smallwood completed the song faster than his other songs, with a fully-realised vision for its four parts and the layering of the song’s ‘amens’.


On completing the song, Smallwood explains:

 

God spoke to my spirit and began to explain that he deserves praise in whatever season we find ourselves in.
What I call “mountaintop praise,” when everything is going well and you have so much to praise God for, is easy. But the opposite of that is what I call “valley praise,” when you are in a dark situation and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But yet we praise God anyhow, because we understand that this too shall pass, and even though it’s a dark situation, God is with us through it. Writing that song, for me, was a teaching moment from God.

 

As with so many times in the course of his ministry, Smallwood has described how he has come to realise that songs written from a place of pain, sorrow, and anguish have been the songs that have allowed him to best connect with people and their own pain.


It is a realisation that is consonant with the gospel music tradition, which is grounded in both praise and lamentation.


The song has since been translated and sung in Norwegian, Samoan, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, German, French, Korean, and Bahasa Indonesia, among other languages.


As we prepare to sing this song as a church, we encourage you to sing with courage, with the knowledge of the Lord’s provision and deliverance, and above all, to sing from a place of devotion, one that seeks to please the Lord more than yourself or any other creature.

 

Lord I will lift mine eyes to the hills

Knowing my help is coming from You

Your peace You give me in time of the storm

 

You are the source of my strength

You are the strength of my life

I lift my hands in total praise to You

 

     Amen


 

References 1. Bob Marovich, ‘Genesis Of A Gospel Song: “Total Praise” By Richard Smallwood’, Journal of Gospel Music, 15 October 2015, https://journalofgospelmusic.com/gospel/genesis-of-a-gospel-song-total-praise-by-richard-smallwood/

 

2. Keith L. Alexander, ‘Millions of gospel fans know Richard Smallwood's music. But not his struggles.’, The Washington Post, 23 July 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/the-richard-smallwood-you-know-4-doves-10-stellars-8-grammy-noms/2015/07/22/553d5cfc-0a28-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html.

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