You, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. – Psalm 97:9
Simple does not mean shallow. “I exalt thee” is a very simple refrain. But there is great depth in making this your heart-cry, both in corporate worship, and in the living sacrifice of everyday life.
Exalting God together gets to the very heart of why we were created. Psalm 34:3 says, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” Exalting God, lifting him high with our words of praise and adoration, is a way of magnifying God, or glorifying God. This is what all creation in general, and humanity specifically, was designed to do: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
And “exalting God” is another way of saying, “worshiping God.” Psalm 99, verses 5 and 9 say, “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship . . .” When we sing, “I exalt thee,” we’re not only saying, “We glorify thee,” but also, “We worship thee.” And “thee” is just an old way of saying “you” — and especially in the context of a worship song like this it can signal the kind of respect we have for God, not as one of our peers, but as our creator, as one who is infinitely valuable and infinitely worthy of our praise.
The Miracle of Exaltation
It’s worth noting that God’s purpose for us is not that we exalt him as isolated individuals, but that we exalt him together. And it’s also worth noting that this is not something we do naturally. In our sin nature, we are inclined to exalt ourselves, not God. It takes a miracle of the Holy Spirit for God to take a self-exalting heart, like ours, and turn it into a heart that would genuinely want to exalt God. That we would have a heart like John the Baptist’s, to say about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).
This is not to say that God doesn’t exalt us. It is pretty amazing that Jesus himself, and his apostles, give us promises about God exalting us. Jesus says, in Luke 18:14, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” And both James and Peter say, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10; see also 1 Peter 5:6).
We Exalt Jesus
But the most important thing the New Testament has to say about “exalting” is not about God exalting us, but about God exalting Jesus — and this greatly informs and fuels our exalting of God the Father and His Son.
Twice in the book of Acts we are told that God the Father has exalted Jesus “at his right hand” (Acts 2:33 and 5:31). So also Hebrews 7:26 says that Jesus has been “exalted above the heavens.” And perhaps most importantly, Philippians 2:9–11 says,
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The greatest exaltation is not God’s exalting of us in our humility. And it’s not even our exalting of God—important as it is. But it’s God exalting his Son, in view of his perfect life and atoning death, as he raised him from the death and seated him at his right hand, in the most exalted and privileged place in all the universe.
So, now, when we sing, “I exalt thee,” we mean not only God the Father, who created us to exalt him, but we also mean God the Son, who purchased us with his own blood, that we might experience the miracle of a new heart and sing with joy this simple, but deep, refrain of pure worship.