Archive for January, 2011

Have Mercy: The Psalms in Our Worship 20

by   |  01.26.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Some days you don’t have much to say because you recognize the extent to which you need mercy.  Silence seems better than speaking.  Words fail to capture the subtleties of thought, the depths of emotions, the intricacies of interpersonal relationships.  Since we must speak, however, we seek the words that draw us back into the silence.  These words are not timid little things peaking furtively around the corners of our souls.  No, they are bold enough, but also realistic enough to recognize their own limitations.

So it is with Psalm 28, a quiet psalm with two parts.  Verses 1-5 cry out to God, who seems all too aloof and silent, for help, and in particular for moral re-formation.  Verses 6-9, in an extraordinary turn of mood, extol the Almighty’s willingness to help and tangible demonstration of that willingness.

Older scholars often described psalms like this as mixed-genre pieces.  Or they supposed that in the performance of the psalm, a priest stepped forward (presumably just after verse 5 was said) to offer a word of salvation.  This all may be true; no one knows for sure.  But what is clear is that the space between the cry to God for help and the answer to that cry is not too wide.  Praise and laments are not opposites, but close cousins.  They both depend on an awareness of the mighty mercy of God.

I am struck today by several of the lines.  Verse 3 asks God to separate the psalmist from those who “speak peace to their neighbors but have evil in their heart.”  There is a pun here in Hebrew: “their neighbors” = re’ehem (resh-ayin-he), while “evil” is ra’ah (resh-ayin-he).  The consonants are the same, but the vowels are different.  And what a difference a few vowels can make!  And how easy it is to hate a neighbor and scheme against that person, at least in our fantasies.  The psalmist wishes to differentiate himself from such persons, especially in the opinion of the God who sees hearts and thus discerns truths behind illusions and appearances.

The other bit to notice is the phrase in verse 6 “blessed be Yhwh.”  One often “blesses” God in the Old Testament.  Usually we translate the expression as “praise Yhwh,” which is an acceptable rendering.  But it is better to recognize that these texts seek to place God in the right place and to recognize that God has superlative qualities that humans ought to recognize.

It’s a short psalm, and I do not wish to break the silence too long today.  The good news is that, beyond the silence, there is One who speaks at just the right time and with just the right words.

A Conversation with Larry James of CitySquare

by   |  01.24.11  |  Uncategorized

CitySquare Forum Flyer

Sanctuary: The Psalms in our Worship 19

by   |  01.22.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

This week I spent three days in New York City on business.  A few hours of touring amid the work took me and a colleague to Grant’s Tomb and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, each a monument in its own way.  One honors a great man and the other seeks to honor God.  Both seem fitting and dignified, though for me, the cathedral offers much more to the soul.  As my colleague put it when he entered the soaring space, “so this is why they call it a sanctuary.”  Open space points ever upward to the great window depicting the Risen Lord.  The light streams in through the picture of Christ and saints, reminding us (if we are of an allegorical bent) that light best enters the darkness through those touched by God’s light.

The author of Psalm 27 would have understood this sentiment, I think.  This little poem has four parts: verses 1-3 express fearlessness in the face of adversity because of God’s protection; verses 4-6 explain why the poet is unafraid — he or she dwells in the house of God, the Temple, which provides refuge both physical and spiritual; verses 7-12 call upon God to continue that protection and express the expectation that God is faithful even when the most cherished relationships in life fail; and verses 13-14 summarize the spirituality of the psalm from two different perspectives, that of the interior state of the psalmist and that of the spiritual life of all who hear the psalm (hence the community of those who trust God).

Three features of the spirituality of the psalm stand out to me today.  One is the emphasis on place, and in particular, the power of the Temple (here, “the tent” or “pavilion”) to protect.  Israelites wrestled with the question of whether the building was itself a sort of magic talisman, as texts like 1 Kings 8 and Jeremiah 7 take pains to correct, but the key to the psalm’s idea is that God exercises a special care in that place.  It is a place of joyful thanksgiving (Hebrew: teru’ah) and thus a living reminder of the wonderful deeds of God.  In other words, it is a sanctuary of the spirit.

A second feature appears near the center of the Psalm, in verses 7-8: “Hear my voice when I call out, O Yhwh, and take delight in me and answer me.  My heart said to you ‘seek my face’; I sought/will seek your face O Yhwh.”  This is what the Hebrew text literally says.  It’s a bit confusing, however, and most scholars offer a slight modification of verse 8a: “my heart says about something related to you,” that is “something you said” etc.  In this case, verse 8a becomes a quotation of what God has said (“seek my face”), and verse 8b becomes the response.  This reading seems to make the most sense in the context.  And it reveals an important insight: the essence of the religious life is the search for God.  But it is not a search originating in the oft-frustrated desires of the human heart.  It is, instead, a search to which God has invited us.  And in that search, and especially in finding its object, we find rest.

A third feature that is striking appears in verse 10: “though my father and my mother abandon me….”  The Old Testament, like the religious traditions springing from it, Judaism and Christianity, highly values family and calls parents to be as trustworthy as humanly possible.  But the psalmist entertains the possibility, too often realized in everyday life, of the failure of parents to provide stability.  The effects of such actions are well-known to all of us.  The psalmist offers an alternative to human social protection: the protection of the God who cares for the orphans and the abused.

Curiously, the ancient and medieval commentators on this verse had a different take.  Rashi, the great 11th century Jewish commentator, talks in his commentary on the psalms (edited and translated by Mayer Gruber and published in paperback by the Jewish Publication Society in 2007) about the conception of David (who he thought wrote all the psalms).  Jesse and Mrs. Jesse had engaged in sex only for their own pleasure, says Rashi, but the God who superintends everything in the world, including even human sperm, created a human being.  Now as a rendering of the intentions of the psalm’s author for this metaphor, Rashi’s interpretation is pretty far-fetched.  But at the same time, it offers a deepening of the Psalm itself in some ways.  God is able to redeem human intentions without overwhelming the human beings involved.  This insight is worth preserving and reflecting on.

Thanks for sticking with me in this series on the Psalms.  We have a long way to go, but I hope the trip is worthwhile to you all!  Let me know what you think.

Seeking the Just Judge: The Psalms in our Worship 18

by   |  01.03.11  |  Uncategorized

One of the major images of God in Scripture is that of judge.  Yahweh is the God who evaluates and settles accounts, rectifying all the injustices of the world and bringing order where, before, chaos reigned.  As I’ve noted before, it’s a hard image for many of us because it conjures up memories of legalism and human hard-heartedness.  When applied to God, however, the image is appropriate since God can weave together mercy and fairness with a perfection that humans cannot equal.  In fact, the image of God as judge can be very liberating because it means we can turn loose of our felt need to evaluate and measure everything and everyone, especially ourselves and our own actions.  We need not worry whether these actions will “measure up” because they have been committed to God.

The author of Psalm 26 believes all this.  The psalm opens with an invitation to God to “judge me.”  How to translate this?  Does it mean “evaluate me” or “vindicate me” or “put me in my place”?  The second half of the line both answers the question and raises new ones: “for I walk in my perfection,” meaning apparently that the psalmist is confident that God will find nothing amiss in this person’s life.  How to understand a statement that seems to us so startlingly presumptuous?  The answer comes when we consider the alternatives: no one whose life is in tatters could reasonably apply to God for such assessment (there are laments and penitential psalms for such a person to use).  Nor could a person who has no confidence in God’s justice say such things.  We may find the psalmist’s confidence a bit excessive, but perhaps that is because we do not take seriously enough the power of God’s forgiveness and work to bring human beings to a higher state of virtue.  In other words, we may be so impressed by our own sinfulness that we allow it to outweigh God’s power to change our lives.  The psalmist does not make such a mistake.

The real resolution of the problem comes at the end of verse 1: “And I trust in Yahweh.”  One of the earliest theological lessons of my life came one evening when we were sitting in the car outside the grocery store waiting for my mother.  My grandmother Sullivan, for reasons I don’t remember, said to me, “I’m glad that Jesus is my judge and not my brothers and sisters.”  The context doesn’t matter much.  Perhaps it was one of our congregation’s many internal squabbles that she had in mind.  But her point was a profound one.  The God who judges can be trusted with that task, and therefore we have nothing to fear from it.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the implications of such a trust: confidence in the stories of God’s steadfast love, a reformed personality pursuing justice in all our associations, a passion for repose in God’s house, and a sharp distinction between those who trust God and those who do not.  The psalmist has found peace, not in the absence of conflict, but in the knowledge that a providence rides above the storm and shelters all who seek it diligently.

So, happy new year to all.  It would be hard to find a better reminder of why we hope for such a thing than this gorgeous little psalm.