Posts Tagged ‘Psalms’

God’s p.r. agents: The Psalms in Our Worship 45

by   |  01.12.12  |  Uncategorized

One of the recurring notions of the Bible that seems counter-intuitive to many of us is that God’s reputation among human beings matters and that we religious people have some bearing on it.  It’s not that the Bible thinks that God needs human beings to carry out a given plan (as in the Star Trek film “The Final Frontier,” in which Spock’s half-brother Sybok thinks he’s being called by God, but finds instead a somewhat psychotic being trapped on a planet far from earth — that’s not the biblical picture of Israel’s God!).  But since the plans about which we know — assuming that God is up to many things that do not concern us — involve us and our reformation, what we think about those plans seems to matter.

So what do we think?  Psalm 57 begins with a call for divine graciousness, “for my life has taken refuge in you, yes, I have hidden in your wings’ shadow.”  The psalmist expresses an ongoing state of trust in the Almighty, a bold confidence that all will be well, in spite of the ferocity of opponents (v. 4 [5 in Hebrew]).  The psalmist’s confidence in God’s trustworthiness outweighs his/her awareness of the reality of danger on every hand.  Without denying the reality of evil in the world, the psalmist believes that God’s goodness outweighs evil.

The psalm next turns to a cry for future continuation of God’s past work.  “Let it arise over the heavens, O God, your glory over all the earth.”  The refrain opens and closes a major unit of the psalm, giving a sense of the whole.  In the Hebrew text, the word for “your glory” comes at the very end of the sentence, as if our poet wishes to make us wait to wonder what he or she wishes to extend over the heavens and the earth.  God’s splendor, shown by the willingness to save vulnerable human beings, transcends everything else in the cosmos, making all else pale in importance by comparison.  A world in which a gracious God reigns is a world that human beings can safely inhabit.

If the cosmos somehow reflects God’s care for us, and if the psalm is an example of how human beings testify to that, and if that testimony matters because other human beings can learn from it, then what is the nature of the testimony?  Two things: human beings can join God in the struggle against evil, and this struggle takes place in the context of celebration.  Thus verse 8 (Hebrew 9) calls for a new level of enthusiasm: “rouse up O harp and lyre, rouse up my liver” [emending the text slightly; Israelites often spoke of the “liver” the way we speak of the heart or mind).  The redeemed person has every reason to celebrate because we participate in the overcoming of evil.

A final, perhaps random, thought.  Like many people, I find it pretty easy to get discouraged by events in the world.  Some things just bug me, and you can guess what they are.  Some things should irritate us, because there is such a thing as righteous indignation.  The key is to pick which things.  But, at the same time, there are many things that inspire confidence in the possibilities for goodness in my fellow human beings, and even in myself.  Sometimes, it’s okay to say so.  Someone has said that cynics are just disappointed idealists.  Can we hold onto our idealism just a little longer?  If we do, is there a chance that others might notice and wonder what we found that they can find too?  Psalm 57 thinks so.  Many days — not always — I do too.

The Sweet Joy of Forgiveness: The Psalms in Our Worship 24

by   |  02.24.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Blessed is the one whose transgression is lifted off, whose sin is covered over.  Blessed is the one to whom Yahweh does not attribute guilt and in whose spirit is no treachery.

One of the hardest parts of writing anything is knowing where to begin.  The Psalmist could hardly have chosen a better opening.  In just 15 words in Hebrew, Psalm 32 offers a picture of a possible reality.  Conceiving of sin as a burden to be carried or a blemish to be hidden, this text enters into the very soul of the follower of Israel’s God.  The faithful life is about the removal of the terrible weights that crush us.  Faith is a search for the lighter, healthier, saner approach to life.  The person who experiences such removal of the weight of sin can now live with confidence in the saving power of the Almighty.  Emotions and actions follow, as well as reinforce and celebrate, the liberation given.  And, in many ways, the actions and feelings of lightness of being are themselves resources for preventing the reacquisition of the weight.

Yet this change of status has not come easily for our author.  Rather, Yahweh has disciplined the pray-er of this psalm (vv. 3-4), leading the penitent human being to acknowledge his or her sins (v. 5: “I made my sin known to you and did not cover up my guilt”).  A curious thing here: verse 1 celebrates the covering over (Hebrew: kasah) of sin by God, while verse 5 recognizes that for human beings to cover over (same verb!) sin is highly inappropriate.  To obscure sin is a divine prerogative.  Repentance, which implies truth-telling about our failures, is ours.

And this is why the righteous praise God.  The removal of the evil in the life of an individual or a group is an extraordinary miracle, and one well worth celebrating.  Nor is the celebration our job alone, for the one who finds God to be a hiding place (v. 7) also hears the divine voice offering illumination and guidance (vv. 8-9).  The conversation about forgiveness includes those who experience it, and the God who gives is.

For me, thinking about sin and forgiveness this way is immensely helpful.  In our conversations in church, we seem too wedded to one image of sin, the judicial one.  The overemphasis makes us say many silly things (such as the idea that all sins are equally bad or that God abhors sin so much he can’t be in the same room with it, making God sound like a paranoid germophobe).  It’s helpful to correct our speech by thinking about other aspects of sin, whether it is weight in this text or debt as in the “Our Father” or disease in other places.  Evil has many dimensions.  And God can triumph over them all.

Postscript: If you want to read more about images of sin in the Old Testament and early Judaism and Christianity, read Gary Anderson’s little, but very learned and readable, book Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2010).

Deliverance 101: The Psalms in our Worship 23

by   |  02.22.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Having grown up in a family in which my dad had a steady job and our schools were safe and our churches more often encouraging than not, deliverance is a hard concept for me.  What does it look like?  Not everyone has this problem because not everyone has mastered the art of projecting illusions.  But those of us who do imagine ourselves to be self-contained could use a refresher.

Psalm 31 offers such a primer.  It’s an odd psalm really.  It seems to go in several directions at once, almost as though its creator wished to evoke either the mental turmoil of the one seeking deliverance or the ecstasy of the one receiving it.  Some scholars have thought of it as two or even three different psalms welded together (much as one sees in 1-2 Chronicles, for example).  This is possible, but the text has come down to us as a single work.  As the commentator Samuel Terrien puts it, “It is a cry of fear and love for the Lord, which ends with an exhortation addressed to all true adorers of Yahweh.”  Nicely said.

The psalm opens by expressing confidence in the God who provides deliverance, coupled with a plea for further deliverance (v. 1 [2 in Hebrew]).  On the one hand, the psalmist sees God’s rescue as an abiding reality, as one of those anchor points for the life of faith.  Yet, on the other hand, deliverance is also an ongoing need, and thus a future possibility.  It is never a final result, a reality that is fixed and immovable.  Deliverance is a process, and it is also a relationship in which the one delivered recognizes her or his ongoing contingency and thus dependence on God.  (And as Christians aware of the eschatological dimensions of God’s work, we would add that final deliverance comes only when God makes all things new and draws us into the divine being at the end of time.)

The psalm then offers us an anatomy of deliverance that includes the end of shame (or perhaps we would say, alienation), moral clarity about idolatry and the ways it produces disloyalty to God, a deeper awareness of the possibility of humans having a trusting relationship with God, and finally a new capacity for celebration concentrating on the praise of God.

This last part, beginning, in verse 19 (20 in Hebrew), seems to many scholars to be a separate psalm.  Perhaps it originally was a free-standing hymn.  No one knows.  But I am interested in the fact that it has been associated with the cry for deliverance early in Psalm 31.  What is the connection?  Since the association of two such elements appears in many psalms, it would be good to know the answer.

Perhaps part of the answer is that human beings who can celebrate and can give due honor to God (and as appropriate, to other men and women) are free.  They are no longer enslaved to whatever evil had previously shackled them.  Even if they remain in the outward condition of subjection to evil, their capacity for rejoicing marks them as liberated people.

This last idea requires some further development.  Hear the words:

How great is your goodness, which you hid away for those honoring you!

You made them for those taking refuge in you, in the presence of human beings.

You hid them in a secret place before your face [perhaps: a secret place only you knew about],

away from human contamination.

You hid them in a booth away from quarrelsome [or maybe, gossipy] tongues.

The image is of a God who tucks away the best possible gifts until human beings truly need them.  The psalmist expresses the confidence that not only God’s work, but even the timing and execution of that work, reflect divine care for our weakness.  Such hard-won confidence, the result of suffering and spiritual struggle, allows the psalmist to celebrate in public and to invite others to join in, whatever their personal experiences.  And so the deliverance spreads, accentuated and reinforced by the words of a community whose collective memories allow it to recall its best experiences before God as a model for all things to come.

Perhaps there is no better way to end these remarks than with the ending exhortation of the psalm itself:

“Love Yahweh, all his loyal followers, Yahweh the protector of the trusting and the ruler over the rest who act too proudly.  Be strong all who hope in Yahweh, and [God] will strengthen your heart!”

  This is how delivered people talk.  I’d like to join them.

Beyond Gratitude: The Psalms in Our Worship 22

by   |  02.13.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms

I often hear that the proper response to God’s grace is gratitude.  This is true, as far as it goes, but seems a bit passive.  Worse, in human beings, gratitude often turns to resentment at the humiliation caused by disproportionate, un-pay-backable gift-giving.  So I often wonder if we can say more.

In the Psalms, as we have already seen, the laments and hymns of praise have a close relationship to each other.  The laments often end with a promise to praise God for deliverance, once it comes.  And hymns often refer back to the calamity whose termination and redemption have led the singer of the psalm to praise.  Psalm 30 fits the latter category.  It reminds the hearer that the composer has experienced tragedy (verses 2, 7 [Hebrew 3, 8]) and has sought Yhwh’s help (verses 2-3, 11-12 [Hebrew 3-4, 12-13]).  God has aided him or her  in unspecified ways.  Hence the hymn of praise itself.

But today I am struck by the psalm’s comment on the whole experience of redemption: “For his anger lasts a moment, his favor is lifelong.  In the evening weeping takes up lodging, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  The faith of the psalmist is not simply a matter of gratitude for services rendered.  It is a deep-seated, radical, existentially transformative  trust in the basic character of God as one who seeks to extend mercy to all.  This God rescues those who ask from death itself, allowing not even the most powerful force in the universe to defeat humanity.  This God works for a culture of respect (“my foes have not rejoiced over me”).  And this God forms a community who testify to their own experiences of grace.  It’s not just gratitude in play here.  It’s deeper than that.

In exploring the theme of grace, a theme fundamental to Christian understanding of the human relationship with the divine, we must come to know and feel the deep sense of responsibility it imposes on us.  As the old hymn says, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”  Constrained.  Debtor.  To be.  But to be free of that debt is to have nothing at all.  This too is something for which to be grateful, and so much more.