Monthly Archives: February 2018

Psalm 39 There Are No Words

Image from Associated Press

Psalm 39

<To the leader: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>
1 I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
 2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,
 3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
 4 “LORD, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
 5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
 6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
 7 “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.
 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
 9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it.
 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
 11 “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
 12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.
 13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”

“There Are No Words” was the headline in my morning paper as the news covered yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old was equipped with smoke grenades, a gas mask, and an AR-15 rifle and killed at least seventeen people. As the leader of a community of faith I had to stand before my congregation last night as we came together for an Ash Wednesday service and they looked to me for words of wisdom, words of faith, words that fit the paradox of a day that on the secular calendar celebrated Valentine’s day but on the religious calendar reminds us that, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” There are no words that are adequate to the pain that the parents and students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must feel. Sometimes we discharge our own inadequacy with platitudes or promises of prayer. I would prefer to remain silent for I know the inadequacy of any words I may say. I would prefer to not speak from my own sense of weakness and frustration at the powerlessness that we seem to have around any issue related to who may possess a weapon in our country. I wonder for the parents of previous shootings who have turned their pain into a desire to make a change only to be frustrated again and again by the politicians who seem untouched or patronizing by these parents’ desire to never again allow this to happen to another family.

This psalm speaks to me this week. The beginning of Psalm 39 is paradoxical as the speaker speaks of their silence, of their desire to hold their tongue and muzzle the mouth. The movement from silence to protesting speech to silence and back to speech reminds me of the words of Richard Lischer:

Before any prophet speaks, the prophet is absolutely positive that he or she must not speak. Moses claimed a speech impediment; Isaiah confessed his own impurity; Jeremiah appealed to his inexperience. After the temple was destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel was transported to a refugee camp at Tel Abib. There he sat for seven days stupefied among the refugees, or, as one translation has it, “in a catatonic state.” Imagine the denizens of the twentieth century, beginning with ninety-three million dead in wars, gazing up from their mass graves or through the barbed wire of their camps, stupefied, catatonic. Something has ended. Visit the Holocaust Museum or Dachau. The normative demeanor is silence. (Lischer, 2005, p. 5f.)

I don’t know what terror the psalmist feels. Their silence could come from a personal illness, a communal tragedy, events that threaten the security or the identity of their nation, or they could just be silenced by the sheer magnitude of horrors both experienced and whispered in their life. Like Job the psalmist here begins in a state of silence. They hold back their tongue for fear of uttering blasphemy against their LORD. Yet their silence does not bring healing. The unexpressed wounds on their soul continue to fester as they remain locked behind their closed mouth. The words which the poet choked down burn now within them. The unresolved injustice burns their heart. They were absolutely positive they must not speak but the words burned within them and so they utter their words of protest. They cry out to God from the unspeakable tragedy of their life and with their words they give the tragic a voice.

“LORD let me know my end, what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” On a day where Christians gathered and ashes formed the sign of the cross upon their foreheads we remember that our days are a few handbreadths. Yet, we do not accept the senselessness of suffering in silence. The witness of the faithful ones of scriptures bear witness to the words that must be spoken otherwise they burn within us until we speak. We take our words and our feelings into our dialogue with our LORD. We wrestle with how things like this can happen in a world created by a loving God. These words may move us into the uncomfortable place of girding up our loins to stand before God as Job was asked to do. We may stand in the place of Jeremiah who amid his pain would say to God, “Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 18) or in less poetic language to dare to say to God that God’s promises were untrue, or God’s strength was unreliable. We may cry with the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22: 1) for the pain must go somewhere and the character of God revealed to the people of Israel is a God who sees the misery and hears the cry of God’s people. (See for example Exodus 3: 9) The words which seemed unutterable must be spoken. In the pain of the people and from the pain of the prophet the words cannot be held back. While the measure of days still lasts these the people cannot remain speechless before their God or in the world they live in.

In verses five and six behind the translation of ‘mere breath’ and ‘for nothing they are in turmoil’ lies the Hebrew word hebel (the word behind ‘vanity’ in Ecclesiastes which literally means vapor or mist but often represent emptiness and futility). The poet lapses into the language of the wisdom traditions of the bible trying to make sense of the senseless, to give words to the unspeakable, and grasping for certainties that are not there. Outside of their faith there are no satisfactory solutions for the psalmist wrestling with the crisis which for them makes meaningless a life that once held meaning. They turn to their LORD, where their hope lies, and they dare to speak. They ask for deliverance from their transgression of speech, silence and action.

The paradoxical speech from silence continues as the psalmist feels their personal crisis is a result of some judgment of God. God is the one who is punishing them, God has sent this crisis, God is the one whose chastisement threatens to consume them. The person feels cut off from community and is vulnerable like the wandering foreigner in the land. They have no people, no family, no group other than God. They cry for God to hear, give ear, and not to remain silent. Yet, while they have no family but God they also ask for God to turn God’s gaze away. Even though God may be their only support they are unable to see from God anything other than wrath in the moment. In the confused space of a crisis where there are no adequate words they perhaps need some time in their own silence. Yet, perhaps ironically it is in this confused space where they want God to act in mercy. In a time where words seem to fall flat, and emotions are confused the poet still trusts that God hears and that ultimately God will act. They feel a mixture of self-condemnation, fear, anger, betrayal, shame, pain, and there are no immediate resolutions. They long for the day when they can smile once more, and they pray that that day is before their life ends. Yet, these words echo on days where there are ‘no words.’ The psalm ends without resolution but still with a defiant hope that the silence and speech of this psalm will not be the final word. That even during the futility of this moment and their life they might still find joy once more.

Perhaps the reason these words speak to me today is that they do not claim to have the answer. There may come a time when these words transform into different words and different actions that once again try to imagine a world where these words and feelings are not necessary. To imagine a world where a nineteen-year-old either can’t use a weapon to shatter so many families or where this type of action is somehow prevented. I know my own feelings on this issue may not be popular in Texas where I serve. When I served in the military we did place an M-16 or M-4 (which are the military versions of this rifle) into the hands of young men and women this age but always within structure and supervision. In the time of the psalms and the prophets conflict was a frequent part of the people of Israel’s story and perhaps that is why the psalms and the prophets so often dream of peace and of a world free from the implements of war. Perhaps they had seen too many times where mothers and fathers mourned the son and daughters lost in violence. Perhaps they too knew what it meant to be at the point where there are no words and yet the words they choked back burned within them. They would enter the space where they cried out and questioned God and yet knew that it was only God who might eventually heal the emptiness they felt inside. But on this day, I am running out of words and like the psalm it may not bring any resolution, yet they needed to be spoken.

Psalm 38 A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing

Psalm 38

<A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.>
1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes — it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear, and in whose mouth is no retort.
15 But it is for you, O LORD, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

This is a song for a broken heart, a broken body or a broken spirit. The psalm cries to the LORD for mercy, for reconciliation and for renewed presence. We never hear in this psalm the sin which the author believes they are suffering from but this sin which is mentioned but never named is the perceived cause of the psalmist’s suffering. Something has come between the singer of these words and the LORD whom they cry out to. Something has, in the poet’s mind, caused God to turn away in anger and indignation. Something they believe has caused God’s disposition to them to change dramatically. They are no longer at peace with God. Their relationship with their creator has been fractured and they stand in the position of helplessness and weakness. They feel the weight of God’s judgment and perhaps their own as well upon them.

 While there is no easy or direct correlation between sin and sickness in the bible, the psalmist’s cries do ponder a connection between their physical, emotional and spiritual health. Sin can cause suffering in body and mind and the feeling of abandonment or shame can manifest in physical and emotional ways. While the psalmist language is probably in some senses metaphorical it doesn’t mean that the language of the psalm doesn’t base itself upon the actual pain that the psalmist feels. As Beth Tanner can say, “The burden of sin burns inside, and the whole body feels the strain (v.7) The insides feel faint, and the spirit is crushed (v.8); even if quiet on the outside the mind roars over the torment in one’s heart (v.8)” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 358) The poet has something they feel intensely that has separated them from the protection and provision of their God, some unspoken sin that is seen by God and makes itself known in their body and spirit. They stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation which will also begin the healing of their mind and flesh.

The poet’s plight is heightened by the distance and judgment they now feel from their community. Friends and neighbors who one relies upon now stand at a distance. Perhaps they feel like a leper who is cut off from the community for fear of contagion or perhaps, like the friends in Job’s narrative, the neighbors and friend have decided the sickness must be a judgment of God. Friends and neighbors stand aside while enemies perceive an opportunity. The weakness of the psalmist becomes a reason for their increased isolation from the community which they also rely upon. They have no words to answer the whispers they imagine being spoken of them as the lie (actually or metaphorically) prostrate and crushed unable to rise.

Though God may have turned away in indignation, at least in the psalmist’s perception, and they feel that God is just in God’s anger they plead for mercy and restoration. They trust that God will not ultimately forsake them. They have reached the point where they are ready to let go of the sin they conceal in their breast and the burden they have carried. They wait upon the LORD for their strength to be renewed. The psalm ends with the cry for the LORD’s steadfast love to overcome the indignation rightly felt. Where the poet feels distance from God and community they call for God’s return and healing. They call out in urgency for their case is dire. They end with the cry for their salvation and we, with the psalmist, enter their time of waiting for the LORD’s action.

Watching the Skies

The moon was slowly consumed by the shadow of earth
But life continued its unending cycle of misery and mirth
For if math and science have stolen from us that which was magic
And the heavens movements we no longer look upon, it is tragic
If the stars and moon hold no stories and myths anymore
And we’ve lost the art of telling stories and have no lore
Yet, for a moment perhaps within the movement of the week
We stopped for a moment, looked into the early morning sky to peek
At this brief disturbance of the heavens above and understood
How this event might have been read in the past for evil or for good
Questioning how our ancestor’s fecund imaginations might
Explain the darkening of the moon in the waning hours of the night
And crafted tales from holy to the obscene
To pass on to their families and kin what they had seen
While they watched the heaven to try to learn
Some piece of guidance for their earth-bound sojourn
Or how when the sun’s rays began to paint the sky and the cloud
In a palette of reds and purples and blues so bright and so loud
A picture more vivid that any done with paint and canvas and brush
Were the work of their creator’s hand as the heavens commenced to blush
For the piece of beauty that unfolds before our sight as day ends the night
Is a work of no dyes or colors but a painting of pure unaltered light
Celebrating the death of the night and the resurrection of the day
In a magical world where the children of men may run and play
Yet, for a moment perhaps within the movement of the sky
We stopped for a moment, looking into the morning sky wondering why
These brilliant red skies which evanescently decorate the transition from night
Once gave ancient sailors warning where we only take a brief delight
As they searched the heavens for signs while they crossed the hostile deep
Looking to stars, clouds and wind for signs they might keep
Watching the heavens above trying to learn
Some piece of guidance for their nautical sojourn

Psalm 37 A Song of a Wise Life

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

Psalm 37

<Of David.>
1 א  Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
 2 for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
 3 ב Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
 5 ג Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
 6 He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
 7 ד Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
 8 ה Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret — it leads only to evil.
 9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
 10 ו Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
 11 But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
 12 ז The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them;
 13 but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.
 14 ח The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly;
 15 their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
 16 ט Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.
 17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
 18 י The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever;
 19 they are not put to shame in evil times, in the days of famine they have abundance.
 20 כ But the wicked perish, and the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish — like smoke they vanish away.
 21 ל The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving;
 22 for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
 23 מ Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way;
 24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the LORD holds us by the hand.
 25 נ I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.
 26 They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.
 27 ס Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever.
 28 For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.
    ע The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
 29 The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.
 30 פ The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak justice.
 31 The law of their God is in their hearts; their steps do not slip.
 32 צ The wicked watch for the righteous, and seek to kill them.
 33 The LORD will not abandon them to their power, or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.
 34 ק Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.
 35 ר I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
 36 Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found.
 37  ש Mark the blameless, and behold the upright, for there is posterity for the peaceable.
 38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.
 39  ת The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
 40 The LORD helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him.

I have introduced the Hebrew letters at the beginning of each acrostic line to show the structure of this poem. The psalms frequently use acrostic poetry as a form which tends to denote a completion of thought from Aleph to Tav (or in our alphabet the equivalent would be from A to Z). Psalm 37 uses this form to express the contrast between the life of the wicked and the life of the righteous. The psalm was works in a similar way to the book of Proverbs where the words are a tool for passing on a manner of life that values the correct things. It encourages the hearer to take the long view of life as it compares the momentary success of the wicked and the way of the righteous.

Psalm 37, like much wisdom literature, wrestles with the common question of every age: Why do those who seem to be wicked often prosper and those who are faithful struggle? Or in simpler terms: Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people? No psalm, poetry, proverbs or philosophy can adequately address every aspect of this fundamental question, but the poets, wise ones and prophets of the bible do attempt to give their provisional answers to these questions because they are important to how they understand what a good life looks life. In the psalms God is fundamentally trustworthy and, even when situations seem to testify otherwise, the authors trust that God’s will and God’s way will prevail. Psalm 37 attempts to make a case for faithfulness in the seeming prosperity of the faithless and for the long view of life in contrast to the ways of the wicked which focus on the immediate reward of their actions.

The psalm invites us into a life that is not dominated by worrying about how other’s actions are rewarded but rather to trust in the LORD amid the positives and negatives of life. It encourages the hearer to expand the horizon of their consideration beyond the transitory present. Throughout the psalms the LORD is trustworthy, sees the struggles of the righteous and does, in God’s time, act. The longstanding faithfulness of God is contrasted with the transitory prosperity of those who act unethically or who live wicked lives that are centered on their own interests. Vengeance and justice rest in God’s hands and it is ultimately God who will cut off the wicked, who will bring their plots and their power to an end. Their own actions will become their undoing and in time they will fade away while the righteous endure. For now, they may be imposing, like the cedars of Lebanon, but the day will come when the LORD’s ax will cut them down at the roots.

This psalm echoes in the sermon on the mount, where Jesus can state, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) In contrast to a worldview where one should seize all that one can this psalm offers a view of the world that outlasts those who grasp for land, wealth and power. This bit of wisdom points to a life of generosity and trust. One can lend and give generously because the righteous one can trust that the LORD will provide for their needs. They in their lives of generosity, the lives they model and hand on to their children, become a blessing to the world around them. They seek the good of the community and justice trusting that their God is a God of goodness and justice.

Psalm 37 in particular and wisdom literature in general attempts to pass on a way of life and cultivate practices that lead towards a whole life. I believe we ask this question too infrequently in our time. The question of the practices and values of a good life are questions that need to be asked as they are handed on from generation to generation. Part of the answer comes from the experiences of life. Like the psalmist we may be able to reflect upon times where someone’s power and prosperity that were accumulated in an unjust manner proved temporary. Like the psalmist we may reflect upon the way that God’s prosperity has provided for us in our own life. Reflections like this one do not deny the challenge of those who prosper while doing evil or who struggle while trying to live a righteous life. But they wrestle with these questions from the position of trust. The psalmist and those who echo this psalm believe that God is ultimately trustworthy. They believe, even when confronted by those who see prosperity in a life that goes against their values, that a life lived in the practices of wisdom and righteousness are worth living. They view life in a longer horizon than the profits of the moment or the experience of the day. Without discounting their present experience, they can set aside their anger, envy and strife because they trust that the LORD who has created the day will provide for them today and tomorrow. They sing a song of gratitude and trust and that song shapes the values and practices of the life they live.