Monthly Archives: July 2021

Psalm 58 A Jagged Prayer for Vengeance

From Susan Harris Anger and art// A Rage to Paint https://www.susanharrisart.com/blog

Psalm 58

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam.>

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?[1] Do you judge people fairly?
2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.
6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

Many people who actually read the words of this psalm would be surprised that these words would be found inside their sacred scriptures.[2]  These words are never appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and this psalm (along with Psalm 59 and 60) were never included in the Psalms in the hymnal I grew up with (the Lutheran Book of Worship). They do appear in the newer hymnal for my denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) but in most churches they are ignored and most people reading the bible simply read over these words without stopping to reflect on these harsh and jarring words spoken about one’s enemy. I attempt to approach every piece of scripture with honesty and respect, trying to listen for the wisdom it has to speak. While I would agree with what 2 Timothy states about all scripture being inspired by God and being useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, I would add the caveat that not all scripture is useful at all times in one’s life or experience and these jagged words crying out for vengeance may do harm to the unintended hearer who is dealing with a trauma or a miscarriage. The psalms frequently paint with the language of emotion and here the dark reds of anger, frustration, and hatred form a dangerous song that longs for blood. Though it may be uncomfortable to look at, these words have something to say into the bland and safe palette of language that Christians have often used.

The bible is a strange document among the holy writings of the world. Much of the bible is written by people who find themselves in a world where they are suffering because of the violence that is practiced on the earth and in the moment there seems to be a lack of justice on those perpetrating the violence. There are portions of scripture that are written by those in power, but it is also balanced by those prophets, poets, and pariahs who find themselves challenging the injustice of those charged to judge or rule in righteousness.  I think many Christians have been taught to suppress their anger and to attempt to hide it from God, but here we see the psalmist giving full voice to their desire for vengeance in their prayer and placing that uncomfortable emotion into God’s listening ears. The world is not as it should be. It is unjust. The righteous are suffering. The wicked are powerful. God needs to act.

Unlike most Psalms, God is not addressed until verse six. The initial focus is on the ‘mighty ones’ who have used wicked words and violence in a way that arouses this heated response from the poet. These ‘mighty ones’ have corrupted the practice of judgment among the people, they have reigned by violence, they have birthed a world of lies, they are like snakes that are unable to be restrained by the snake charmer. Their venom and violence now flow unrestrained into the world of the psalmist. How does one reconcile a vision of justice with the experience of injustice? The answer the psalmist gives in this moment is this jagged prayer for God’s action in vengeance towards those who have destroyed their world.

The seven imprecations (verses 6-9) may be difficult to read from a comfortable place. Praying for God to violently break the teeth or the jaws and defang those who attack may seem unchristian. Desiring our enemies to be transitory like flowing water or trodden grass may seem like a strange prayer. Wanting our enemies to feel the hot flame of thorns once they catch fire, or to dissolve like the snail into slime or to be like a miscarried fetus may seem like harsh and unforgiving language and yet here these words exist in the middle of our scriptures. Yet, vengeance belongs to God and not to the one who utters these words. Perhaps we may never utter these exact words to God. We may have been taught that anger or sadness are to be erased from our prayers by those who taught us our faith, but the scriptures bear witness to the complete palette of emotions in the life of the faithful with God. The life of faith in the bible is often more colorful than the life we encounter in the congregations where the religious gather.

The image of bathing one’s feet in the blood of the wicked may seem triumphal and uncomfortable. Yet, as uncomfortable as talking about the judgment of God may be in many modern churches, sometimes the only way beyond the current world of oppression and violence is for the Pharaohs, Caesars, princes, kings, and rulers who reign over the unrighteousness to be removed along with those who support them. As much patience as God shows throughout the bible, there are those who resist God’s ways and God’s will until the end. We may recoil at this violent language which also emerges in Psalm 68, the prophets (ex. Isaiah 63: 1-6 and Ezekiel 39) and particularly in Revelation (see Revelation 14).   Yet, these words rest within our scriptures and commit this violence into God’s hands so that the faithful may continue to hope for a world beyond oppression.

I come from a privileged life. I am a white heterosexual well educated male living in an affluent area of the United States. I also understand that my experiences are not universal. Although it would be easy to take a razor to our scriptures and, like Ben Franklin, excise all the parts that don’t agree with our experience or worldview, I would caution that these uncomfortable words do have something to speak to us. Almost twenty years ago I encountered Miroslav Volf’s powerful challenge to the privileged worldview which wants to excise the judgment from the scriptures:

                Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so, violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

Even when we can acknowledge that these violent words belong within our scriptures, what possible ‘teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness’ can they offer to those who do not find themselves in the position of oppression crying out for God’s vengeance? Ellen Davis proposes three possible uses for psalms like this one when we are angry, and one, if we have the courage to encounter these words when we are not. First, they can give us words to wrap around our anger when we are not able to find adequate words on our own. She shares the advice a professor once gave her after a betrayal, “Go into the chapel when no one else is around and shout these at the top of your lungs.” This practice allowed her to both vent and release the anger but hearing herself speak these words she also could hear the self-righteousness and pettiness in her petitions. Secondly, the psalms function as divinely given ‘counselors’ and teach us that vengeful anger is one mode of access to God. We can come to know that God who created us for life together is also outraged by those who destroy community or deny justice. Thirdly, the cry is a cry for God to act which allows the petitioner to bypass acting personally against the one who harmed us. We demand our enemy be driven into God’s hands, but we are not in control of what happens there or how God brings about this justice and reconciliation. Finally, she suggests if we are reading when we feel none of the feelings in the psalm to turn it around and to ask if there is anyone in the community or among God’s people who may want to pray these words about me? (Davis 2001, 26-29) I may want to shrink away from the language of the prayer at times, but there may be other times when I need these very words to pass my lips so they may exit my heart. Sometimes I need to commit judgment to God so that I do not take vengeance into my own hands. When I am courageous enough, I may wonder who I may have wronged by judging unfairly, speaking poisonously concerning, refusing to listen, or the ways I have either actively dealt out violence or passively benefited from the violence dealt out by those who sat in a privileged place that I share. These are hard words that may be hard to speak. Yet sometimes we need to access the whole spectrum of emotions we experience in life.

 

[1] The word here is ‘elem which means silence. It bears the same root letters as the Hebrew ‘elohim (‘mighty ones’ or a generic term for gods) as gods. The NRSV and most other translations view this as ‘elohim and translate based on this assumption. The NRSV translates this as the common ‘gods.’ While this is a possible reading (see Psalm 82:1), mighty ones can also refer to warrior or powerful individuals. Within the context of this poem the opponents seem to be other humans so the more generic ‘mighty ones’ seems appropriate here. If you choose to translate using ‘elem the accusation is closer to, “Do you indeed declare what is right in silence?”

[2] Although Psalm 58 is full of challenging choices for a translator (of which I am highlighting only a few) the words in doubt are not the most graphic ones.

Digital Worship Service July 25,2021

Contemporary Service and the Sermon from this Service are embedded at the bottom of the page

The 9th Sunday After Pentecost
July 25, 2021 Traditional Worship Service

Confession and Forgiveness

We are gathered in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Greeting:

L: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
C: And also with you.

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. 

First Reading: 2 Kings 4: 42-44

42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to [Elisha,] the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ” 44He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

Psalm: Psalm 145: 10-18

10All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
 and all your faithful shall bless you.
 11They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
 and tell of your power,
 12to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
 and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
 13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
 and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
 The LORD is faithful in all his words,
 and gracious in all his deeds.
 14The LORD upholds all who are falling,
 and raises up all who are bowed down.
 15The eyes of all look to you,
 and you give them their food in due season.
 16You open your hand,
 satisfying the desire of every living thing.
 17The LORD is just in all his ways,
 and kind in all his doings.
 18The LORD is near to all who call on him,
 to all who call on him in truth.

Second Reading:  Ephesians 3: 14-21

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Gopel: John 6: 1-21                                  

1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going

 

Sermon: Pastor Neil White

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Prayers of Intercession:

Let us pray:
Loving God, we lift up this world that you love. Renew your creation and give wisdom to all your people who share in your responsibility to care for the world. Give wisdom to the leaders of nations, states, and cities to care for your people and the world. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

The countries of the world experience disunity and conflict; we set our minds on fear and greed rather than on your rule of justice and steadfast love. Build up all countries on your cornerstone of peace. Protect and bless all who sacrifice to guard our freedoms, including: Ben, Christian, Clayton, Daniel, Dillan, Haden, Lindsey, Luke, Michael, Mike, Spencer, Steve, Sydney, Tyler B. and Tyler G. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We still weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Cradle the fearful, the suffering, and the dying, assuring them of your loving presence. We lift up before you: Aubrey, Austin, Becca, Betsy, Bob D., Bob S., Brenda, Brion, Christa, Craig, Dave, Debra, Dorthy, Doug, Elizabeth, Gary, Jamie, Jan, Jane, Jeff, Jerry K., Jerry N., Marie, Matt, Maureen, Michele, Mike, Patrick, Peggy, Pete, Richard, Rita, Sal, Sandy, Scott, Shirley, Steve, Vicky, Vim, Spring Wright, all medical and emergency workers, and those we pray for in our hearts(pause)
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, we pray for the ministries of the ELCA and the Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod, we also lift up in prayer today: First Lutheran Church, Waco, St. John Lutheran Church, Wilson and Conference Latina. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader: In trust and hope, we commend to you, O Lord, all for whom we pray. Amen.

Highlights/Sharing of the Peace
Offering
(offering can either be mailed to Rejoice (12000 Independence Pkwy, Frisco TX 75035 or there is the opportunity for electronic giving on the website http://www.rejoicefrisco.com)

Invitation to Communion
Words of Institution

Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

A: Let us pray. Lord Jesus, in this sacrament you strengthen us with the saving power of your death and resurrection. May these gifts of your body and blood create in us the fruits of your redemption and grace in our lives, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Blessing

Verses 1, 3, and 5 of The Church of Christ in Every Age

DiscipleLife

L: As God has claimed us as his own in Christ,
we seek to follow Christ with these marks of DiscipleLife:
▪Praying Daily
▪Worshiping Weekly
▪Studying the Bible
▪Serving Others
▪Building Spiritual Friendships
▪Giving to God and our Neighbors in Need
▪Engaging God’s Mission

Dismissal: “Go in peace, serve the Lord. “Thanks be to God” Alleluia

Update on Creative Words: Coming Soon

“Creative Words is a meaningful poetry collection whose layered creativity shows how emotions, ideas, and artwork interact with each other….The book’s openhearted and sincere language is appealing…no syllable is wasted.” Foreword Clarion Reviews ★★★★

Creative Words is my first book and it will be releasing in August 2021. I will be sharing some content over the next couple weeks to introduce this book to the readers of my blog. It is being published by Friesen Press and it is in their coming soon section of their website. It will be available wherever you buy books including Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and independent bookstores. It may not be on the shelf of your local bookstore but they will be able to order it.

Part of this process was having a Foreward Clarion Review done on the work. Foreward Clarion Reviews are independent reviews for indie published works to give booksellers and librarians an independent review of the work.  You can read the complete review reference above here.

 

Psalm 57 Fleeing to the Steadfast Love and Faithfulness of God

James Tissot, Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle (1896-1902)

Psalm 57

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.>
1 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul[1] takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.
2 I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
3 He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.
4 I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.
5 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.
6 They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah
7 My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody.
8 Awake, my soul![2] Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.
9 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
10 For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.
11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.

Many of the psalms deal with common themes and use common language. Already in the psalter we have seen psalms repeated[3] and verses 7-11 of Psalm 57 are identical with the beginning of Psalm 108. Well chosen words can make sense within multiple contexts, and the ending of a psalm spoken from the place of trouble (Psalm 57) can be the beginning of a prayer for victory (Psalm 108). For the psalmist, the steadfast love (Hebrew hesed) and faithfulness of God are “the pervasive, fundamental realities of the universe.” (NIB IV, p. 906) The present experience of trouble does not prevent the faithful poet from relying on these realities to provide hope beyond the present moment and meaning in the storms of life they are currently experiencing. With the fundamental realities of the universe being the steadfast love God and the faithfulness of God, the wicked ones which inflict harm and threaten death will find themselves unable to destroy the one finding shelter in the shadow of the wings of God.

The faithful one flees to the presence of God who is their refuge. The powerful image of being sheltered under the wings of God appears for a second time[4] in the psalter and now these wings provide shelter in the midst of the destructive storms (physical or metaphorical) occurring in the psalmist’s life. God provides a safe place in the midst of the troubles, God still has a purpose for the psalmist to fulfill, God will intervene between the faithful one and those who are currently oppressing them. God will send forth the restorative powers of steadfast love and faithfulness which will transform the reality the poet is experiencing and bring an end to the destructive storms.

The opponents here are portrayed metaphorically as lions who devour prey with their sharp teeth and sword like tongues. Perhaps what the psalmist is experiencing is a world where malicious gossip is destroying their name and bringing them shame. If this is the case, those who wound with tongue and tooth and trample with feet to bring shame will be put to shame themselves. Those who set (verbal or physical) snares will find themselves caught within their own snare. The harm the words and actions of these enemies portrayed as lions and hunters are real, and while the poem may speak in metaphors they are not talking about abstract concepts, but the experience of living in a world where individuals wound with words, set traps for the righteous, and use shame to attempt to bring down the faithful.

The psalmist who flees to God’s protective presence, who rests under God’s sheltering wings, and who longs for the expected steadfast love and faithfulness of God knows that their future depends upon God answering their cry. They call upon God to be the God who sees the trampled one and to deliver them. God’s faithful action on their behalf is a demonstration of the reign of God over the earth. They remain steadfast in their heart, the organ of the will in Hebrew thought. Those who have shamed them have now been shamed and their honor (see note 2) now awakens along with their song. They cry out in hope to the dawn, lifting up their song of thanksgiving among their own people and the nations. The steadfast love of God has proven to be as high as the heavens, the faithfulness of God surpasses the earth and extends to the clouds of the sky. The glory of God is over all the earth, and the steadfast love and faithfulness of God have proven to be “the pervasive, fundamental realities of the universe.”

[1] What the NRSV translates ‘soul’ throughout this psalm (with the exception of verse 8) is the Hebrew nephesh which refers to ‘the whole self’ or that which makes a person a person rather than the Greek idea of soul which is separate from life. The Hebrew way of thinking is not about an escape to heaven, but the engagement with the whole of life in the present.

[2] Here the Hebrew kabod refers to ‘honor.’ The NRSV reads this as the similar sounding kabed ‘liver’ in its translation of the word as soul.

[3] Psalm 53 is a close twin of Psalm 14

[4] This imagery is also used in Psalm 17:8, 61:4, 63:7 and 91:4.

Psalm 56 Trusting God in the Midst of Trouble

Archaeological finds at Gath (Tell es-Safi) By Ori~ – Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8945813

Psalm 56

<To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.>
1 Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;
2 my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High[1],
3 when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?
5 All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.
6 They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life,
7 so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
8 You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?
9 Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me.
10 In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise,
11 in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?
12 My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

In God we trust was adopted in 1956 as the official motto of the United States and was placed on all government currency the following year. Yet, these official words of a community trusting in God have not prevented the people of the United States from being afraid. For the psalmist the statement, “In God I trust” is a statement which moves them from being afraid to a defiant stance of faithful endurance in the midst of suffering. The God of the psalmist is trustworthy and sees the strife of the righteous ones. Their tears have not been shed in vain, their suffering and strife are not meaningless because God has treasured them, and God will deliver them from their turmoil.

The superscription of the Psalm places it within the same time period as Psalm 52 but focuses on the brief narrative of David in Gath in 1 Samuel 21: 10-15. David has fled King Saul and goes to the King of Gath to attempt to find safety. The servants of the King of Gath wonder if they have a valuable hostage they can use, but David feigns madness, and the King of Gath sends him away. David finds himself unwelcome both in Israel and among the enemies of Israel. He is on the run and trying to survive. This time of uncertainty makes sense as a framework for this Psalm which focuses on trusting God in the midst of fear and the militaristic language of this poem could apply to David and his followers, but this psalm, like the rest of the psalms, can find meaning beyond the context of their superscription.

Like the previous psalm, there are several words that have caused troubles for translators and have produced multiple readings of individual verses, but the overall direction of the psalm is not in doubt. The complaint of the psalmist which is voiced in verse 1-2 and 5-6 revisits the common theme of this portion of the psalter, a righteous one oppressed by a group who cause them trouble. The militaristic language reflected in the complaint where the righteous one finds themselves trampled by warriors who oppose them. These ones opposing the righteous one is set against them. They are creating strife, watching their words and movements, seeking to injure their cause, and aligning their thoughts against them for evil. The righteous one finds themselves in a struggle against others in a time where they cannot rely upon other people.

This psalm pivots on the words ‘afraid’ and ‘trust.’ Both words appear three times in parallel with each other

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (3)
In God I trust; I am not afraid; (4)
in God I trust; I am not afraid. (11)

In this psalm, their trust in God is what moves them from fear to not being afraid. The trustworthiness of the LORD their God transforms their fear into fearlessness. The one sustaining them is God, the ones who oppose the righteous are mere mortals. As Paul would later echo, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31) The poet trusts that God is one who sees their situation and will deliver their soul from death. Their God not only knows about their sufferings but can measure the physical manifestations of that suffering. Their tossings are counted, their tears are bottled and recorded, and God will not continue to allow these offering of pain to go unanswered. The God of the people of Israel is one who has “observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Exodus 3:7-8) This God who the psalmist trusts will not allow their suffering to go unanswered.

The psalm ends on a confident note: they trust in God, they will perform their vows obediently, they will offer up offerings of gratitude, and they will walk before God. The psalmist may not be delivered by the end of the psalm, but they stand in the confidence that God will act, and they will be able to enter a future with gratitude for how God has delivered them. Their opponents may remain, but their fear is gone. They stand in a defiant trust in their God who hears their cries and delivers them, so what can a mere mortal do to them.

[1] The Hebrew marom here is problematic and led to very different translations. The NIV translates “many are attacking me in their pride”. While the NRSV sees this as a designation of God, hence the translation “many fight against me O Most High. Both translations can make sense in the context of the psalm.

The Gravity of Grief

Artist Concept of a Supermassive Black Hole, NASA/JPL-Caltech. Public Domain under NASA policy

Tragic events expose the fragility of the worlds we inhabit.
Undoing the meaning of the words that we speak and hear.
The gravity of the grief is so powerful that nothing escapes it.

There are no beautiful words that can undo betrayal.
Letters litter the lawn as they lose their creative power.
Words are worthless when the unspeakable occurs.
Tragedy transforms treasured truths into discarded trash.
Narratives go nowhere. Sacred stories are suddenly suspended.
Poetry enters a precarious pause. Its rhymes and rhythms undone.

Someday the words will regain their meaning for the wounded one.
When the gravity of grief is not so great. But not yet.
First the fragile pieces must be gathered, their world recreated.

Only time can transform the truths tragedy trashed.
Patient presence with survivor of the unspeakable
May once again allow words their worth in the world.
Narratives may find their new way. Sacredness seen in stories.
Poetry and prose relate reality in rhyme and rhythm.
Beauty beyond the brokenness of betrayal as new words emerge.

Psalm 55-A Desperate Prayer from an Unsafe Environment

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Psalm 55

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.
1 Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught
3 by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
4 My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”
9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.
12 It is not enemies who taunt me — I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me — I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
16 But I call upon God, and the LORD will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice.
18 He will redeem me unharmed[1] from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old, Selah will hear, and will humble them — because they do not change, and do not fear God.
20 My companion laid hands on a friend and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords.
22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
23 But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

This Psalm is filled with unusual Hebrew words that account for the differences in wording among translations. Although individual words may present challenges the overall message of the words are clear. This is a desperate prayer for deliverance from an unsafe environment where human relationships have failed, trust has been violated, and the psalmist feels unsafe. It is a petition for God’s help. It is a cry for God to condemn those who have brought such pain. It bears witness to the psalmist grasping to their faith in God’s justice when others have proven faithless.

Many people can reflect on moments in their life when they can identify strongly with the words of this Psalm. For me, the words of this psalm take me back to a time when a dream had died, I was leading a congregation that was splitting apart due to conflict, and even home was no longer a healthy place as I attempted to deal with a betrayal by one I loved. It was a time where it felt like all the things that defined me had rejected me. My hopes for the future, my work, my place of worship, and even my family all had been impacted and the only thing I had left to hold on to was the faith that God would hear my cry in that moment, that the pain would eventually end, and that God would save me in a time when I could not save myself.

Perhaps the reason that the words in this Psalm are so difficult to translate is that the poet has to grasp for words in the midst of their pain which seem just out of reach. Deep pain seems to shatter our ability to narrate what is happening, the events become unspeakable. Yet, it is precisely this inability to speak about the trauma that one endures which can trap us within it. One of the gifts of scripture, particularly the Psalms and the prophets, is honest language which attempts to bear witness to the pain and suffering that are often a part of the life of the faithful. Being a religious person does not prevent one from experiencing conflict, betrayal, anxiety, fear, and even desiring to run away from one’s home or one’s vocation.

The Psalm begins with four verbs asking God to pay attention to the desperate prayer (Give ear, do not hide, attend, and answer) followed by a long list of troubles caused to this faithful one by the actions of the enemy/wicked. The righteous one is troubled, distraught, experiencing anguish in their heart and the terrors of death, fear, trembling. and horror overwhelm them, and their desire is to flee from the city, their home, and their responsibilities to some wilderness retreat. These early descriptions of the psalmist’s current condition seem in tension the affirmation later in the Psalm that “the LORD…will never permit the righteous to be moved” but they need to voice the full extent of their affliction before they can enter into the trust in God’s provision. J Clinton McCann highlights that many of the things the righteous one is experiencing are exactly what those opposed to God’s way and experiencing God’s judgment have experienced in the past:

“Terrors” (v.4) and “trembling” (v.5) are what the Egyptians experienced as a result of opposing God (see Exod 15: 15-16), and overwhelming horror is what Ezekiel promises as a result of God’s judgment (see Ezek 7:18). (NIB IV, 898)

Now in a world turned upside down by violence and betrayal the righteous are experiencing this at the hands of the wicked and only God can reestablish justice in this unjust environment. The psalmist, like the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 9:1-6, desires to be away from this place of betrayal and pain.

The city itself has become unsafe because of the actions of the wicked. There is no safe time and there is no safe place. Morning to night and from the walls of the city to the marketplace and even in the heart of the city the enemy cannot be avoided. The features of the city that are supposed to bring security are occupied by the enemy, commerce has been corrupted, and there is no place to go where violence, strife, and ruin have not transformed the city which was once a home into a prison for this petitioner. God must act in the midst of this injustice and the psalmist echoes God’s judgment of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 where the languages of the city are confused.

It is only in the middle of the psalm that we learn that the betrayer who has made their world unsafe is, “my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.” This intimate friend who has shared times both mundane and sacred with the speaker has become their oppressor. The transformation from friend to enemy has broken the petitioner’s world and they cry out for God to judge them like God judged Korah and his company that were taken alive into the realm of death. (Numbers 16: 30-33) Although Sheol as a place of the dead does not have the same meaning as Hell in much Christian thought, the injustice committed by this former close friend and companion has damaged the petitioner so deeply they want them removed from the sphere of the living. As uncomfortable as these words crying out for judgment may be, they need to be spoken and lifted up to God so that they can leave the speaker’s heart. Like Jeremiah 9:1-6 mentioned above, it is neighbors and kin who bring about, “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!” (Jeremiah 9:6) and now the fate of these friends turned enemy belongs to God. The companion who laid hands on the psalmist and violated their covenant now finds themselves in the hands of the God who is faithful to the covenant.

God will judge the wicked and restore the just. The redemption which the psalmist longs for is not merely a removal of the wicked but also a relief from their anxiety and a complete return to wholeness and happiness. The only life after this experience of betrayal and oppression can come from the LORD who sustains the righteous. Ultimately for the healing to begin the environment must change and the only way the petitioner sees for that to happen in their current state is for the violent betrayer to be removed. There is no trust in one whose speech was smoother than butter and whose words were smoother than oil which hid a heart set on conflict and actions which cut deeply.  For the psalmist human beings have proven untrustworthy, and it has driven this righteous one towards God. Perhaps in a place and time where the poet’s center of life has been returned to peace and wholeness there will be a space for reconciliation and forgiveness, but in the immediate aftermath of betrayal as the poet lives in fear and anxiety their horizon can only embrace a future without their betrayer.

 

[1] Literally “he will ransom in shalom (peace-wholeness) my nephesh (soul-center of life)” As Beth Tanner notes, “my very life will be protected, not just from harm, but will be restored to complete wholeness and happiness. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 475)

Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance

View of the Judean Wilderness, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve shared by Yuvalr under Creative Commons 3.0

Psalm 54

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”
1 Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.
2 Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.
3 For the insolent[1] have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them. Selah
4 But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.[2]
5 He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them.
6 With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.
7 For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph[3] on my enemies.

This Psalm is a cry for help for deliverance from one’s enemies. This is the first of a series of prayers (Psalm 54-63) which are petitions for help from God and with the exception of Psalm 60 they are all individual prayers for God’s action on the psalmist’s behalf to deliver them from their oppressors. All of these prayers remain confident that God will help for the righteous one and God will repay the insolent ones with evil for their evil. The prevalence of these petitions for God’s action to deliver the righteous from the persecution of the wicked in the Psalter point to the formation of a practice of prayer which relies on God in the midst of crisis and the formation of a persistent hope which relies upon God’s promised justice in the experience of injustice.

The superscription of the Psalm places it shortly after the events in the superscription of Psalm 52 in 1 Samuel. Psalm 52 refers to the action of Doeg in 1 Samuel 21-22, while Psalm 54 refers to David’s time in the wilderness of Ziph in 1 Samuel 23: 15-28. The wilderness of Ziph is located within Judah, and the betrayal by some of the Ziphites revealing David’s presence in their region which brings King Saul into pursuit of David. Saul comes close to capturing David before the Philistines raid Israel and Saul has to act against an incursion by this external opponent. If the Psalm is read in the context of the superscription, then the enemy of David’s enemy becomes the means by which God delivers from trouble and the Philistine becomes the tool of God’s deliverance for the righteous from their own king.

The Psalm, although it never utters the name of the God of Israel, asks for God’s vindication by God’s name and might. To appeal to God’s name is to appeal to God’s reputation and character. The psalmist calls upon God to act like the God who hears the prayers of the righteous and listens to the words of they speak to God. The actions of the ‘insolent’ or ‘estranged’ one who is persecuting the righteous one and is seeking their life demand a God of justice to act (in the psalmist’s view) or the reputation of God is in danger.

The speaker remains confident is God’s identity as both a helper of the oppressed ones and the upholder of the life of the righteous. The enemy of the speaker of the psalm may indeed desire to end the life of the righteous one, but the psalmist trusts that if God stands with them then the oppressor is ultimately powerless. The poem, in Beth Tanner’s words, “states the flip-side of the golden rule. The one praying wishes that all of the harm the enemies have caused will be visited back on them.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 471) In return for God’s action on behalf of the oppressed the petitioner states they will offer a sacrifice and bear witness to the truthfulness of God’s character as expressed by the name of God. Perhaps, to the skeptical reader, this may look like an attempt to bribe or barter with God so that God will answer their prayers. A more charitable reading can see this response as an act of gratitude to God’s deliverance.

Another objection sometimes noted to Psalm 54 is the triumphal note of looking upon one’s enemies at the end. The Psalms are songs and prayers that deal with the experience of the life of the ones attempting to live righteously in an unjust world. Sometimes these prayers may seem unorthodox to Christians who have been taught that the life of faith is a docile and polite one or who view God as distant or unengaged. The Psalms engage in the difficult struggle of faith in a world of violence, cruelty, betrayal, and oppression and yet the judge and actor to restore justice is God. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would articulate at a speech given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, “We shall overcome because the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” For both Dr. King and the psalmist, the one who bends that moral arc toward justice is God. For the faithful ones, those who attempt to bend the arc towards injustice will be repaid for the injustice they commit, and they will be seen by the righteous ones who continue to endure while the unrighteous fall.

[1] The Hebrew zarim can mean estranged or strangers or insolent. If the poem is read in the context of the superscription, and the oppressing one is King Saul, the word may be better translated ‘estranged’ as Beth Tanner suggests. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 471)

[2] The Hebrew nephesh here is often translated ‘soul’ but the Hebrew idea of ‘soul’ is not the same as the Greek idea of ‘soul’. In Hebrew this refers to the essence of life, not something that is detachable from it.

[3] ‘In triumph’ is not in the Hebrew, the Hebrew is literally my eye has looked upon my enemy.’ Nevertheless, the connotation in the poem is looking at one’s enemies from the position of having endured and standing triumphant. Most English translations that insert ‘in triumph’ capture this aspect of the poem.