Monthly Archives: August 2021

Transitioning into Song of Solomon

Aharon April, The Song of Songs-Last 2005 Shared under Creative Commons-SA 4.0

Psalm 62 may seem like a strange place to pause in the midst of the psalms, but there is a logic behind pausing here. The book of Psalms is subdivided into five books, with book two ending at Psalm 72. My pattern has been to do roughly 10 psalms between other books, and this sets me up to complete book two of the psalms following the next book I work through. I planned to work through Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, prior to beginning Matthew but that project refused to wait. So now, after a long delay, I am finally turning to this strange love song which falls in the heart of the bible.

Song of Solomon has always been a controversial book within the scriptures. When our Jewish ancestors were debating which books would be included in their sacred scriptures opinions were sharply divided on this book. Ultimately its attribution to Solomon and the allegorical interpretation of the book’s poetry allowed Rabbi Akiba (ca. 50-135 CE) to defend it stating, “all the scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs in the Holy of Holies.” (Paulsell 2012, 172) Within Medieval Christianity it was one of the most frequently read and written about book with over one hundred commentaries appearing by the year 1200. (Davis 2000, 231) Yet in modern times the Song of Solomon has fallen into disuse and many modern interpreters struggle once again to find an appropriate way of integrating this poem into the broader library of scriptures.

On the one hand, Song of Solomon is poetry about two lovers and their passionate desire for the other. Unique among the bible is the prevalence of the feminine voice throughout the poetry and it gives voice to a female perspective on desire in relationships in the bible. Like Esther, God is not mentioned in this book nor are there allusions to any religious traditions. On the other hand, the placement of this love poem within the scriptures assumes that it has something to speak about God, the world, relationships, and the people of God.  Within the organization of Christian scriptures, Song of Solomon is the final book of Wisdom Literature and like Ecclesiastes, which precedes it, it is not a religious or churchy type of wisdom.

Eighteen years ago, I was asked to give my senior sermon before the worshipping community at my seminary on a text from the Song of Solomon. I was struck then by the placement of this very unique book near the geometric center of the bible. I was fascinated by imagining God in the person of the lover leaping like a stag or looking through the lattice. (2:9) My intention as I go through this short book is to hold the sensual literal reading and the church’s historical reading alongside each other. I think there is wisdom in reading this book as simply a passionate poem of love and allowing it to rekindle some of the desire within us. Yet, I also believe that our own experiences of love at its best come from and in some way shape our understanding of God’s love for us as well. I’m curious to see where this unique book takes me over the next couple months.

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

<To the leader: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>

1 For God alone my soul[1] waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
3 How long will you assail a person, will you batter[2] your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4 Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

In poetry structure can frequently be used to help those familiar with the medium understand the words at a deeper level. In this psalm there are a number of structural elements that are often missed in the English translations that help provide emphasis in the psalm of trust amidst trouble. The placement of this psalm between Psalm 61 and Psalm 63 (also psalms which declare the psalmist’s trust in God above all other things) also emphasizes this common theme. The “trilogy of trust” within the psalms, as J. Clinton McCann labels Psalm 61-63, (NIB IV:922) stand near the end of the petitions for help in this portion of the book of psalms. Even though the psalmist’s world is full of people who murder reputations with their duplicitous ways, the way of faith knows that God’s steadfast love will outlast the scheming of mortals.

Invisible to most English translations of this psalm is the repetition of the Hebrew ‘ak which begins verses 1,2,4,5,6 and 9. This word, translated ‘alone’ and ‘only’ in the NRSV, is used four times in relation to God and twice in relation to the working of humans. There is a strong emphasis on God ‘alone’ providing strength which thwarts the ‘only’ plans of those who are but a breath. In addition to this structural repetition is the nearly identical wording of verses 1-2 and 5-6. The complaints about the enemies who are assailing the psalmist and attempting to bring them down from prominence are structurally surrounded by God alone, who they wait for in silence. The psalmist may appear like a leaning wall or a tottering fence, but they are surrounded by their rock, salvation, and fortress. The faithful one can remain in silence while the wicked ones utter falsehoods for they know that this struggle takes place within the sheltering space of their God who will not allow them to be shaken. Even trouble is surrounded by faith and the deliverance from the ephemeral evils produced by the wicked rests in the hands of God who rescues not only life but also honor and reputation.

In verse eight the psalm transforms from personal trust to testimony. Now the psalmist takes on the role of the instructor to the people handing on the trust they have learned. What humans can do alone without God (in verse 9 this is the final time the Hebrew ‘ak occurs) is to be a breath or a puff of air. God alone can be salvation, rock, fortress, deliverance, and honor. Placing trust in human scheming, extortion, robbery, and even riches is foolishness. It is in God, not humans and their schemes, where power rests. It is God’s hesed (steadfast love) that is the guarantee of the future for the faithful. The actions of the faithful and the foolish are seen by God and the psalmist trusts that ultimately God’s steadfast love and power will lift up the righteous and bring down those who are working in falsehood to destroy the honor and perhaps even the life of the faithful ones.


[1] Although the Hebrew nephesh is often translated ‘soul,’ the Hebrew understanding of ‘soul’ is closer to ‘life’ than the Greek conception of soul most English speakers assume. The Hebrew idea is inseparable from the life of the individual.

[2] A more literal translation of the Hebrew rasah here would be ‘kill’ or ‘murder’ (NIB IV:923)

Three Metaphors at the Closing of a Book: Part 3 The Drink

As the sweetness and smoke of the story’s savor
Fades from your tongue and your thirst returns
Drink deeply my friend, for there is sure to be a story here
That will quench your thirst for a time, cool and sharp.
Perhaps you want something that burns as it goes down,
Or something to make you forget the troubles of your world
I’ve got just the thing for you, take a taste of this
Drink deeply my friend, it has been aging and waiting for you.
It needs to be shared, and tasted. Enjoy my friend.
And maybe one day the story we share will be the one
You are brewing in the dark corners of your imagination.

Three Metaphors at the Closing of a Book: Part 2 The New Map

With all endings come the possibility of new beginnings
A new tale waits to paint the opening brushstrokes
Of a new map in your mind as you take the difficult first steps
Out your door on a journey into the unknown without knowing the end
New companions to build relationships with that may befriend or betray.
Unknown lands with their peril and promise lie along the path.
Stenographer get out your pens, a new world awaits.

Three Metaphors at a Closing of a Story: Part 1 Diverging Paths

The story ends, as all stories eventually do
A door closes, a world comes to its conclusion
And I stand watching as the words that conjured it
Sink slowly into the deep sea of memories.
Its characters who became my companions on the road.
I have known their names, I have shared their dreams
I supped at their table and walked their winding way
But they now recede with their world as my path diverges
Their story ends and mine continues forward
And I have been changed on this journey through their world
Rarely do I walk out of a story unaltered by its magic
I’ve seen another world and talked with its denizens
Yet, other worlds beckon from the shelves invitingly
There is a beautiful, tearful, strange magic in these words
Which invoke such vivid reactions in my mind
It’s time to close the book, maybe someday I’ll return
To share this journey once again, to rekindle friendships lost
And rediscover the people and place in these pages.

Psalm 61 A Life Dependent on God

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 61

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. Of David.>
1 Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
2 From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I;
3 for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
4 Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Selah
5 For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
6 Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations!
7 May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!
8 So I will always sing praises to your name, as I pay my vows day after day.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic parable, The Great Divorce, the experience of hell is a grey city where the inhabitants choose to live a life that is increasingly joyless and friendless as they move further and further away from their neighbors. An escape from this grey city is readily available if the people of the place let go of their own security and accept their reliance on God’s grace (which is both a painful and healing process in the dream that forms the book) but most sullenly either remain or return to this increasingly private hell which they choose instead of heaven. One of the paradoxes of our current time is that we live in a time in society where we have resources and comforts unavailable to people at any other time in history and yet as our affluence has increased our depression and anxiety have also increased. Perhaps this poem that the psalmist lifts up from the end of the earth has something to speak to a people who have lived in the anxiety of attempting to make meaning for oneself and finding, in the words of Ecclesiastes, that it is all vanity. That perhaps Augustine’s confession that ‘our heart is restless until it rests in you” may be the gospel we need to lead us back home.

This psalm is the appeal of an individual for God’s help in the midst their trouble. The psalmist cries to God from ‘the end of the earth’ which could be a geographical location, being far away from the temple, but more likely is a perception of the psalmist’s distance from God. In the midst of the trouble, they are experiencing they have found their own resources insufficient. They are in need of a place they can escape from the rising floodwaters. They are faint of heart and fading fast.[1] The appropriate place to turn in their distress is to their God who in a flourish of images of strength is the psalmist’s refuge, strong tower, tent to abide within, and wings to be sheltered under. The crisis of the psalmist has shaken them out of their self-reliance, demonstrated their distance from their God, and caused them to cry out to return to their God’s presence.

The psalm moves from trouble to trust. The God of the psalmist is one who hears their petitions and vows. The heritage, or inheritance, mentioned in verse five is often associated with the land that God has promised. In an agricultural society one’s security is intimately linked to the land and the provision of weather at the appropriate time. Yet, one’s security is also determined by the actions of the leaders of that land. The king, and here it would refer to a Davidic king, would provide the physical security for the land. But theologically the king is merely a means by which God provides for the covenant people and the military security of Israel is ultimately provided not by swords and spears but by God’s protection. Martin Luther captures this idea when expounding on the petition asking God for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer noting that it not only includes food and drink but also, “upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Luther 1978, 36) The psalmist realizes that the way of self-sufficiency is vanity and that their life is dependent upon God’s gracious provision which comes in many forms.

The psalm promises a grateful response to God’s act of provision. A skeptical reader may view this as an attempt to bribe God to get one’s way, but the psalms have stated in other places that God needs nothing that the psalmist can give.[2] As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger can state, “Israel, however, was not aware that the transaction could be reduced to a quid pro quo, an attempt to bribe YHWH.” (Brueggemann 2014, 272) The appropriate response to God’s provision is praise, thanksgiving, promising to serve one’s God with whatever one has to offer. Self-reliance has led to isolation from God and trouble. Repentance has allowed one to return to reliance upon God’s provision and a response of gratitude for God’s gracious protection, provision, and shelter.

[1] As Beth Tanner notes, the root Hebrew word translated faint demonstrates a serious distress and proximity to death. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 511)

[2] For example Psalm 50: 8-13.

Psalm 60 A Plea for God’s Return to the People

The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Louis Daguerre (1824)

Psalm 60

<To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.>
1 O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!
2 You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.
3 You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.
4 You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot. Selah
5 Give victory with your right hand, and answer us, so that those whom you love may be rescued.
6 God has promised[1] in his sanctuary: “With exultation I will divide up Shechem, and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
7 Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my scepter.
8 Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”
9 Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?
10 Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies.
11 O grant us help against the foe, for human help is worthless.
12 With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.

While writing to his friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel military prison in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!)” (DBWE 8: 479) Though Bonhoeffer was discussing how he, and other faithful Christians, were to live before God in a world that seems to manage without God, his phrasing could also apply to this psalm where the critical issue is the perceived abandonment of the covenant people at a critical moment by their God. The psalms are theological enough to rest on the conviction of God’s active presence and participation, but they are poetic enough to speak eloquently about the experience of God’s absence, abandonment, and rejection.

The superscription of this psalm seems to be disconnected from the content of the psalm itself. The superscription refers to a string of events in 2 Samuel 8 (and 1 Chronicles 18) when David and his armies are experiencing a time of the LORD’s favor and, “the LORD gave victory to David wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:14) Yet the psalm is clearly about a time where the people are not experiencing the LORD’s favor and are speaking in the aftermath of defeat searching for answers. This communal prayer contrasts the experience of God’s previous provision with the brokenness of their current plight.

In the theological world of the Bible the existence of the covenant people is contingent upon the continued provision and care of the God of Israel. They may have suffered a defeat from one or multiple of the surrounding kingdoms of Moab, Edom, or Philistia, but the theological claim that the psalmist makes is that this defeat is symptomatic of their rejection by their God. It is not better military technology or strategy that will change the plight of the defeated covenant people. Their need as expressed in this prayer is that God to return to their side and protect them. There are numerous incidents in the story of Israel where the scriptures narrate a military defeat theologically as a judgment by God or a time where God’s presence has not gone with the people.[2] The bible consistently provides a theological interpretation of history, judging kings and times for their faithfulness to the covenant instead of their wealth, power, or military prowess. In this psalm, it is God who has rejected the people, breached their defenses and broken the land itself. Although the people may have external opponents it is God who has caused them to suffer and given them the ‘wine of reeling.’[3]

There is an abrupt transition in verse four where God’s role changes to being once again the one who provides a safe place for the people to rally under. Perhaps this is the psalmist speaking in hope or perhaps it is a desperate plea, but it remains consistent with the psalmist’s worldview that the problem is God’s rejection which can only be resolved by God’s initiative. In Hebrew verse five ends with the imperative “answer” setting up what “God has spoken.” God’s answer reinforces the psalmist’s worldview that God is not merely the God of Israel, but the God of all the nations. Not only are the places of Israel (verses 6-7) but also Israel’s opponents (verse 8) under God’s authority. The language about Moab, Edom, and Philistia may be intended as an insult of these nations or they may simply be extending the image of God’s possession and claiming of each of these nations that surround Israel as well.

The nation still finds themselves in conflict and unable to oppose their foes. They are not going to enjoy success against the defenses of their opponents until God’s rejection ends and God once again goes out with the armies of the covenant people. It would be easy to dismiss this prayer as an appeal to divine authorization of the wars of the people, and in a conflicted history of Israel there are times where it would be appealing to combine military might and strategy with a divine mandate. Yet, Israel has never been a superpower and they were to rely upon God for their survival in the ancient world. As J. Clinton McCann Jr. can articulate.

Their prayer is not that of the powerful, who seek to claim God’s sanction of the status quo. Rather, their prayer is the desperate prayer of those who turn to God as the only possible hope in an apparently hopeless situation (v. 11) (NIB IV:918)

In a violent world the covenant people were to learn to rely upon their God’s continual strength, protection, and provision. In this moment of crisis, in the psalmist’s view, God has not upheld God’s responsibility to the covenant and no justification for this absence is given. This psalm boldly calls upon God to act on behalf of the covenant people and to restore them once again and grant them victory over the foes that oppose them.

[1] The NRSV takes a less literal approach here in its rendition of these words as God has promised from his sanctuary. There is the possibility of understanding this as a ‘brief sermon’, but the more literal reading of the Hebrew rendered by the NIV as “God has spoken from the sanctuary” places this as a plea for an answer responded to by God’s voice from the sanctuary. (NIB IV:916)

[2] Examples of this include Numbers 14:41-45, and Judges 2: 11-15. This theological interpretation of history permeates the narration of Israel’s story throughout historical books (Joshua-Esther) and also often appears in the prophets.

[3] This theme of the wine of reeling or cup of judgment also appears in Isaiah 51:22 (where this wine is to be passed now to the enemies of the people) and Jeremiah 25:15-17(although the language in Jeremiah is slightly different the image is employed in the same manner).