Category Archives: Biblical Reflections

Psalm 71 A Prayer for Help Shaped by a Life of Worship

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

Psalm 71

1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
7 I have been like a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge.
8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.
9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
10 For my enemies speak concerning me, and those who watch for my life consult together.
11 They say, “Pursue and seize that person whom God has forsaken, for there is no one to deliver.”
12 O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!
13 Let my accusers be put to shame and consumed; let those who seek to hurt me be covered with scorn and disgrace.
14 But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more.
15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all day long, though their number is past my knowledge.
16 I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD, I will praise your righteousness, yours alone.
17 O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Your power
19 and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?
20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.
21 You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again.
22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.
23 My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have rescued.
24 All day long my tongue will talk of your righteous help, for those who tried to do me harm have been put to shame, and disgraced.

The practice of worship shapes the language of our prayers and informs how we talk about God’s action in the world. Psalm 71 bears witness to this process by bringing together language from several psalms to address the situation of a faithful elderly worshiper crying once again for God’s deliverance. These psalms which have been a part of the regular recitations of those seeking to live a righteous life now shape a new prayer lifted up to God. Even as this psalm reflects on what has gone before, it becomes a pattern for others to build their own prayers and songs upon. The psalm becomes a medium where the psalmist proclaims God’s might to generations to come.

A consistent theme throughout the psalms is that God is the source of refuge and deliverance from one’s enemies. God is the refuge, the strong fortress, and the rock, all familiar images for God’s protection. The lifelong faith of the psalmist begins metaphorically from birth where God serves as the midwife delivering the psalmist from the mother’s womb. The trust of the psalmist is formed by a lifetime of worship, prayer, song, and the experience of God’s protection and rescue.

This praying one has been a portent to many. Many assume that they are a portent because they were judged by God for some past action, but it is equally likely that they are a portent of what a life lived under God’s favor is like. Although this is a psalm petitioning for God’s deliverance from enemies there is no indication that the psalmist feels distant from God or judged by God. Even though this is a psalm asking for God’s deliverance and protection it maintains a confident note of praise throughout. The current struggle that the psalmist endures does not erase a lifetime of God’s provision or the language of praise formed in worship.

In a hostile world the vulnerability that comes with old age can be a cause of great anxiety and danger. The enemies in the psalms are often looking for weaknesses that they can exploit for their own benefit, and their action here goes against the intent of the law that God provided Israel. The commandment on honoring father and mother in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is primarily about caring for parents in their old age and the Hebrew culture was to be a culture that honored the elderly rather than preying on them. Unfortunately, in any conflict it is often the weak: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, women, children, and the poor who often are viewed as expendable. The enemies are portrayed like vultures who are waiting to pick at the psalmist’s carcass and their actions are viewed as shameful. Perhaps they are waiting to seize power from this psalmist and the psalmist, on their own, is unable to resist them as vigorously as they would have been able to when they were younger. Their vulnerability forces them to rely upon God as their refuge and strength and to bring these dishonorable ones to justice.

The life of faith is a life shaped by the praising of God for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, and even in times of trouble this praise comes naturally to the psalmist’s lips. Even psalms of lamentations will normally turn to praise and this unnamed psalm writer[1] uses rhythms and patterns that mirror several other psalms to give voice to this praise in the midst of their crisis. J. Clinton McCann points to several places in the psalm where it mirrors Psalms 22, 31, 35, 36, 38, and 40 in addition to the verbal links with Psalm 70. (NIB IV: 958) In the midst of their personal crisis the psalmist leans into the hymnbook looking for words to express their concern and confidence in God. It is likely that we see in this psalm the process of building upon the language of faith learned in worship to express the needs to God in a new time.

The psalmist asks that they be allowed to “proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” (18) In this psalm becoming a part of the scriptures this prayer is granted. The actions of this unnamed psalmist weaving together the language they learned from a lifetime of faithfulness to respond to the struggles brought by the vulnerability of growing older becomes one of the many patterns of faithful praising and crying out to God in the midst of their life recorded in the scriptures. God was there as a midwife to begin the faithful one’s life and God will accompany the psalmist and those who read these psalms throughout their life. The writer of this psalm trusts that God is active in the world and can use troubles and calamities and the deliverance from these troubles to shape the life of the faithful one and to witness to God’s providence in the world. Instruments and voices are lifted up to praise God who has been faithful in the past. The psalmist sings in confidence that God will deliver in the present. The lessons of a life shaped by worship are not quickly forgotten.

[1] Psalm 71 is one of the psalms with no attribution.

Psalm 70 God Help Me Quickly

Psalm 70

Psalm 70

<To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.>

1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O LORD, make haste to help me!

2 Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and            brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me.

3 Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

4 Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

5 But I am poor and needy;

hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!
 
Sometimes the only prayer that can be managed in a crisis is, “dear God, help! Please! Quickly!” That is the essence of this short psalm which appeals to God for deliverance. It is possible that Psalm 70 and 71 were originally designed to be joined together, there are a number of thematic and vocabulary linkages between the two psalms, and this psalm is also present with a few minor differences as the ending of Psalm 40. Yet, in the way we have received this Psalm in the psalter it stands alone as a brief and unresolved plea for help which calls on God to act quickly and decisively to save the petitioner.

The Psalm has an uneven chiastic structure[1] which I’ve attempted to show in the indentations above. As Beth Tanner helpfully illustrates:

Plea to hurry (v. 1)
The world as it is (v.2-3)
The world as it should be (v.4)
The world as it is (v. 5a)
Plea to hurry (v. 5b) (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 563)

The opening and closing verses share both vocabulary and theme (help, deliver(er), haste(n)) bracketing the brief psalm with an urgent cry for immediate help. The world the psalmist is experiencing is one where enemies seek to cause pain, ruin reputation, and destroy the life of this one crying for help. The psalmist asks for the shameful actions of their enemy to rebound upon these enemies causing them to be shamed. In a world as it should be the righteous who seek God know joy and are able to praise God, but in the world as it is experienced they find themselves appealing to God for deliverance from their oppressors. Psalm 70 ends with a repeated cry for immediate help and we sit with the psalmist in the time of waiting for God’s response.

Although most modern Christians don’t attend service on the Wednesday of Holy Week, this is the appointed psalm for that day and liturgically it applies this psalm to Jesus hearing the mocking words on the cross. The psalm makes sense in this setting of one being accused unjustly and calling out to the LORD for help, but it also applies to many other settings throughout the life of faith. Cries for God’s immediate response in a situation of crisis are a part of a life that trusts that God will deliver. Sometimes the shortest prayers are the ones that speak the clearest of the immediate need for help.

[1] A Chiasm is a poetic form which uses mirroring statements, vocabulary or themes.

Psalm 69 A Cry for Deliverance from Unjust Suffering

Psalm 69

<To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.>

1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.[1]
2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
4 More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?
5 O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
6 Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord GOD of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.
7 It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
8 I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
9 It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
10 When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
12 I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help
14 rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress — make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
19 You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.
24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents.
26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.
27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
29 But I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.
30 I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
34 Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
35 For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;
36 the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.

As attractive as the simple linkage of suffering as a punishment for sin is for some people, there are moments where the magnitude of the suffering becomes impossible to correlate with the suffering that a faithful one is undergoing. Psalm 69 has often been heard in reference to Job, the suffering servant of Isaiah 52: 13-53:12, Jeremiah, the author of Lamentations, and Jesus. It is a complaint from one whose suffering, particularly at the hands of others in the community, is disproportionate to any offenses they may have committed. As we have seen throughout the Psalms, the petitioner trusts that God is the one who can save their life from the threat they face and restore justice in the face of injustice.

Structurally, Psalm 69 begins with two sets of appeals to God which parallel each other in significant ways using similar content and vocabulary. This mirroring intensifies the urgency in the appeal of the psalmist and reinforces the impression that their life is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the forces and the individuals who oppose them. The person cries out using the imagery of rising floodwaters that they cannot flee from because they are stuck in the deep mire and cannot gain a foothold. Their time is running out before the waters rise above their neck and their life is swept away because the air they need is denied to their lungs by the overwhelming waters. The metaphor indicates a situation of dire need, and the petitioner has continued to call out to God for deliverance until their throat is dry from crying out and their eyes are weary from crying.

The image abruptly shifts from a rising flood of water to a flood of opponents who hate without cause. The psalmist does not claim to being sinless, they know their actions and attitudes have been seen and known by God, but what others are accusing them of they proclaim their innocence of. They are being asked to answer for crimes they did not commit and to pay for things they did not take. The wording of the psalm makes it likely that the psalmist is being persecuted for their faithfulness to their understanding of what God has asked of them. Perhaps they are a prophet whose actions on behalf of God have made them unpopular, or perhaps they maintain faithfulness to the worship of the LORD and practice of the law in a time when many others are serving other gods or embracing other values. Their suffering which has alienated them from even their family is correlated, in the psalmist’s view, with their faithfulness to God. This faithful one has defended God and now they ask for God’s defense and rescue of them. Only God can restore justice in this time of injustice.

The image of flooding returns in verse fourteen and once again we see and echo of the cry for God’s deliverance from the rapidly rising waters which represent the enemies seeking to overwhelm the psalmist. These enemies whose insults have broken their heart of and brought shame and dishonor upon the psalmist. These people who were viewed as their family and community have rejected them and caused them to be viewed as one whose life is forfeit. For the psalmist, the only way they can imagine their restoration and salvation is for the tables to turn. They have been met without pity or comfort, and they ask for God to show their tormentors no comfort. They in their need received only poison and vinegar and so they call upon God to respond to their lack of hospitality. They have attempted to overwhelm their life like a rising flood, and now the psalmist asks that their lives may be blotted out of the book of life. They appeal to God for rescue and deliverance and through their dry throat and dimming eyes they hold on to the hope that God will deliver them and vindicate them over their oppressors.

Within this psalm it appears that the oppressors are adding to the perceived just punishment of God. Verse twenty-six point to the psalmist’s original pain and need, perhaps in the form of an illness. This sense in heightened by the word used for food in verse twenty-one which is an unusual word for food that is often associated with food brought to the sick bed. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 560) These enemies may be seeking to exploit the weakness of the psalmist when they are sick and may be (figuratively or literally) poisoning the waters (and the food). One could imagine a scenario where if the psalmist is a king (like David who the psalm is attributed to) someone could seek to exploit their weakness to attempt to seize power. Regardless the psalm indicates that the one who implores God for help can no longer trust even their nearest kin.

The psalm abruptly shifts to praise in verse thirty-one. Perhaps we see the deliverance of the one crying out or perhaps the psalmist merely anticipates that God will deliver. As J. Clinton McCann rightly states, “In the book of Psalms, to live is to praise God, and to praise God is to live.” (NIB IV: 953) The psalms, even in their appeals for help, live in expectation and gratitude of God’s deliverance from the floods that overwhelm and enemies who oppress. The psalmist lifts their voice into the great chorus of all creation praising God for God’s continual provision and redemption. Gratitude lifted up in witness and acclamation is more important in the psalms than providing the proper sacrifices at the temple. The psalmist lives in the love of God’s name, in the shelter of God’s protection, and in the expectation of God’s help.

[1] Hebrew nephesh has occurred frequently throughout the psalms and normally means ‘life’ or ‘soul’ but here is a location where it refers to ‘neck.’ Yet, in the metaphorical waters rising to the neck the life/soul of the petitioner is endangered.

Psalm 68 God as Warrior and Protector of the Powerless

Fredrick Arthur Bridgman, Pharaoh’s Army Engulfed by the Red Sea (1900) oil on canvas

Psalm 68

<To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. A Song.>
1 Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.
2 As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.
3 But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.
4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds — his name is the LORD — be exultant before him.
5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
6 God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.
7 O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
8 the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9 Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad; you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.
11 The Lord gives the command; great is the company of those who bore the tidings:
12 “The kings of the armies, they flee, they flee!” The women at home divide the spoil,
13 though they stay among the sheepfolds — the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with green gold.
14 When the Almighty scattered kings there, snow fell on Zalmon.
15 O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan; O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!
16 Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired for his abode, where the LORD will reside forever?
17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.
18 You ascended the high mount, leading captives in your train and receiving gifts from people, even from those who rebel against the LORD God’s abiding there.
19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Selah
20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belongs escape from death.
21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.
22 The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood, so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.”
24 Your solemn processions are seen, O God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary —
25 the singers in front, the musicians last, between them girls playing tambourines:
26 “Bless God in the great congregation, the LORD, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!”
27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead, the princes of Judah in a body, the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
28 Summon your might, O God; show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before.
29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings bear gifts to you.
30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples. Trample under foot those who lust after tribute; scatter the peoples who delight in war.
31 Let bronze be brought from Egypt; let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God.
32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord, Selah
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens; listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel; and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!

The rigorous scholarship of the 20th century which was intent on setting the individual psalms (along with the rest of scripture) within its historical context would argue that the Hebrew language used and the theology of this psalm are similar to Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, and Judges 5: which are thought to be some of the most ancient pieces of the Bible. This Psalm does have fifteen words which occur nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures and numerous other rare words (NIB IV: 944) and even in the English translations you can sense a more primal way of thinking about enemies in language that would seem bloodthirsty and non-religious (or perhaps some more primal form of religion). Yet, perhaps much of the discomfort with this psalm comes from those who, like me, are relatively privileged since this psalm was one of the favorites of the African American church tradition.

The picture of God throughout this psalm is of God the divine warrior who triumphs over the enemies of God’s people. Those who oppose God are no more substantial to this divine warrior that smoke or wax before a fire. ‘God who rides upon the clouds’ is a description used by the Canaanites for their deity Baal, but here the psalmist adopts this language multiple times to refer to the God of Israel. The LORD God as a divine warrior has apparently stripped the surrounding deities of their titles and has assumed lordship over them. Yet, in all the power and might of this divine warrior, the God of Israel is also the father of the fatherless and the defender of the widows and vulnerable. God’s might is directed at providing a future for the powerless and a land toward those who had once been desolate and imprisoned.

The action of God going out before the people and marching through the wilderness recalls both the Exodus and the long process of the people of Israel claiming the promised land through conflict with the numerous kings of the nations in Numbers through Judges. The earth and the heavens react to the movement of God in both destructive (earthquakes, heavens pouring down rain) and renewing (showering rain to renew the languishing ground). The LORD God of Israel is a force of nature but also the leader of a great host which routes the armies which oppose Israel. The women are able to divide the spoil of these once mighty armies in safety and wealth seems to be flowing down as if it were coming from the feathers of a dove falling to the ground.

The LORD God has not chosen the higher and larger mountains of Zalmon or Bashan to be God’s dwelling place. Instead the LORD has descended in power on Jerusalem with an immense army of chariots (the strongest military unit of the time) that could overwhelm any king’s military might. Here the language turns primal, with the LORD shattering the heads of his enemies and allowing his followers to bathe their feet in blood. Just as the psalmist coopted language previously used for Baal to talk about the God of Israel, now the images of a bloodthirsty victory which, “clearly reflects the traditions of the greater ancient Near East” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 550) is used to graphically illustrate God’s complete victory over the nations opposed to Israel.

Yet, almost immediately after this primal language about wading in blood and dogs having their share of the foe is a procession to worship. Singers and musicians, men and women, the entire congregation of Israel moves toward the temple. The implication is that the other nations also join in this procession to present their offerings to the conquering God of Israel. The tributes come from as far away as Egypt and Ethiopia as the divine warrior lays down the weapons of conquest and initiates a time of peace where God reigns over Israel, over the heavens and over all the earth.

The psalm deals polemically with the gods of the surrounding peoples. The people who oppose the God of Israel are conquered and the titles of their gods now are lifted up in tribute to the LORD God. Beth Tanner says truthfully, “This is dangerous theology in the wrong hands.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 551) In the hands of the powerful it could be used as an authorization for a bloody extermination of one’s enemies and the eradication of their culture and beliefs. There are bellicose voices today that adopt bloodthirsty language to excite their followers and to baptize their bloody beliefs in the approving smile of their gods of power and might. Yet, one must always remember in the use of this psalm that the divine warrior is the father of the fatherless and the protector of the widows and the vulnerable. As Cheryl Townsend Gilkes notes: within the African American tradition Psalm 68 “connects a personal God who cares about the individual’s circumstances with a powerful liberating God.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 552) For people who have never known a life that needs liberation from a powerful oppressor often backed up by both formal and informal networks of power these words may seem primal and bloodthirsty, but for those who long for liberation the only God who can be a father to the fatherless and protector of the vulnerable is a divine warrior who has enough power to displace those who prey upon the weak.

Psalm 65 A Song of Thanksgiving to a Gracious Creator

Jennie Augusta Brownscome, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) Plymouth Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA

Psalm 65

<To the leader. A Psalm of David. A Song.>
1 Praise is due to you,[1] O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed,
2 O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come.
3 When deeds[2] of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
4 Happy[3] are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.
5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
6 By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might.
7 You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.
8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9 You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.
10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

It feels serendipitous to arrive at Psalm 65 in the week before the celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States. This psalm is appropriately used in many Thanksgiving services. This song which celebrates a gracious and forgiving God whose awesome actions to deliver, sustain, and protect the people of God along with all of creation evoke praise from God’s people and the earth itself. The praise delivered to God may be done in silence or with shouting and singing for joy, but the poet who composes the psalm recognizes their place among the thankful creation acknowledging all that its gracious creator has done. As Martin Luther could state in explaining God’s act of creation in the Small Catechism, “For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.” (Luther 1978, 25)

The initial praise emanates from the chosen people in Zion, likely in the temple or tabernacle. Most translations begin like the NRSV, “Praise is due to you” but the Hebrew states, “to you, silence is praise.” Poetically following the Hebrew makes sense as the psalm moderates back and forth between sound and silence. The things that are audible in the poem are often things that interfere with recognizing the gracious actions of God: words of iniquity (v. 3), the roaring of the seas and their waves and the tumult of the people which God silences (v.7). The two things in the poem that metaphorically shout for joy: the gateways of the morning and the evenings (v.8) and the meadows and valleys (v. 13) are both silent. Perhaps the psalmist is inviting us into silence so that we can observe as the creation responds in praise to God’s actions and we might in our own way learn to do the same.

God is the primary actor in this psalm. God is a redeemer who answers prayers, (v. 2) forgives transgressions, (v. 3) and delivers through awesome deeds. (v. 5) God is the creator who established the mountains, calms the threatening and chaotic water and the tumult of the nations, and who presides over all humanity and creation. (v. 6-8) God is the great farmer who waters the earth and causes the plants to grow into a bountiful harvest. (v. 9-11) The psalmist and all creation only lift up their silent praise together with their shouts and songs of joy. Happy (or blessed) are the ones who by God’s gracious action are brought near to live in the courts of God and to worship in the temple of God for they can see, with the rest of creation, the proper stance towards their gracious redeemer, creator, sustainer, and provider. Part of the wise life is being satisfied with the abundance that God has provided.

One of the gifts of the Lutheran tradition which I was formed within is the focus on God being the primary actor in the world rather than humanity. Much of the Christianity formed in the United States places a large emphasis, due to our individualistic culture, on the actions of the individual in obedience to God. Especially with the secular assumptions that most modern Christians bring to their faith, God’s action seems more distant and human action becomes more central. Reinhold Niebuhr’s incisive critique of the American practice of Thanksgiving from almost a century ago (1927) still resonates:

Thanksgiving becomes increasingly the business of congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves…The Lord who was worshipped was not the Lord of Hosts, but the spirit of Uncle Sam, given a cosmic eminence for the moment which the dear old gentleman does not deserve. (NIB IV:935)

Perhaps this psalm can help us to join with the rest of creation as it responds with praise to what God is doing in the world regardless of the transgressions of the chosen people who seem unable to live into the obedience to the covenant of God. Perhaps this short song can encourage us to lift our heads and expand our horizons beyond the walls of our community and reflect upon the actions both awesome and miniscule that God does to maintain the harmony of creation. As people gather together for their feasts of Thanksgiving, may it be an opportunity to reflect upon God’s actions of provision from the abundance of God’s harvest which we can gratefully partake in.

[1] The Hebrew text here reads “To you, silence (dumiyya) is praise” Most translations follow the LXX (Greek text) which uses the Greek prepo (fitting or proper) feeling this is a song of praise and sound is a central act. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 527) See my comments on this above.

[2] The Hebrew dabar is normally translated word but can have the meaning of things or matters. Within the poetic flow of the Hebrew ‘words’ makes sense.

[3] This is the Hebrew asre which is often translated ‘happy’ in Hebrew scriptures. This word often used in wisdom literature and is the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek word makarios which is translated ‘blessed’ in the New Testament (particularly in the Sermon on the Mount).

Psalm 64 Protect the Innocent One for the Words of the Wicked

By Rashid al-Din – “History of the World” by Rashid al-Din. Photograph by German image bank AKG-Images, published in “The Mongols and the West”, Peter Jackson, 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3237525

Psalm 64

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from the dread enemy.
2 Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the scheming of evildoers,
3 who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows,
4 shooting from ambush at the blameless; they shoot suddenly and without fear.
5 They hold fast to their evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, “Who can see us?
6 Who can search out our crimes? We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.” For the human heart and mind are deep.
7 But God will shoot his arrow at them; they will be wounded suddenly.
8 Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin; all who see them will shake with horror.
9 Then everyone will fear; they will tell what God has brought about, and ponder what he has done.
10 Let the righteous rejoice in the LORD and take refuge in him. Let all the upright in heart glory.

This portion of the psalter is full of petitions to God to deliver the one crying out from the malicious action of those who oppose them. Most people have encountered a time when they felt unfairly targeted by a group that threatened to ruin their reputation and may have even threatened physical violence. We don’t have to look far in our modern world to see people who wield words as weapons and who gather together to seek the advancement of their own power, fame, or fortune while thinking themselves immune to any consequences from their words or actions. The faith of the psalmist, which has been handed down to us, is that God hears and sees the injustice of the world and that God will eventually set the world back in balance. The dangerous words and scheming plots of the wicked may wound but God will rise to defend those who call for deliverance.

The psalm begins with an urgent call for God to hear and act to guard the life of the one praying for God’s preservation. This righteous one is dealing with many enemies who are gathering together and plotting against them. The NRSV translates the gathering together or the enemies as a ‘secret plot’ but the Hebrew sod is a gathering of a company of persons (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 522) and so the actions of the enemies is more like a gathering mob rather than a quiet conspiracy. The actions of these ‘scheming evildoers’ is intentionally unfair, and the psalmist feels ambushed by their words which have been weaponized like swords and arrows. The cry for help goes up when the psalmist feels exposed and unable to defend themselves against the onslaught of words and clever snares laid for them. These wicked ones are convinced that they have laid out a clever plot which the petitioner cannot escape from and have probably manipulated things to make themselves appear righteous in their assassination of the character and reputation of the righteous one.

The psalmist trusts that God will respond to the words and actions of the wicked ones and will guard their life. Just as the wicked ones aimed their bitter words like arrows, now they are wounded by God’s arrows, and they find that their tongues which they sharpened like swords cut both ways. They intended to bring about the destruction of the reputation and life of the righteous one, but now they find themselves as objects of horror. Their cunning plots unravel and and now they stand exposed before the community. They become the example of the ‘wicked’ whose punishment becomes an example to others who would follow their foolish ways. The psalmist trusts that God will put the world back in balance and the righteous will rejoice in God’s protection while the wicked are revealed before the community.

The persistent reality of those who are willing to use words as weapons and whose schemes often cause damage both lives and reputations causes many to continue to lift up their complaints to God. It is difficult to deny that many of these schemers seem to act without consequences in the present, but faith calls the one praying to trust in the power of God to ultimately overcome the scheming of humans. Sometimes the action of God may be violent, like the archer shooting arrows to defend one ambushed, but often it may be to allow the actions of the ‘evil ones’ to be revealed and their cunning plots to become known. Yet, the petition is for God to act and the psalmist entrusts that God can use the tools at God’s disposal to put the world back in balance and to guard the righteous ones.

 

 

Psalm 63 Hungering and Thirsting for God’s Presence

Trinity River in Texas

Psalm 63

<A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.>
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Trust in the midst of trouble has been a common theme in this portion of the book of Psalms. Sometimes the trouble precedes a turning to trust in the life of the psalmist, but sometimes the psalmist begins in trust and then addresses their troubles to God. This Psalm, which is attributed to David’s time in the wilderness when he was hunted by Saul, begins with a thirst and hunger to experience God’s presence like the psalmist experienced in the past. Yet, even though the psalmist longs for God’s presence and desires to share a rich feast in the security of God’s love and protection, they trust that their life is upheld by the power and protection of God.

We have previously seen the metaphor of thirsting for God’s presence at the beginning of Psalm 42, where the nephesh[1]pants for God like a deer pants for water. Once again the nephesh thirsts for God and the flesh faints for God. The psalmists entire being is weakened by the perceived absence of God’s presence like a person wandering in a hostile wilderness may be threatened by the harsh sun, unforgiving winds, and the lack of water. The psalmist is able to look back on times where they encountered the presence of God in the tabernacle or temple and came to know the hesed (steadfast love) of God. This encounter with the presence and love of God made a powerful impression on the psalmist, causing them to understand that the proper response was to dedicate their life to blessing and living in prayerful thanksgiving to their God.

The metaphor now shifts from thirst to hunger as the nephesh is satisfied with a rich feast.[2] Much as the feast of Thanksgiving in the United States was intended to give thanks to God for the abundance of harvest, now the psalmist participating in this festive meal, probably understood as taking place within the context of sacrifice, responds with lifting up praises with joyful lips. Hunger and thirst sated, now the psalm moves to the bed where the psalmist can rest in the peace provided by God’s protection and can lay down with a joyful song on their lips. They may experience hunger and thirst, but they trust that God will provide for the needs of their body and life. They can go to sleep even in the midst of their enemies continuing to make trouble because their God is a God of steadfast love and protection.

Only in the final three verses does the external threat of the enemy make its appearance, but in contrast to the experience of the faithful one their future is, through the eyes of the psalmist, one of shame and silence. The psalmist trusts that they will be surrounded by the presence of God, but their enemies will ‘go down’ to the depths of the earth-a place perceived to be distant from God. Their lives may have been lived violently, and the psalmist trusts that they will end violently, and they will end up the prey of scavengers who wander the wastelands. The voice of the psalmist will be lifted up in praise but the mouths of the liars who oppose him shall be silenced. Perhaps the ending of the psalm seems vengeful, but vengeance is left in God’s hands. Ultimately the threat of the psalmist’s enemies are real but they trust in the protection of their God to deal with these threats and they look forward to being in the holy spaces and lifting up their voice as they wonder and marvel at the presence and steadfast love of God which satisfies their thirst and sates their hunger.

[1] The Hebrew nephesh is often translated soul, but a Hebrew understanding of this word is closer to ‘my life’ or ‘my whole being.’

[2] Literally fat and fatness.

Song of Songs or Song of Solomon

Aharon April, The Song of Songs-Last 2005 Shared under Creative Commons-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Song_of_Solomon#/media/File:Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last.jpg

Transitioning into Song of Solomon

Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

Song of Songs 2 Desire and Distance

Song of Songs 3 Seeking the King of Her Heart

Song of Songs 4 A Dance of Desire

Song of Songs 5 Love Isn’t Always on Time

Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden

Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Solomon a Cycle of Paintings, Study G. By Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954607

Song of Solomon 8

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined, and the brothers are capitalized in the poem (my interpretation)

1 O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.
2 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.
3 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
8 WE HAVE A LITTLE SISTER, AND SHE HAS NO BREASTS. WHAT SHALL WE DO FOR OUR SISTER, ON THE DAY WHEN SHE IS SPOKEN FOR?
9 IF SHE IS A WALL, WE WILL BUILD UPON HER A BATTLEMENT OF SILVER; BUT IF SHE IS A DOOR, WE WILL ENCLOSE HER WITH BOARDS OF CEDAR.
10 I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace.
11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he entrusted the vineyard to keepers; each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
12 My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand, and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
13 O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.
14 Make haste,[1] my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!

Many of the classic love stories are tales of loves that transgress the established boundaries of their society. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Pride and Prejudice and countless others tell the story of people falling in love across the social boundaries of their society. The boundaries may be about family, race, social standing, wealth, education, or some other reason, but we rarely remember the love stories where everyone approves of the relationship between the members of the couple. We remember the stories where the love has to struggle against the opposition of those in the society who oppose it. Throughout the Song of Songs, we have seen evidence of this struggle which attempts to keep our lovers separate and here at the end it voices itself again.

The words of the woman wishing that her beloved was like a brother to her seems strange in our context where the ideal match is someone from a completely different family, but in the ancient world the ideal match was typically a cousin or other close relative. Someone who was still a part of the family line but not close enough to be considered incestuous. Just as the earlier appeal to the woman as, “my sister, my bride” indicated endearment, so the familial imagery here of desiring the beloved to be a brother desires a proximity to family that does not require hiding the relationship. The woman wants to be able to have the relationship be out in the open, she wishes she could go up and kiss her beloved without worrying about the disapproving stares of others. She desires to be able to bring him into her house without others thinking she is acting inappropriately. She wants to be able to celebrate their love in both the daylight and the public spaces as well as at night. She no longer wants their love to be a secret. Earlier she has sent the man away to deal with the barriers that separate them, but she desires for their love to be able to be enjoyed all the time.

The woman once again tells the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love until it is ready, and now the daughters of Jerusalem see her and her beloved together. She and the man are seen together as they make their way into the city together. The words that follow could come from the woman or the man, but with the change to a more contemplative tone I have chosen to read this as the man speaking again to the woman. He has come to her, and he has made the offer of a public relationship sealed in the eyes of the community where his mark is placed not only on her heart but upon her arm for the world to see. Let them wear their hearts on their sleeves, to let their love which is stronger than death and passion which is as fierce of the grave be seen by the world. He has found something priceless in her and nothing can quench his burning desire for her.

Yet, as the love comes out into the public square the family of the woman reacts. The brothers of the woman for the first time speak. Earlier these sons of her mother made her keep their vineyards[2], and now they speak condescendingly to their little sister. These brothers still view it as their role to provide a barrier between her and any suitor. They want to close her away, to keep her behind armed walls and boarded up doors. The beloved one does not meet their criteria for an appropriate relationship for this little sister who is still, in their eyes, not sexually mature (has no breasts) and unable to manage her own vineyard.

The woman now speaks up to these brothers who would deny her the relationship she desires. Earlier her beloved described her being “as comely as Jerusalem[3] and now she picks up this language to throw back at her condescending brothers. She is a walled city of peace (shalom).[4]Extending the imagery her breasts, which her brothers said were non-existent, are like towers in her beloved’s eyes. She has been made to be the keeper of her brother’s vineyards, with no time for her own. Using the imagery of Solomon and his vineyard at Baal-hamon, she accuses her brothers of failing to mange their affairs but now she is ready to tend to her own vineyard and her own affairs. The family issues remain unresolved at the end of the poem. Once more the man calls out to hear her but in this instance she once again has to tell the man to flee.

There is no modern fairy tale ending where the man and the woman live happily ever after. The two lovers will have to continue to steal opportunities for love until the familial and social barriers can be overcome. Yet, if their love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave it will overcome the barriers that family and society place upon them. Many people have had to make a choice between their beloved one and the family who raised them or the community or church that formed them. Many multi-racial, LGBTQ, and international or interreligious relationships suffer challenges well beyond what two socially accepted individuals endure and the world where love grows often doesn’t allow for fairy tale endings. Yet, love endures along with faith and hope, and a poem about love rests in the heart of the scriptures. The language and forms of scripture are often strange to us but the struggles of the people in the scriptures, once we understand, them are often familiar.

Song of Songs throughout the history of the church and even longer history with our Jewish ancestors has been read as an analogy for the relationship between the people of God and their God. It is a story of longing and desire for both God and God’s people and the barriers that the world around has placed to interfere with that relationship. Yet, the love that unites the lover and the beloved one transcends even death and the grave, it is an unending flame. It is a relationship of desire and distance, of drawing close and fleeing away. The surrounding world may see the consuming passion and be drawn to the object of that passion as well, or they may remain blind to the desirability of the beloved one. The lover may be viewed as unworthy of acceptance and yet they experience the gracious and steadfast love of the God who seeks and desires them. There is wisdom in the church and synagogues seeing in the boundary breaking love between a man and woman a metaphor for the love that nothing can separate God’s people from. But there is also wisdom in learning to accept and honor the enduring power of love between two people that endures the struggles that their families and society place upon them.

[1] The Hebrew berach means flee. Make haste can indicate making haste in the woman’s direction but this verse in Hebrew indicates making haste away from the brothers.

[2] Song of Songs 1:6

[3] Song of Songs 6:4

[4] Jerusalem is the ‘city of shalom-peace’

Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden

By Egon Tschirch, a cycle of paintings on Song of Solomon, number 2, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56842486

Song of Songs 7

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
2 Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
3 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
4 Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.
5 Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses.
6 How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!
7 You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples,
9 and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.
10 I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages;
12 let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.
 13 The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and over our doors are all choice fruits, new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.

The lovers in the poem see what the others cannot and should not. They see one another longingly and they desire to know every part of their loved one. The poetic description of the woman by the man indicates a view that requires a level of intimacy unavailable to the common observer and this may also be behind his rebuke at the end of the previous chapter to the daughters of Jerusalem calling the woman back that they may gaze upon her as ‘upon a dance between two armies.’ Her movements and her dance are to delight the greedy eyes of her lover and to overwhelm him with desire for her.

The two previous compliments of the man[1] have focused on the face and upper body of the woman, but now the man begins with her feet, proceeds through her midsection and ends with her neck and facial features. Thighs, navel, belly, and breasts would be obscured by clothing but here the man describes that which is hidden from all others to the woman he loves. His descriptions are not those of a man keeping distant, but a man who has closed the distance to where even clothing no longer obscures the woman’s beautiful body from his eyes. Others may have overlooked her, but to the man she is overwhelming. She has the feet of a queen, her thighs are a masterwork, her navel and belly are both fertile and desirable. She may not fit the cultural ideal of womanhood, but in his eyes she is the queen of his desire and from head to toe his desire is to drink in every part of her.

His amorous incantation is daring in its open expression of desire. He has come to her and his desire overcomes reserve or decency. His intention is the physical expression of his desire for her, that the long delayed time of union may finally arrive. That they may both delight in the touches and kisses that they share together and celebrate their mutual love and passion. She is a combination of the majesty of royalty, the beauty of the natural world, and the strength and beauty of the great cities. She is the queen of his heart, the nourishment he needs, the kingdom he serves, and a master work to be lifted up. The banquet of love has been delayed, but he too is drunk with love and ready to celebrate this feast.

Previously she has been beckoning to come into the house, while he has invited her outside. Now she invites him to join her in nature. He belongs to her, and she belongs to him. They desire one another and they are surrounded by the awakening of nature: vines have budded, grape blossoms have opened, pomegranates are in bloom, and mandrake puts forth its seductive fragrance. Mandrakes appear in Genesis 30: 14-17 where Rachael grants Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for mandrakes that Leah picks, but here there is no competition for the beloved’s attention: he is hers and she is his. It appears that the night of missed opportunities has been left behind and with the dawning morning the time is finally right for love.

Many readers have read within this section of the poem an allusion to the Garden of Eden and a return to the way relations were meant to be. This is heightened when one realizes that the rare Hebrew word used for desire (teshuqah) here is only used two other places: Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. The first usage in Genesis finds its reversal in Song of Songs: “yet your desire (teshuqah) shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16 now becomes “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” The distortion of desire that occurs at the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is now overcome as this man and woman are wrapped up in mutual desire as they enter this new garden anticipating love. The other use of teshuqah is in the story of Cain and Abel, where God warns Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:7 In that story jealousy and anger overwhelm the brotherly love of Cain and Abel and Cain is instead mastered by sin. Perhaps this love poetry helps us imagine a world where love can overcome anger and jealousy and desire rightly becomes a mutual invitation to enjoy the presence of one’s partner in the garden. Often Christian theologies have dismissed the passions and desires of the body as a part of the sinful nature of humanity, but Song of Songs (and I would argue the Bible in general) points to a fully embodied experience of love and passion and joy which is both mutual and strong. This man and woman have saved all of themselves for one another as they enter this new Eden of sweet and mutual love.

 

[1] Song of Songs 4:1-5 and 6:4-10