Category Archives: Psalms

Psalm 76 The Fearfully Powerful Defender of Peace

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Psalm 76

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.>
1 In Judah God is known, his name is great in Israel.
2 His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.
3 There he broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war. Selah
4 Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.
5 The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; none of the troops was able to lift a hand.
6 At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.
7 But you indeed are awesome! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?
8 From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still
9 when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth. Selah
10 Human wrath serves only to praise you, when you bind the last bit of your wrath around you.
11 Make vows to the LORD your God, and perform them; let all who are around him bring gifts to the one who is awesome,
12 who cuts off the spirit of princes, who inspires fear in the kings of the earth.

The image of God as an incredibly powerful Divine Warrior occurs frequently throughout the scriptures. The world of the ancient Middle East was a conflicted one with war being a frequent feature as rival kings or empires competed for power, land, and wealth. The spoils of war were for most of history a significant source of income for the powerful and an incredibly dangerous upheaval for those who victims of the warriors who pillaged. Psalm seventy-six’s essence is, “our God is more fearful than the instruments and warriors of war.” In a world that is unsafe, an awesome (fearful) deity who defends the people would be a source of confidence.

The psalm centers on Jerusalem as the place where God is known. Like Isaiah 2: 2-4 and Micah 4: 1-4 there is a focus on Zion being a place where war ends, and the nations come to learn the ways of the God of Jacob. The initial verse begins with a parallel between Judah and Israel, in Judah God is known and in Israel God’s name is great. Being known in Hebrew reflects intimacy, while the honoring of God’s name as great indicates the power of God. In characteristic fashion[1] the psalm brings together the desire of God to dwell among and be known by the people with the awesome power of God where God’s name is to be held in honor. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 609-610) The parallelism continues with the dual naming of Jerusalem (Salem and Zion) as the dwelling place of God. Salem is from the Hebrew shalom (peace, harmony with God). Zion refers to the hill on which the city is built (there are various theories on what its origin of the term, but the term has become synonymous with Jerusalem or the dwelling place of the people of God). The term for dwelling place has been used elsewhere for a lion’s den or lair and it is possible that the metaphor of God as a lion is introduced into the poetry here. (NIB IV:980) In language similar to Psalm 46, God shatters the instruments of war and perhaps war itself. The ‘flashing arrows’ are likely flaming arrows (the meaning of the first word is uncertain) and most translations indicate that the final thing shattered are the weapons of war, but the Hebrew simply states war. It is possible that the presence of the Divine Warrior shatters the personification of war itself. God stands glorious (literally shining forth) and more majestic than the mountains.[2] Now the strongest warriors have had the spoils of war taken from them and the troops are unable to stand as they sink into the sleep of death. Horse and rider lay stunned at the voice of God. The Divine Warrior who resides in Zion is a fearful foe.

The key word in verses seven through twelve is “feared” (NIB IV: 979).[3] When the Hebrew Bible speaks of the ‘awesomeness’ of God it reflects the fearful strength of this Divine Warrior who defends the people of God but also is never to be taken for granted by the people. This is why Proverbs states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). The God who dwells in Zion, who desires to dwell among the people of God is a God who the earth fears when that God utters judgment in anger. Yet, God’s judgment and anger is to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed of the earth. Kings and princes who attempt to seize power learn to fear God’s judgment, while for the weak this fearful one who brings an end to war is a source of powerful hope.

The chosen people were not to strive to become a military superpower that relied upon armed men and war horses to conquer the nations around them. The story of Israel is complex and their reliance upon the God of Israel does not prevent acts of seeking military conquest or attempting to build armies to defend themselves, conquer their neighbors, or to maintain control internally. The law and the prophets envision (in general) a people of peace defended and sheltered by a Divine Warrior whose dwells among the covenant people. This reliance was tested in a conflicted world. There would be kings in Judah and Israel who would raise up sizeable armies, yet in comparison the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Persia they would always be vulnerable militarily. Yet, I believe this psalm shares a hope with Isaiah for a time when nations learn the ways of the God of Jacob, no longer train for war, and return the implements of warfare to the tilling and harvesting of the land.

[1] For example, Genesis begins with two creation narratives, one where God creates by speaking (awesome power) and one where God dwells among creation in the Garden of Eden and talks with Adam (intimacy), these twin themes are frequently present in the Exodus narrative, the prophets, and psalms.

[2] Another challenging line for translators. The Hebrew tarep is often assumed to be a copying error since it means prey. If prey is intended here, God stands forth on the mountain of prey like a lion (see above) (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 609). Hebrew poetry often has individual words or phrases that are difficult to translate because they are rarely used words or ideas.

[3] Hebrew yare– this is rendered as both awesome and fear in the NRSV.

 

Psalm 75 God’s Answer to the Boastful and Arrogant

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 75

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.>
1 We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks; your name is near. People tell of your wondrous deeds.
2 At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity.
3 When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady. Selah
4 I say to the boastful, “Do not boast,” and to the wicked, “Do not lift up your horn;
5 do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with insolent neck.”
6 For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up;
7 but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.
8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.
9 But I will rejoice forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
10 All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.

This short psalm which points to trusting God in the presence of those who are boastful and wicked may, like the previous psalm, originate in the context of the destruction of Judah by Babylon. The first three psalms of book three of the psalter are likely placed together intentionally at the beginning of the psalms of Asaph. Although the psalm itself does not have many references that would specifically point to the destruction of Jerusalem or the exile in Babylon it shares common language with the prophets of that time, particularly Habakkuk. Yet, the psalm itself can be a source of strength for anyone who is waiting for God to lift up the weak and bring down the arrogant, silence the boastful, and judge the wicked.

The psalm likely takes place in the context of a worshipping community praising God in preparation for petitioning God with their concern. The initial verse is a challenge to translate and understand because of the phrase ‘your name is near.’[1] Yet, if this is initially spoken within the context of a worshipping assembly in the temple (your name’s dwelling place in the previous psalm) it is a community giving God thanks in the midst of the temple. The words of the assembly are interrupted by God’s voice beginning in the second verse where God declares that at the appointed time God will judge with equity. The divine oracle may extend through verse five or verse six, but these words from the God who holds the pillars and foundations of the earth in the midst of the chaos tells the wicked and boastful not to sound their own horn. Perhaps this is the boastful Babylonians who are gloating in their military might and national power, but in the presence of the God of Israel their insolence is an annoyance. The solution to the crisis of that time will not come from the east (Egypt) or the west (Babylon) or the wilderness. The lifting up of the oppressed and lowly will be accomplished by the God of Israel. Verse eight uses a common image in scripture for God’s judgment, a cup,[2] and like the prophets the psalm expresses God’s judgment on the wicked and arrogant as a hope for the righteous who are suffering in the turmoil of the world. The divine voice returns for the final verse where the power (horns) of the wicked are cut off and the righteous are lifted up.

For the psalms, and the bible as a whole, the righteous live in dependence on God while the foolish, arrogant, and wicked boast in their own power and accomplishments. Even in the midst of the chaos of the world around them where the wicked seem to be powerful the faithful still assemble to give thanks to God and to anticipate God’s action to set the world aright.  The people of God have always been a “community waiting and hoping for justice.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 327) God’s justice may not be seen in the moment, but the community lives in hope and seeks out the places where they can hear God’s voice speaking to them. They wait for the time when the boastful are silenced and the wicked are brought down so that all of humanity and all creation can live in shalom (peace).

[1] The Hebrew versions of this (MT) reads “and near your name, they recount.” The Greek (LXX) and Syriac ancient translations read “and we call on your name.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 602) I agree with the NRSV and NIV which follow the Hebrew as explained above.

[2] Isaiah 51: 17, Jeremiah 25: 15; 49: 12, Ezekiel 23: 32-34, Habakkuk 2: 15-16, Revelation14: 10; 16:19; 18:6

Psalm 74 A Psalm When the World Collapses

Memorial to the Main Synagogue in Munich which was destroyed during Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938. Psalm 74:18 is used in the center of the monument.

Psalm 74

<A Maskil of Asaph.>
1 O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.
4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?
12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

This is one of several places in scripture where poets and prophets wrestle, together with the rest of the people of God, over the loss of the temple and the transport into exile. Some of these reflections engage with the deep hurt and anger at the loss of their home, like Psalm 137. Others, like Jeremiah or 2 Kings, point to the unfaithfulness of the people in their relationship with God as being responsible for the disaster. Psalm 74 also attempts to make sense of the destruction and violence that has been encountered and wonders how long it will be before God acts to restore the people and fulfill God’s portion of the covenant. In the aftermath of a defeat at the hands of an enemy which has destroyed both their military resistance and the symbols of their faith the psalmist calls upon God to act and restore the people and the house where God’s name dwells.

The defeat of Jerusalem by Babylon and the destruction of the temple causes a crisis of identity for the people of Judah. The temple, more than just a building but a symbol of their faith, the Davidic king, promised to reign perpetually, and the land have all been taken away and those who have attempted to remain faithful to the covenant now have to reshape their identity without these central aspects of their life. Unlike in the prophets or in the narration of Israel’s history, there is no confession of guilt here. Perhaps the psalm comes from a place still too fresh for that type of reflection, or the psalmist may view that they and those around them have remained faithful. They do not question the justice of God’s action against the people of Judah, but they turn back to the covenant and God’s action to claim them as a people and ask for God’s restoration and forgiveness. The cause of their disaster is God’s anger and casting off of the people and their restoration can only be found in God’s turning back toward them.

The appeal is to God’s sovereignty. Although there is no confession of guilt and no declared acts of repentance the psalmist believes their enemy has gone too far. God’s anger should be kindled against them because they have burned the holy place, smashed, and vandalized the building, have placed their emblems and symbols in the places where only the name of God should dwell and have burned any place where the people could gather. The enemy’s triumph has caused not only the people of God to be scoffed, but God’s name to be dishonored. With no holy place or holy people to bear a message from God the people can only shout ‘how long’ and hope in the silence for a word from God to answer their question.

I believe that the enemies in this psalm are the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem in 598 BCE and the language in the second half of the psalms reflects a polemic against the religion of the Babylonians that we are familiar with through the Enuma Elish where Marduk kills the great multi-headed dragon Tiamat (Leviathan) and sea monsters (dragons). In contrast it is the LORD, the God of Israel, who triumphed over the chaotic forces of the sea in the creation and who subdued the great monsters that threatened creation. This God who created the day and night, sun and stars, springs, and streams, and fixed the boundaries of the earth can act on behalf of this conquered people. The God who formed a covenant with the people in the Exodus and overcame Egypt can now overcome Babylon. The God who hears the poor and the vulnerable can now hear their cry from their oppression and will deliver. But if none of these reasons are suspicious, the psalmist calls upon God to defend God’s name from the impious who scoff at God’s power. The enemy who conquered the people has arrayed themselves against God and the people wonder aloud how long they will wait before they see God’s response to the adversaries of this generation.

Psalm seventy-four ends without a resolution and those speaking it enter into the space of waiting for God’s answer. Even in the midst of crisis the faithful ones continue the conversation with God and call upon God to act. The Babylonian exile does not end the crises that will arise for the faithful people, and this psalm has been a resource in times where national or personal identity has been challenged among the faithful. The picture above is from a memorial for the main synagogue in Munich, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 and the center of the memorial uses Psalm 74:18 as the Jewish people would once again ask God, “how long” while an impious people in their actions destroyed the holy places of the people and in words and actions reviled the name of God.

Psalm 73 When Faith is Challenged

Love is Not a Victory March by Marie -Esther@deviantart.com

Psalm 73

<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1 Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10 Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works.

Several church communities I am familiar with have adopted the popular, “God is good all the time and all the time God is good” saying. While I do not disagree with the assertion that God is good, an honest reflection on the life of faith may question the experience of God’s goodness. One of the gifts of the psalter is that it includes prayers that wrestle with the experience of God’s goodness in a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous suffer. The righteous ones in the psalms ask questions of God, speak openly of the things that make them question their way of life as they, “keep looking for truth in the midst of an imperfect world.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 593)

What does it mean for God to be good to the upright and the pure of heart in a world where the wicked are at peace and the righteous suffer. The observation of a world where the immediate experience seems to contradict the promise of prosperity for those keep God’s covenant. In Hebrew the psalmist sees the shalom of the wicked (translated prosperity in the NRSV). Shalom indicates peace and prosperity. It is what is promised to the righteous but is now viewed by the psalmist as being received by the wicked. Their physical and emotional health is secure, they are well fed, they bear no consequences for their violent words and actions, their pride is viewed by others as a virtue. Their way of life seems to contradict the will of God and yet they seem to be rewarded in society for their self-centered actions. On a societal level this seems to have been the struggle of Israel, staying faithful to God when their neighbors seemed to prosper, and on an individual level the psalmist confesses that it nearly caused him to stray from the path and adopt the practices of these apparently successful wicked ones.

In contrast the ones who has kept their hearts clean and washed their hands in innocence have encountered suffering.   Whether their pain is physical or social, it causes them to question the efficacy of the way of life they have attempted to walk. They live in tension between their faithfulness to the circle of the faithful and their view of the peace and prosperity of the wicked. In the moment the world appears to be upside down with the wicked prospering and being commended while the righteous suffer and are excluded or taken advantage of. It is only by bringing this question to the community of faith and the place of worship that the psalmist is able to see beyond their perception of the moment.

The resolution of this psalm reminds me of the difference between climate and weather. Weather is the observation of the atmospheric conditions and their impact in a short window of time while climate looks at the compilation of individual weather observations to study the changes over time. The psalmist initially is observing the wicked within a short window of time but once they enter the sanctuary of God they see that this window of time is transitory. In the moment the wicked may experience shalom, but it is an evanescent experience that will vanish like a dream disappears upon waking. Indeed, the psalmist views the current prosperity of the wicked as an slippery slope that ultimately leads to their ruin. The psalmist confesses their own shortsightedness which caused them to question God’s goodness in the world and to consider the attractiveness of the ways of the wicked ones who lived well-fed and well-loved in their community.

The psalmist ends in a space of faith. The experience of the moment is transitory, but God is their rock that they can lean upon. God’s justice may not be experienced immediately, but the wicked will not find shalom forever, they will find that God can know and that their actions are seen. Yet, in pondering the prosperity of the wicked, the righteous one has found their treasure in being close to God. The process of questioning one’s experience has brought the poet closer to God. The prosperity of the wicked no longer seems as appealing since the psalmist desires nothing more than the presence of God. For the upright they come to know that God is good not in their experience of material prosperity but instead in God’s physical proximity.

The Book of Psalms Books 1-2

Love is Not a Victory March by Marie -Esther@deviantart.com

BOOK I  (Psalms 1-41)

Psalm 1: Poetry and Law
Psalm 2: The Lord’s Messiah
Psalm 3: Hope in the Heart of Brokenness
Psalm 4: Finding a Space in the Blessing
Psalm 5: The God Who Hears and Protects
Psalm 6: How Long, O Lord
Psalm 7: The God Who Judges
Psalm 8: The Soul Searcher’s Psalm
Psalm 9: Praising the God of Justice and Might
Psalm 10: Calling on God to be God
Psalm 11: Confident Faith in the Midst of Trouble
Psalm 12: Save Us From Ourselves
Psalm 13: The Cry from the God Forsaken Place
Psalm 14: The Wisdom of Holding to the Covenant
Psalm 15: Entering the Sacred Presence of God
Psalm 16: Remaining Faithful in a Pluralistic Setting
Psalm 17: An Embodied Prayer
Psalm 18: Royal Thanks at the End of the Journey
Psalm 19: Creation, the Law and a Faithful Life
Psalm 20: In the Day of Trouble
Psalm 21: A Blessing for the King
Psalm 22: A Desperate Cry to God
Psalm 23: The LORD as Shepherd, Host and Destination
Psalm 24: The Coming of the LORD
Psalm 25: The Struggle of Faith from Aleph to Tav
Psalm 26: Liturgy of the Falsely Accused
Psalm 27: Faith in an Age of Anxiety
Psalm 28: Can You Hear Me LORD?
Psalm 29: The Thundering Voice of God
Psalm 30: The Life of Praise
Psalm 31: Faith, Questions and the Life of Faith
Psalm 32: A Psalm of Restoration
Psalm 33: The Earth is Full of the Steadfast Love of God
Psalm 34: The Experienced Faithfulness of God
Psalm 35: Lord, Fight for Me in the Struggle
Psalm 36: The Way of God and the Way of the Wicked
Psalm 37: A Song of a Wise Life
Psalm 38: A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing
Psalm 39: There Are No Words
Psalm 40: Experienced Faithfulness and the Hope of Deliverance
Psalm 41: The One Who Cares for the Poor

BOOK II (Psalms 42-72)

Psalm 42 Thirsting for God in an Arid Time
Psalm 43 Calling for God’s Love among a Loveless People
Psalm 44 Demanding a Fulfillment of God’s Covenant Promises
Psalm 45 A Love Song among the Psalms
Psalm 46 A Mighty Fortress
Psalm 47 God Assumes Kingship Over Creation
Psalm 48 God and Zion
Psalm 49 Wealth, Wisdom and Death
Psalm 50 Recalled to the Covenantal Life
Psalm 51 Seeking the Possibility of Redemption
Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever
Psalm 53 Reflecting Again on the Unjust
Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance
Psalm 55 A Desperate Prayer from an Unsafe Environment
Psalm 56 Trusting God in the Midst of Trouble
Psalm 57 Fleeing to the Steadfast Love and Faithfulness of God
Psalm 58 A Jagged Prayer for Vengeance
Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog Worldview
Psalm 60 A Plea for God’s Return to the People
Psalm 61 A Life Dependent on God
Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles
Psalm 63 Hungering and Thirsting 
Psalm 64 Protect the Innocent One from the Words of the Wicked
Psalm 65 A Song of Thanksgiving to a Gracious Creator
Psalm 66 Formed by Steadfast Love
Psalm 67 A Blessing for the Earth
Psalm 68 God as Warrior and Protector of the Powerless
Psalm 69 A Cry for Deliverance from Unjust Suffering
Psalm 70 God Help Me Quickly
Psalm 71 A Prayer for Help Shaped by a Life of Worship
Psalm 72 Leading God’s Covenant People

Psalm 72 Leading God’s Covenant People

Luca Giordano, Dream of Solomon, (1694-1695)

Psalm 72

<Of Solomon.>

1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity[1] for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives[2] of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.
15 Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him. May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long.
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.
17 May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.
18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
20 The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.

This royal psalm which looks with optimism at the coronation of new king could easily be met with cynicism for multiple reasons, but even our jaded imaginations have something to learn from this psalms vision of the way the nation, properly administered, could be. One reason for our jaded imaginations can be our own experience with politicians and powerbrokers who claim to be ‘protectors of the poor’ but a sober examination of their actions highlights the ways in which they have enriched themselves or their allies. The biblical narration of Israel and Judah’s history of monarchs as told by 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the recorded witness of the prophets tell a vastly different story from the utopic vision of kingship imagined by this psalm and other places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Particularly in a time where dystopic literature has become a dominant way of telling stories that highlight uncomfortable truths we may have little interest in the seemingly idealistic vision of what a monarch or political leader can mean for a people and the world. Yet, there is some undying residue of hope that is essential to the Jewish and Christian worldview: a belief in what God can do through the right person to further God’s kingdom.

The bracketing of this psalm by the names of the first two Davidic kings, David and Solomon, provides two initial reading possibilities. One possibility is that the psalm is written by Solomon, perhaps early in his reign before he turns his wisdom to acquisition, and it reflects Solomon’s request for wisdom to, “discern between good and evil” so that he may faithfully govern the people of Israel. (1 Kings 3: 1-14) Another possible reading suggested by the closing of this psalm is that this is a final psalm of David at the ascension of his son, Solomon, and the superscription indicates that the psalm refers to Solomon. Narratively I prefer this second option where David pronounces a blessing on the upcoming and hopeful coronation of his son without knowing how Solomon’s later choices will turn away from this vision. It makes less sense for Solomon writing this at some later date even though it indicates knowledge of events within the early reign of Solomon. The psalm may be written at a later date tapping into the hope of the Solomonic reign, and trying to provide another witness to the incoming king, along with Deuteronomy 17: 14-20, to encourage the new ruler to examine their rule in light of God’s covenantal expectations for the people and the nation’s part in God’s reign on earth.

The Davidic monarch was one of the central symbols of God’s provision for the people and when Israel and Judah narrate their history it is centered on a theological judgment of each king’s faithfulness. The king, the temple, and the land are all viewed as a means through which God can provide protection and care for the people. The focus of Psalm 72 is the king and how the “regular rhythm between covenantal imperatives addressed to the king and divine promises made to the king that are conditioned on the imperatives.” (Brueggemann 2014, 313) The king is to lead in a way that enables the entire nation, including the exploited poor of the people, to experience God’s justice and the blessings that come from it. This covenant shaped imagination of what the society of the people of God could be is a strong contrast to the societies of Egypt where the people had served as slaves for the benefit of the Pharaoh. Now the king is to be a defender of the cause of the poor rather than their exploiter.

The covenantal imperatives of justice and righteousness by the king’s reign over the people lead to the divine promise of shalom which comes forth from the creation for the people. Living in accordance with the vision of God is expected to bring about wholeness, completeness, harmony, and both personal and communal well-being and prosperity. A non-exploitative government overseen by a faithful monarch who judges and defends the needs according to God’s justice and righteousness may contradict the self-interest of the ruler to accumulate personal power and wealth, but this psalm shares the vision of Deuteronomy.

 16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. (Deuteronomy 17: 16-17)

It is God who ultimately provides longevity and prosperity for the king, and through the king for all the people. One could perhaps make the accusation that this is a divine trickle-down economics, but that would fundamentally misunderstand the covenantal identity of the people and the way that the law was intended to structure the society they lived in. Yet the kings faithful reign was to be a blessing for not only the people of Israel, but also a force that nourished the land like rain showers on the soil.

Throughout the royal psalms there is an expectation that God will extend God’s power and reign over the nations through the king. Psalms 2, 18, 20,21, and 45 (all royal psalms directly referring to the king) expect God to provide deliverance for the faithful king and people from the military might of the nations that surround them and to extend God’s reign beyond the boundaries of Israel. Some view this a endorsing a larger empire that conquers the lands that stretch from the ocean to the Euphrates river where Jerusalem becomes an imperial capital, but Israel was never a military powerhouse that could establish an empire nor does the vision of the ideal king rest on military might or prowess. The psalm imagery also imagines Jerusalem as the trade center of the world with wealth and gifts from the ends of the earth flowing through the gates of the city in tribute. But the psalm, after leaning into these images of greater influence and wealth immediately returns to the cause of this experience of prosperity: the king’s justice and deliverance of the poor and needy.

In the royal psalms the king is often viewed as God’s special vessel and a way in which the people of Israel and beyond would come to know what their God is like. The king, like their God, is one who saves the weak from oppression and violence, provides justice and righteousness to the needy, restrains the powerful and creates a space where the shalom of God can be received. They become a means for the God’s kingdom to be experienced on earth.  The choice to follow a different ideal of leadership by most of the kings of Israel and Judah would give rise to the fiery words of the prophets. Just as the good king is credited with extending the reign of God in this psalm, the unfaithful rulers are judged by God for their unfaithful shepherding of God’s people. The psalm may have originally ended with verse seventeen which has a natural closing with the king assuming the vocation of Abraham in language that mirrors Genesis 12: 1-3, “that all nations may be blessed in him.

The psalm, as we receive it, transitions from the king to the God of Israel in worship and praise and then closes this section of the psalter by indicating this is the last of David’s psalms. The primary actor throughout the psalms is the God of Israel, but the faithful ones who intercede, give thanks, and sometimes lead on behalf of that God may also be a part of the reign of God extending to the ends of the earth. The people of Israel and the writers of the psalms experienced times of oppression by enemies, the struggle of living under unfaithful leaders, and yet they lived in hope of God’s protection and action. Modern people may be critical of this psalm or Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 as utopic visions that are incompatible with the self-interested nature of humans, yet I’m not convinced that our dystopic visions have been any more effective at challenging the misuse of power. Deuteronomy and this psalm provide a vision for a faithful leader to enact a portion of God’s reign on earth and also provide the language for the prophetic critique of leaders who become unfaithful shepherds of the flock God entrusted to them.

[1] Hebrew shalom which is often translate ‘peace’ but has broader connotations of wholeness, completeness, well-being and prosperity.

[2] The word here and in the following verse is once again nephesh which is often translated ‘soul’ but in Hebrew refers to the entirety of ‘life.’

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.