Category Archives: Psalms

Psalm 51 Seeking the Possibility of Redemption

Palma Giovane, Prophet Nathan ermahnt Konig David (1622)

Psalm 51

<To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.>
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The relationship between the speaker and God has been broken because of the psalmist’s own actions and there is no future without God’s forgiveness. The superscription gives us one possible moment to read the psalm from: the moment when David is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery with Bathsheba and the arrangement of the murder of her husband, Uriah. (2 Samuel 11-12) This moment of betrayal of both David’s responsibilities to his people and the favor that God has bestowed upon him changes everything: trust has been broken, the innocent bore the cost of David’s actions and in the words of this psalm David’s iniquity, sin and transgressions have broken the relationship with God. Yet, this psalm could apply to any experience of guilt and shame where one’s actions have failed match one’s called identity as a person of faith. When a person who sought God’s heart stumbles, when a righteous one commits iniquity, when the one who once was clean is now polluted by sin and when one’s transgressions place a wall between the transgressor and God these words allow the penitent one to seek the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and a return to their former state of grace.

The hope of the penitent lies in the character of God outlines in verse one: God is a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy. There characteristics of God’s character are matched against the trilogy of terms for acts against God: iniquity, sin and transgression. The sinner in the psalm stands permanently marked by their sin and in need of cleansing. They have become defined by their actions and their guilt shows them how their actions have not matched the calling they bore before the people. The guilty one was a righteous one whose entire life was lived in the presence of God and now their actions which may have once been concealed from others were seen by God and they confess that God is justified in God’s judgment of them. Others may have been injured by the psalmist’s actions (and the in the narrative of David and Bathsheba a family was broken, a man was killed, and David failed to be the king he was supposed to be) but here the brokenness is between the psalmist and God and the hope rests in God’s cleansing and restoration.

The guilt of the actions has transformed the person at their deepest level. Everything of who they are is now tainted by a part of themselves they wouldn’t have believed before. They question everything about their story from their conception to the present. They have been transformed into a sinner, one who is separated from God and others and is defined by their transgressions. The psalmist probably doesn’t see their actions as a result of “original sin” passed on from generation to generation but instead views their entire life under the judgment and pollution of their iniquity. They know they need to be purged, cleansed and washed by God in order to remove the stain that their sin causes them to bear. They know that they need to learn truth after their lies, wisdom after the folly of their innermost heart, a holy spirit to replace their sinful one. They need to be recreated as a new being in order to have a future beyond their brokenness. Yet the God of mercy and steadfast love could forgive the people of Israel when they worshipped a golden calf (Exodus 32-34) and while cleansing oneself and receiving a new heart, spirit and future are impossible for the psalmist on their own, they are the type of action that a merciful and forgiving God does. The psalmist hopes for a return to their life in God’s presence where God no longer looks upon their sins but upon the redeemed sinner.

From their place of shame, the psalmist attempts to barter with God. I know when I was growing up that I was taught not to barter with God but the more of the scriptures I read the more I see places like this psalm where a person attempts to barter with God, and I’ve had to rethink this. For the speaker, they will teach, sing, declare and offer right sacrifice If God will restore the relationship. The psalmist doesn’t have much to offer beyond their acknowledgment of their sin which broke the relationship and their promise to live better in the future but the offering a broken spirit, broken and contrite heart. They are hoping through an exchange with God of receiving a new spirit and heart in return for their broken spirit and heart. God becomes for the poet the surgeon who can place in them a new heart and renew a right spirit. Perhaps by the penitent’s witness the good that God does for them will also extend to the rest of the people and allow for Zion’s pleasure and strength to be renewed. As we saw in the previous psalm the sacrifices and burnt offerings are not needed by God, but just as a broken heart and spirit were preconditions in the psalm for forgiveness and renewal the new orientation of the speaker places sacrifices and worship as acts of thanksgiving for the God who blots out transgressions, washes away the iniquity and cleanses the sin because of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy.

Psalm 50 Recalled to the Covenantal Life

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 50

<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.
18 You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.
21 These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

There is a lot of debate among scholars as to the original use of this psalm: whether it was a liturgy of covenant renewal or the words of a priest in a sermon but ultimately the original setting has faded far into the background and what remains is a psalm which lifts up a challenge to live one’s life according to the vision of God’s covenant. The book of Deuteronomy was a challenge for the people of God to live according to the covenant and commands of the God of Israel and the prophets frequently exhorted people to reorient their lives around the covenant. This Psalm, in concert with several of the prophets, places the worship of the LORD conducted in the temple in its proper perspective. The sacrificial and religious actions of the temple are not enough to appease the God of Israel, this God expects the people’s lives and their society to be ordered around God’s covenantal vision.

The psalm begins by preparing the hearer to listen to the words that God will speak through the speaker, most likely a priest addressing the community. Psalm 50 is the first psalm attributed to Asaph who is recorded as a Levitical singer in the time of King Solomon (2 Chronicles 11-13).  Asaph begins by declaring the power and might of the LORD whose voice covers the breadth of the day, whose words are preceded by fire and a mighty tempest and calls on heaven and earth so that God may judge God’s people. While there are some thematic parallels to the speaking of God to Elijah at Mount Horeb where the great wind, earthquake and fire proceed the voice of God; this is not the voice of God which comes to Elijah in the sheer silence (1 Kings 19: 11-18) but instead this is the voice of God going out before the world to testify before not only God’s people but all of creation. The people of God are placed into a conversation which the whole world can overhear and judge them by as they are gathered in Zion to hear what God will speak.

Covenant making in the bible is a serious business which took place in the context of sacrificing an animal. The covenant that God makes with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 17 is probably the best-known example of a covenant making ceremony where the animals are cut open and the parties (God and Abram) pass between the portions of the animals obligating themselves to one another. Therefore, the phrase translated ‘made a covenant’ is literally ‘cut a covenant.’ Earlier in the psalms we have seen times where the psalmist has testified that God needs to act to keep the covenant but here the focus is on the people needing to do their part to fulfill the covenant. The covenant is not about ritual worship or sacrifices but instead is about the way of life that God expects the people to embrace- a way of justice to others and faithfulness to God.

These words were probably spoken in the context of worship, but worship is not enough. In many ancient cultures worship and sacrifice were to appease or entice the god being worshipped to grant favor to the worshippers. The God of Israel has different expectations. God will not be bribed by sacrifice or be satisfied by attendance in worship. The words of the Apostle Paul echo the content here when he appeals to the church in Rome:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12: 1-2

As master of all creation, the LORD has no need of any animal for food. God is not reliant upon the faithful ones for nourishment or life but instead is the provider of all things. What God desires is a transformed life and society which could ultimately renew the world. The people are commended to come to God in thanksgiving and to uphold their vows and the covenant and in return God will deliver and provide for them.

Knowing the right words to recite or knowing the content of the statutes, commandments and the covenant are not enough. One can worship properly and live as the wicked. The way of the wise is the way of God’s discipline. One’s company is indicative of the type of actions a person will commit and one’s words can cause deep harm to brothers and sisters. One’s words, one’s deeds and one’s associations matter in life. The wicked one may have avoided judgment and may have, by their worship and sacrifices, masqueraded as one of the righteous but God promises an end to God’s silence and inaction. To make a covenant with God and to fail to live in accordance with that covenant is viewed as a matter of life and death. There is no one to deliver the wicked from God’s words and justice. Conversely there is nothing that can separate the righteous ones from the salvation of God.

 

Psalm 49 Wealth, Wisdom and Death

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Psalm 49

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
16 Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy — for you are praised when you do well for yourself —
19 they will go to the company of their ancestors, who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Psalm 49 takes on the tone of wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes and engages the topic of wealth in relation to death. The poet believes there is a moral order to the universe that the righteous and unrighteous, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish live within. The simple belief that those who do good will prosper and those who are evil will see their ambitions thwarted may not be observed in the daily experience of the psalmist, but death becomes the ransom that no amount of wealth can cover. We are taken into the riddle of: Why should one fear in times of trouble when powerful and presumably wealthy persecutors oppress the righteous one? For the author of the psalm there is comfort in the knowledge that the rich cannot buy their way out of Sheol and that the moral order of God’s universe remains intact.

Humans fear death and we spend an incredible amount of our wealth in the United States attempting to avoid succumbing to death. Even though Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead, many still approach their death with apprehension. To quote a Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven…But nobody wanna go now.” But even with all the advances in medical technology and the amount of money that is spent to prolong life being wealthy cannot grant immortality. The idea of being able to secure one’s life through wealth has been explored in futuristic dystopian imaginations, like the 2011 movie In Time, where the poor have their life shortened and the rich have their life extended at the expense of the poor or Jupiter Ascending (2015) where entire worlds are populated so that they can be harvested to provide extended life for the galaxy’s wealthiest clients. In many ways the moral imagination of these dystopian worlds models the economic imagination of Egypt in the Exodus and any society that viewed people as a commodity and wealth as a privilege of a small elite. If wealth were able to ensure immortality fear would drive many to acquire this ransom from death at any cost but thankfully, as I wrote when discussing Ecclesiastes 2, “mortality is the great equalizer in all its unfairness.” Yet, for the psalmist’s moral universe mortality is the great equalizer for, as they are considering it, death is the shepherd which God uses to ensure that those who are materially wealthy and politically powerful do not forever hold power over the righteous ones.

Within the worldview of the psalms the conception of heaven or hell as places that people go in the afterlife has not developed and as we saw in Psalm 6 the conception of Sheol as a place where the dead go is not a place of reward or punishment but simply a place outside of the realm of the living. When the author speaks of God ransoming their soul from Sheol it is trusting that God will not let them die at this point while their persecutors prosper, but instead that the moral order of God’s promises will ensure that their life endures but the life of the wealthy persecutors will reach its end without God’s intervention on their behalf. The God of Israel is a God who intervenes in the life of the faithful to ensure that they are not destroyed, and that God’s promises bear fruit in their lives.

This final Korahite psalm of Book II (Psalms 42-49) is an example of a reflection on situational wisdom. The psalms are more poetry than systematic theology and combine emotion with logic and faith to attempt to discern an answer to the world as the authors of these songs encounter them. Looking at the world from the perspective of one undergoing persecution by a wealthy and powerful oppressor, the psalmist can see death as God’s equalizer. Illness, weakness and impending death in psalms of lament are all brought before God as things that are being unfairly born by the righteous one. But the wisdom of the book of psalms is bringing all these pieces of situational wisdom, cries of lament, praises of joy, love songs and meditations together into a collection of psalms which address the breadth of human emotion and experience.

Psalm 48 God and Zion

Panorama of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives by Bienchido shared under Creative Commons 4.0

 Psalm 48

<A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.>
1 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
3 Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense.
4 Then the kings assembled, they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight;
6 trembling took hold of them there, pains as of a woman in labor,
7 as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God establishes forever. Selah
9 We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory.
11 Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns of Judah rejoice because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation
14 that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.

In the previous two psalms we have celebrated God as our refuge (Psalm 46) and God as King (Psalm 47) and now we see God’s Kingship occupying a specific place of refuge: the city of Jerusalem and the temple. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were two central signs of God’s promised protection and presence. Although I can understand the remark of Walter Bruggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. that the beginning and ending of the psalm in their symmetry and structure of, “nearly equating the God of the temple with the beauty and symmetry of it.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 224) I tend to view the message of the psalm in a more positive light appreciating the presence of God in a holy space. There is always a danger of identifying a structure or item designated for God’s worship and glory becoming an idol in the mind of the worshipper. Yet, we do seek places where God’s presence can be felt amid a world where God’s presence may be harder to identify and God’s refuge in a world that can feel fraught with dangers. The city, the mountain and the temple should all be spaces where the LORD is praised. At its best the beauty and security of the temple and city create a little piece of heaven on earth where God’s presence seems closer. Religious buildings, from the humblest to the most elaborate, attempt to create a safe and holy place for God’s people to come together and where God’s presence is felt and communicated.

Jerusalem as city is merely stone, wood, cloth and metal inhabited by the people who dwell in and around it. Yet, in the minds of the faithful it becomes something far greater. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr. can state, “Jerusalem is important because it is God’s place; thus it can serve as a witness to God’s character.” (NIB IV: 821) It becomes a place of hope and aspiration where in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Isaiah 2: 2

Nancy deClaissé-Walford points to how the psalm appropriates the language of the Canaanites that was used to worship Baal. God ss the one who ascends the mountain in the north instead of Baal, Zion replaces Zaphon as the place of sanctuary and the place from which the God of Israel reigns as King over all other gods and nations. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 435) Like Psalm 29, the people transformed the language of the surrounding culture to give worship and praise to the LORD of hosts. This serves both a polemical function, the LORD is God and King instead of Baal, but also reflects the process of trying to come up with language that can be used to talk about God and the willingness of the Jewish people to repurpose imagery that seemed appropriate for their LORD.

In contrast to the hope in Isaiah 2 where the nations stream to Zion seeking teaching and wisdom, we see the kings of the earth assembling to assault Jerusalem. Yet, like Psalm 2: 1-6, the conspiring of the kings of the nations only exposes their weakness. It is possible that Psalm 48 references the failed siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. (2 Kings 18-19) but the psalm may be independent of this experience of liberation in the memory of the Jewish people. The kings who sought to conquer in strength flee in panic and trembling. Kings who are pictured as masculine symbols of conquest are transformed in the psalm to women in childbirth, an image in the ancient world that was the opposite of strength. Although I would disagree with the use of a woman in childbirth as an image of weakness it was a common image in the ancient world because of the intense pain and the high risk of death for women during childbirth in the ancient world. Devastating winds in ancient Israel were east winds. In Exodus 14:21 it was an east wind which drove back the Red Sea and in Jeremiah 18:17 God promise to scatter Israel before their enemy “Like the wind from the east.”

The reality of God as the refuge for the people of Zion moves from being something handed down from previous generations to the experienced reality of the city of Zion. Once they had heard of God’s steadfast love, victory and judgements but now they can rejoice because they have experienced these things. The threat from the other nations has passed and they can walk around an examine both the physical walls and barriers that surround the city but also reflect upon the God who is the true refuge for the faithful people. They will now have their own experience of God’s faithfulness to share with future generations for their God will endure forever and ever.

For those of us who hear the words of this psalm in our own time we may wonder where we go to experience the presence and protection of God? What are times where we experienced God’s power so that we could speak of our own experience of God rather than the experience of our ancestors? What language do we use to talk about God and how has it changed from the language our parents or grandparents used? What places do we consider sacred or holy and why do we consider them to be sacred?

Psalm 47 God Assumes Kingship Over Creation

Stained Glass window at the Melkite Catholic Annunciation Cathedral in Roslindale, MA depicting Christ the King with the regalia of a Byzantine Emperor

Psalm 47

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.
3 He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.
4 He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
5 God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

The mood of Psalm 47 is jubilant with its words continually urging the hearer to mark the celebration of the establishment of the kingship of God over all the nations and over all of creation. Structurally the psalm pairs actions of praise with a set of reasons for acclamation in a noisy celebration of triumph. While the idea of God as king may be a strange thought in a world where monarchies seem to be a romantic vestige of a past age it remains an important claim of both Christianity and Judaism in contrast to the claims of worldly power exercised by those with economic, political or military power. This psalm, like the rest of scriptures, does not recognize God only in a religious sphere. As Martin Buber stated:

He (God) is not content to be “God” in the religious sense. He does not want to surrender to a man that which is not “God’s”, the rule over the entire actuality of worldly life: this very rule He lays claim to and enters upon it; for there is nothing which is not God’s. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 224)

The psalm may reflect a context of the relatively short window during the time of King David and King Solomon when Israel did exercise power over other nations, but it does not require this context. The psalm also would have served as a strong polemical reminder in times when Israel or Judah were small nations caught between the Egyptian, Assyrian and later Babylonian empires. For example, in contrast to the Babylonian celebration of the enthronement of Marduk the Israelites would come together to celebrate the enthronement of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God above any other god. In a time when the people of Israel were not a political or military power, they still held onto a belief that their God is not only powerful but was the God of all nations and all creation and they remained God’s chosen possession from among the nations.

The psalm begins with a command not just for Israel but for all the peoples to clap their hands and shout with songs of joy. The title of the LORD, the Most High, combines the name of God with a title that is often used to address God when people other than the Israelites are addressed. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 431) The psalm taps into the expansive hope that God would indeed be recognized as the ruler of all the peoples. The people of Israel were not to place their hopes upon their military prowess but instead to rely upon their God as the divine warrior who would not only protect them but who would allow them to occupy a central place among the nations of the earth. Israel’s identity is tied to the LORD’s election of them as a chosen people and God’s protection. In closing the first stanza of the psalm in verse five we see God personified as shouting as God ascends and either blowing a trumpet (or a shofar) or having a trumpet blown to celebrate this ascension to the place of honor and power.

The second stanza of the psalm with a four-fold command to sing praises. The psalm itself exuberantly models this song of praise to their God and King. The psalm acknowledges God’s place as the king over all creation and over every nation. God now sits enthroned above every other god and king and the worshippers add their voices to the clapping hands, sounding trumpets and shouts. Not only are the people of Israel joining in this praise, but the leaders of the nations also gather to add their voices to the acclamation of God’s reign.

Even though I don’t live in a time and place where kings are the normal manner of governance the idea of the kingdom of God is such a foundational idea for Christianity and that involves God assuming king-ship over the world. We pray in the Lord’s prayer for God’s kingdom to come and yet, we sometimes forget that means acknowledging God not only as one who holds spiritual power but as one who executes worldly leadership as well. Additionally, we may think of this noisy description of clapping, singing, shouting and blowing trumpets as a little too exuberant for the idea of a dignified worship of God. Many people in European and American cultures were raised with an expectation of a restrained expression of emotion in the context of worship but in an imagined future where people from all across the world come to join in the celebration hands clap, shouts go up, trumpets sound and a voice are lifted up singing joyful praises at the realization of God’s reign over all the earth.

Psalm 46 A Mighty Fortress

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

Psalm 46

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.>
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Sometimes the impact of a psalm is extended by the interpretations it spawns and the stories that have been told around its process of being handed on. Psalm 46 has a unique story within both my denominational heritage and my linguistic heritage. When Martin Luther penned his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress” he was reflecting on Psalm 46 and so Luther’s paraphrase and commentary from this psalm have echoed among the worship of Lutheran and other protestant congregations for almost five hundred years. There is also a story that, when the King James Version of the Bible was being translated in 1604-11, William Shakespeare was asked to transform the poetic portions of the Old Testament, especially the book of Psalms, from Hebrew and Latin into English. Shakespeare, reportedly, reached this psalm on his 46th birthday and decided to leave his mark on the translation: 46 words from the beginning of the psalm is the work ‘shake’ and 46 words from the end is ‘spear’ in the King James Version. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 425-426) Even apart from the power of the song ‘a Mighty Fortress’ and the story of the psalm’s famous translator, the words of the psalm are incredibly powerful and evocative.

God is metaphorically referred to as the place of refuge and strength. God is the one who shelters the faithful one in both the times of peace and struggle, but here the trouble around is the counterpoint to the refuge and strength of God. Poetically everything in creation seems to be in chaos: the earth, the mountains and the waters all are unstable in contrast to the stability that God provides for the faithful. The presence of God moves the world from the shaking of the mountains and the roaring of the waters to a river and streams that make glad and a city that is not moved. God’s presence in the city creates this transformation for the faithful people.

The city is at peace even as the nations around it are in turmoil. Israel and Judah were always threatened by the military might of other nations. Yet, the faithful people were never intended to rely on their own military might. God would be the warrior that fought on their behalf. Just as the elements of the earth were moved from chaos to peace so are the nations that are in an uproar moved away from conflict. We are introduced to the title LORD of hosts which occurs frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but only occasionally in the book of Psalms. The word translated hosts literally means armies and relates to military undertakings in both the worldly and cosmic realm. God as a warrior has destroyed the weapons of war, the LORD of hosts has eliminated the work of the armies of the nations. If God can cease the quaking of the mountains and the roar of the seas, then God can make wars to cease and eliminate the weaponry of warfare throughout the earth.

Throughout the psalm the poetry has moved from chaos to peace among the elements and warfare to peace among the nations and ends with a command for the faithful also to cease their movement and be still. The faithful community’s refuge and identity comes from their knowledge of God’s presence in their midst. Yet, the praise of God extends beyond the boundary of the community. The LORD of hosts is exalted among the nations that saw the weapons of war turned into fuel for the fire. The God of Jacob is honored by the creation whose seas are quieted and mountains are stilled. The psalmist boldly imagines a God who can be the refuge and strength not only for the chosen people but for the people and elements of the entire earth.

Psalm 45 A Love Song Among the Psalms

 Psalm 45

<To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.>
1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
2 You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
3 Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.
4 In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
5 Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.
6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house,
11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12 the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people
13 with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14 in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons; you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.
 
Psalm forty-five is a love song, probably originally composed for a royal wedding between the King of Israel and their new bride. So, what do we do with an old love song that finds itself amid the psalms? It is a psalm composed for a specific time and a specific occasion and yet the fact that it was preserved means that it was likely used multiple times and that the community that had to preserve their scriptures by hand copying them felt that this psalm was worthy of inclusion and that this love song had something to speak to the people who would read it generations later. There are several ways to read the psalm that I will address at the end but before we place various frames of reference around the psalm itself let’s listen to the words spoken.

This psalm is the only instance in the book of Psalms where we have the author referencing their presence in the psalm itself. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 419) The poet speaks of their heart bubbling over with these words they want to share for their king on this occasion. The king and his bride are the recipients of the words of praise spoken by the freely flowing tongue of the psalmist. Although we now have the psalms preserved as written poems they originated as oral performances often within the space of a communal worship or celebration. What would originally be written by the tongue like a pen of a ready scribe would later be recorded by the ready pen to be uttered by the tongue of a later singer.

The description of the king in verses two through eight point to what the vision of an ideal king (and by extension the ideal man) is for the speaker and those who would continue to use this psalm in future weddings. This bridegroom is handsome and eloquent, and their looks and charm are viewed as a bestowal of God’s blessing. They are also depicted as a warrior: girded with a sword for battle, pictured mounted victoriously upon a war steed after a battle, their right hand (their fighting arm) is capable of fearful things, and they shoot sharp arrows (metaphorically) into the hearts of their enemies. They are depicted in a way that parallels the divine warrior imagery of God; it parallels this imagery so closely that one of the possible readings of verse six is that rather than referring to the God of Israel the king, as the divine representative on earth, is referred to as a god. The term translated God is the general term which can be either the God of Israel or a god worshipped by others. The language within the Hebrew tradition is scandalous if taken to literally since the deification of a king would be one of the concepts that the Jewish people would not adopt form the other nations of the Near East. The king could be the ‘son of God’ as in Psalm 2:7 but because of the prohibition of ‘having other gods’ many have understood verse six breaking up the first eight verses with an acclamation to the God of Israel. Ultimately, we will never know the original intent of the poet, they may be attempting to compliment the king in a way we would compliment someone today by saying, “you look divine” or “you are a goddess.” There is also a sensual nature to the description of the king that mirrors the sexual language of the Song of Songs as the robes are perfumed with alluring fragrances. The king is pictured as strong, desirable, handsome and charming but they are also pictured as being wise and just. The bridegroom is described as one who, in the poet’ language, is everything a king, man, warrior, and partner should be.

In verse 9-15 the focus turns to the bride and her bridal party which includes either daughters of kings, other royalty, or daughters of the king, the family of the king she is about to marry, and the queen, presumably the queen mother, dressed in gold in addition to the virgin companions who go with her. Far less attention is paid to the description of the bride and more time is spent giving her advice as she approaches. She is told to forget her people and family since she is now being joined to the family of the king, she is leaving behind one identity for another. She is also, presumably, leaving behind the gods that her people and family would have worshipped since her people are now the king’s people and her gods have been exchanged for the God of the king. The bride is also described as beautiful and desirable and her many-colored robes have gold woven into them. She has been dressed in the finest clothing for this occasion and she is entering a place where other royalty will present her with gifts to attempt to win her favor and by extension the favor of her groom.

The psalm ends with a blessing for the future. The king and the new queen will have children and those children will increase the influence of the kingdom throughout the earth. The psalmist gives their own gift, the gift of the name of the king being celebrated throughout generations. The irony is that within the psalm the king is never named and so the praise of the king and his new bride endured but the king’s name was forgotten. Yet, if the king were named the psalm may have never been passed on through the succeeding generations.

My initial reaction to reading Psalm forty-five was to wonder if I had ever read it before. I have read through the bible several times, but this psalm must have passed through my consciousness in previous times and not made an impression. It would be easy to dismiss the psalm as a remnant of a long-passed time and to place it among the stories of childhood, a story of a fairy tale wedding. It does reflect a world where society was structured more strictly along gender lines and a woman’s body and freedom relied upon her husband and while we never learn the feelings of the bride the psalmist wants us to assume that she too finds the king she approaches as desirable. I approach each of these reflections from the belief that there is something that, because they have been collected and placed within the scriptures, that we can learn from them.

So, what do we do with an old love song? Here are a couple possibilities: as early as the Aramaic Targum (a translation with additional comments on the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic once that became the spoken language in the Persian empire after 515 BCE) reads this as a psalm referring to the messiah. The psalm became a part of the texts that pointed to the hope of what the promised messiah. In the New Testament the book of Hebrews picks up this line of interpretation when it uses Psalm 45: 6-7 as a part of the litany of quoted psalms that attempt to point to who Christ is (Hebrews 1: 8-9). Christians have also used this language to metaphorically be addressed to the church as the bride of Christ. As Nancy DeClassé-Walford can state:

The Hebrew Bible certainly provides many analogies of the relationship between God and the Israelites as that of husband and wife (see Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 16 and 23; and Isa. 62: 1-5). The Christian Scriptures continue the analogy (see Matt. 9:15; John 3: 29; Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19: 7-9). (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 416-417)

Both the ‘messianic’ and ‘bride of Christ’ require a non-literal reading of the psalm and while they have been the traditional way the church has read the psalm, I also think that the words themselves being placed in the psalter can speak on their own. This psalm and the Song of Songs also can reflect the joy of sexuality that has often been suppressed in churches. There is a reason that even in our age we dream of royal weddings, of dashing kings and beautiful queens. There is a reason that God allowed there to be a love song in the center of the bible and a love song amidst the psalms, we were created for relationships and for love. One of the gifts of the psalms, and I am discovering in the rest of the bible as well, is the way they speak not only to the rational part of us but to the emotional part of our minds as well. We are people who dream of love and the scriptures remind us love, both emotional and physical, is a part of the lives of the faithful ones.

Psalm 44 Demanding a Fulfillment of God’s Covenant Promises

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

Psalm 44

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Maskil.>
1 We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants.
6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16 at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way,
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

Psalm 44 is an audacious psalm of a community that dares to articulate their disappointment with God’s perceived faithfulness. The psalm moves sequentially from the plural voice of the speaking community to the singular voice of a leader in a responsive plea as we move through the psalm. The community remembers the past, the stories they heard of how God did act in powerful ways in the days of their ancestors and contrasts the promises of their ancestors with their experience of God’s inattention to the covenant God made with the people. The people, amid their crisis, have expected more of God in the present and boldly demand more of God for the future.

Working through books like the Psalms and Jeremiah have made me realize how impoverished much Christian spirituality is because of our unfamiliarity with the protests of the prophets and the laments of the psalmists. Our Jewish ancestors and contemporaries in the faith tend to speak more openly in protest to God when unjust suffering is felt by the individual or by the nation. The Hebrew scriptures have the entire book of Job which wrestles with, but never truly answers, the question of unjust suffering. The faithful need a way to express their anger, disappointment and perplexity when the unfairness of the world causes the faithful to suffer when they have done nothing to merit that suffering. They need to trust that God can hear and will act on these audacious cries of the community.

As I was reflecting on this Psalm I was reminded of the powerful and painful words of Zvi Kolitz’s fictional Jewish man dying in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Yosl Rakover Talks to God:

I die at peace, but not pacified, conquered and beaten but not enslaved, bitter but not disappointed, a believer but not a supplicant, a lover of God but not His blind Amen-sayer.

I have followed Him, even when he pushed me away. I have obeyed his commandments, even when He scourged me for it. I have loved him, I have been in love with Him and remained so, even when He made me lower than dust, tormented me to death, abandoned me to shame and mockery…

Here, then, are my last words to You, my angry God: None of this will avail you in the least! You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You. (Davis, 2001, p. 134)

In this psalm the Jewish ancestors, who handed on their tradition and faith to Zvi Kolitz, have continued to believe and trust in God when God appears to have abandoned them to shame and mockery. The psalmist can love God but is not pacified and will not be God’s blind amen speaker. They call upon the traditions and stories of their people, the resilience of their faith and their covenant with God and demand that God be the God that the covenant promised.

The first three verses of the psalm are spoken in the assembled voice of a community demonstrating that the actions of God in the past have been handed on from generation to generation to the present community. The specific memory recalled is the memory of the book of Joshua when the people of Israel is brought into the promised land by the strength of God’s action rather than their own military prowess. God is remembered as the one who uprooted their enemies and planted them in a land that they now consider their home. God acted on their behalf and against their enemies. In the fourth verse an individual speaks of their allegiance to God and their reliance upon the strength of God. In verse five the community responds that it is through God’s power that they can triumph over their foes and adversaries. Verse six returns to the voice of an individual stating that their own weapons of war cannot deliver them. Verses seven and eight conclude this liturgical back and forth in the voice of the people stating that God has saved them, confused those who hate them and in response they have boasted and given thanks. The first eight verses echo with the sounds of remembrance, praise and thanks but something has changed in the community’s life that will reverberate in the remaining two thirds of the psalm. Something has turned the community that boasts in God and gives thanks into a community that will accuse God.

Yet becomes the pivot point of the psalm. In verse nine we abruptly pivot from adoration to abandonment. God was the one who was trustworthy in the past for the ancestors of the psalmist, but God seems to have left the people on their own in their current crisis. In a conversation when you have a string of compliments followed by a ‘but’ or in this case a ‘yet’ everything before recedes into the background. In the psalm the ‘yet’ allows the action of God for God’s people in the past to recede from view as the current experience of rejection and abandonment comes forward to occupy the central position in the community of the speaker. The present has overwhelmed the past. The experience of God’s absence at this critical time in the community’s life highlights several difficult questions.

Rabbinic tradition links Psalm 44 to the time of the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned as a part of the Seleucid Empire between 168 and 164 BCE. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 409) If this is the case it would make it one of the later pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in a similar time to the book of Daniel in most scholars estimation. The reason this time period would be significant in the story of the people of Jerusalem is that it also marks one of the points when a foreign empire would attempt to disrupt the worship of the God of Israel and force the Jewish people to conform to the Hellenistic beliefs and practices of the empire. Those who remained faithful were subject to persecution or execution as Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted use military force to enforce conformity. The Jewish uprising in 167 or 168 BCE would eventually be successful allowing the reestablishment of the temple and a brief period of independence for the Judean people. The rededication of the temple after this revolt is celebrated in Hanukkah each year and is told in the narratives of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which is a part of the apocrypha for many Christians.

Whether the situation in the psalm refers concretely to the persecution under Antiochus IV or another situation of crisis it brings the community to the point where they wrestle with the perceived absence of God in a critical situation. The psalm moves beyond lament and into accusation. As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Jr. can state insightfully: “Verses 9-12 describe the defeat of Israel with a series of “you” statements that fix the blame singularly on YHWH, from whom better had been expected.” (Brueggeman, 2014, pp. 209-210) The accusations are told in terms of a military defeat with the language of plunder, in the agricultural language of sheep led to slaughter, in the language of the marketplace where the people are sold for a small price showing their insignificance to their master, and finally in the language of honor where the people’s honor is mocked by their neighbors and they have become a byword, a pithy example, of shame among the nations. In this psalm their God has failed to be the warrior they could trust in, the good shepherd who would lead them faithfully, the God who held them as a treasured possession, and the one who by honoring the name of God would allow them to be honored among the nations. At this critical moment God has failed to live up to the terms of the promises God made to the people. The pain and disappointment of the moment has transformed into a “moral claim against God.” (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 211)

Even though it appears that God has broken faith with the people the people have not broken faith with God. As the poet and their community wrestle with why they are suffering unjustly they look and examine if they have turned away from God in some manner and their answer is ‘No.’ They have not forgotten, they have remembered. The psalmist is confident that they have remained faithful to the covenant that God made with them and so they utter these words in protest at the way God appears to have defaulted on the covenant. Yet, even during the accusations and disappointment the psalmist knows that the resolution relies upon God’s action. They demand God rouse, awake, cease hiding, remember and redeem. They have been sold yet they can be bought again, they have experienced death, but they trust that God can bring life, they have experienced defeat but if God again fights for them, they will experience victory. They call upon the hesed (steadfast love) of God as their only hope of redemption.

This experience of isolation is brought into one of the great expressions of God’s unwavering faithfulness when the twenty second verse of this psalm is placed in the middle of the Paul’s triumphal statement that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 8: 31-39. Paul argues to the early Christians that even when they experience situations where they may perceive their own weakness and their distance from God that God’s steadfast love, experienced in Christ, will not be broken. One of the gifts of having both Psalm 44 and Romans 8 is being able to hold faith and experience in tension. There may be times where it feels like God is absent or has failed to uphold God’s promises to the individual or the community and yet the faith insists that God’s steadfast love will ultimately overcome the separation. If this is the psalm of a community that endured the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanies IV it would also be the psalm of a community that would see that tyrants reign end and their redemption come. They saw God’s redemption and could see their circumstances transformed from dishonor to honor. Yet, not every situation has a happy ending and there may be some within the people of faith who can utter at the end the fictional words quoted above:

You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You

One of the gifts of the scriptures we have is that they are broad enough to accommodate the various experiences of the faithful ones and give language for their prayers in the times of isolation and celebration. Psalm forty-four is a prayer from the place of isolation that boldly demands that God uphold God’s promises and has the courage to accuse God based upon the faithful one’s experience of suffering.

Psalm 43 Calling for God’s Love among a Loveless People

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Psalm 43

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
 from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
 
As mentioned in the previous psalm, Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 are often linked together and may have originally been one psalm. They share a common refrain, which is the final verse of Psalm 43, and when linked do share a common theme and this is the only psalm within the second book of the psalter (see previous chapter) that does not have a superscription (introductory line telling who wrote it or how it is to be sung). I will initially talk about Psalm 43 separately but will conclude by looking at Psalm 42 and 43 together as a unit.

The Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated steadfast love and reflects the relationship that God has established with God’s people, is used at the beginning of this psalm as a negative description of the people the poet asks for God’s defense from. They are literally a people without hesed, a people outside the covenant with the God of Israel, a people who either do not know or who do not respect the relationship that God has offered to the psalmist and their people. Perhaps this psalm comes out of the experience of exile in Babylon where the covenant people are isolated from their home and their temple surrounded by people who worship other gods, or perhaps the psalmist lives among a people who has forgotten who they are. Whatever the context of the psalm the speaker speaks from a place among a people not shaped and formed by the steadfast love of God and isolated with a person or people who through lies and unjust practices have placed the psalmist in need of deliverance. The poet calls for God’s steadfast love among a loveless people.

In harmony with the previous psalm, the speaker feels isolated from God by their situation and oppression. In Psalm 42:9 the psalmist can ask ‘why have you forgotten me?’ and in verse two of our current psalm we hear the question heightened, ‘why have you cast me off?’ or translated differently ‘why have you rejected me?’ (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 404) The ability of the enemy to continue to, in a military metaphor, to press in upon them has left them mournful. God is supposed to be their refuge and yet the boundaries that God is supposed to enforce for the psalmist continue to be violated by the aggressive enemy who is making their life miserable. The deliverance that the poet seeks rests in the hands of a God who appears to have left the speaker in this loveless place.

The answer to a people without steadfast love is the faithfulness of God. The word translated by the NRSV as truth is the Hebrew word ‘emet which is frequently translated as faithfulness. In a situation where the speaker is surrounded by a people without hesed (steadfast love) and where they are experiencing the rejection of God, the psalmist still calls for God’s light and ‘emet (faithfulness) to emerge in their place of darkness and faithlessness. God’s faithfulness can lead them home to God’s temple, to this place where they feel distant from due to exile or a people who has forgotten who they are. Yet, it is God who holds the future for the psalmist. It is God who will bring them out of their current oppression and isolation. The answer to a people without love is God’s steadfast love. The answer to oppression is the God who provides refuge. The answer to their current darkness is God’s light and faithfulness. The long for the time when they can return and sacrifice and sing in joy to God. They reside in hope that they will soon experience the return to God’s house that they seek.

The final verse echoes the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Even in the isolation of the poet, in their experience of oppression by an enemy and rejection by God they can hope with all their being that God will not allow their experiences in the time of their song to remain forever. God is the one they can hope in, praise and will in God’s time bring help.

Both together and separately, Psalm 42 and 43 speak from the experience of a time where God seems distant and the situation of the psalmist is dire. Yet, even amid isolation and perceived rejection these are dialogues of faith where the poet continually returns to the question “Why are you cast down?” They trust in the experience of God’s faithfulness from their past and they hope for God’s faithfulness in the future. They continue to come back to the God who is their hope and their help for the future. They will not remain among a loveless people without the steadfast love of God forever. They will again return to the altar of God and with the faithful ones express their joy as they dwell in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Psalm 42 Thirsting for God in an Arid Time

Drought land against sunset background Image from https://cis.org/Population-Immigration-and-Drying-American-Southwest

 Psalm 42

<To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.>
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

The forty-second Psalm begins the second book of the Psalter which runs from Psalm 42-72. In addition there is a significant change in the way that God is addressed in Psalms 42-83: in the first forty-one psalms God is typically addressed by the name of God (YHWH, translated LORD in most English translations) while this group of Psalms is sometimes referred to as the Elohistic psalms because God is normally called Elohim (the Hebrew word that is the is translated God, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel or used generically as a god depending on the context). Finally, this Psalm also begins one of two collections of Korahite Psalms, written by a group of Levites and not by David. The Korahites are mentioned in the line of the Levites for the first time in Exodus 6:24 and in 1 Chronicles 9:19 we hear that the Korahites “were in charge of the work of the service, guardians of the threshold of the tent, as their ancestors had been in charge of the camp of the LORD, guardians of the entrance.” Psalm forty-two and forty-three may have been one psalm originally but I will treat them separately here and then when I look at Psalm forty-three, I will also consider the two Psalms together.

Psalm forty-two begins with an image that has been set to song, but the song while beautiful misses the emotion and direction of the psalm. The initial verse of As the Deer by Jerry Sinclair sets the scene:

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you
You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you (Worship and Praise , 1999, p. 9)

Yet, Psalm forty-two is a song about separation from God rather than closeness. Unlike the imagery of the As the Deer, where the deer is satisfied by the waters and the worshiper sits safely in a space where they can worship God our Psalm turns on the question “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” The song is beautiful and has a place within the language of worship but so does the honest and hauntingly beautiful language of the psalm where the speaker finds themselves in an exile, spiritual or physical, in a world that has changed around them leaving them isolated from God and from the worship of the community.

Water imagery comes up multiple times in this short Psalm, beginning with the metaphor of a deer longing for a flowing stream being matched with the individuals longing for God. God’s presence becomes as essential as the water needed to sustain life but like a deer in an arid land coming upon a dried-up streambed the psalmist is in a relational desert where God is unavailable or distant. As the waters they sought have remained elusive they have been fed instead by a well of saline tears that come from their own body. Later in verse seven the speaker returns to the memory of the depths of God’s steadfast love imagined in the image of the deep, large waterfalls, and waves that break upon the shore or the side of a ship. Once God’s presence was so abundant that it threatened to overwhelm the speaker but now, they are left in a wilderness with only their own tears for nourishment.

The taunting question of the adversaries of the speaker, “Where is your God?” intensifies the experience of the speaker’s own isolation from God. The question appears first in response to the tears of the psalmist but later is expanded to become a wound that threatens to be fatal. As the psalmist has been denied the presence of God, they need for life the taunting of their opponents intensifies the perception of distance. The psalmist can cry out, “Why have you forgotten me?” The poet could not forget God anymore than they could forget to drink, and yet is appears to the poet that God has forgotten them at this moment in time. They can examine the distance between the past when they could lead the great throng in procession and the present when they feel isolated from God, oppressed and wounded by some in the community and longing for that time when they shall again praise their God who is their rock and their help.

This Psalm, and the next Psalm, act as an internal dialogue of faith in a time when God seems distant. The speaker returns multiple times to the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope for God; for I shall again praise him.” Even in the experience of isolation the psalmist trusts that their current reality is not the final answer: they have been overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s steadfast love that crashed over them like the waves that break upon the shoreline, they will not walk in the parched wilderness forever. Their inmost self longs for God and they will come upon God’s waters again, their tears will be wiped away and their adversaries will be silenced. The parched feeling of being isolated from God will eventually pass, the refrain reminds the speaker that God will not remain distant forever, will not forget them and even amid their struggle they can still hope for a return to the waters they long for.