Category Archives: Psalms

Psalm 58 A Jagged Prayer for Vengeance

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

Psalm 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Psalm 57 Fleeing to the Steadfast Love and Faithfulness of God

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

Psalm 57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 56 Trusting God in the Midst of Trouble

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

Psalm 56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 55-A Desperate Prayer from an Unsafe Environment

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Psalm 55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance

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

Psalm 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 53 Reflecting Again on the Unjust

Herny Ossawa Tanner, Sodom and Gomorrah (1920)

Psalm 53

To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts; there is no one who does good.
2 God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge[1], those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?
5 There they shall be in great terror, in terror such as has not been. For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

When I was putting together my first collection of poems to publish, Creative Words, I almost included the same poem twice. It made it through several edits by me and two editors who looked at the work. In one of my final times working through edits I discovered the duplication. I share this story because Psalm 53 is a close twin of Psalm 14, which may seem incredible when one considers that these ancient texts had to be hand copied, but in a large collection it is easy to forget what one has previously included in the collection. There are some differences, Psalm 53 indicates that it is ‘according to the Mahalath’ which probably indicates the tune or melody for the Psalm and this Psalm, unlike its twin, uses the generic ‘Elohim’ (God) throughout instead of the name of God (often indicated as LORD in English translations). Even though the poem mainly follows its twin there are some additional subtle changes that make it worth treating independently and its placement within this portion of the Psalter helps give some additional insights into reading the Psalm.

In the worldview of the ancient Middle East there is no concept of a world without God or gods but here we encounter one who functions as a practical atheist. In Hebrew, the heart is the seat of will and decision making, and so the one who says in their heart ‘There is no God’ chooses to live in a way that assumes that God or gods will not intervene in their life. The fool here is not unintelligent but instead acts in a way that does damage to the community. The lack of wisdom here is acting in a way that neglects the commitments to the community as described in the law, and instead choosing a way of life that views people as a consumable commodity that can be consumed as easily as bread. These foolish and perverse ones may be within the people of God, or they may be from other nations who are imposing their practices upon the chosen people, but the damage done by this godless lifestyle calls out for judgment.

This foolish humanity which the Psalmist finds themselves surrounded by creates an inhospitable world. The image of God looking down from heaven seeking the wise ones who live according to justice and finding only fallen, perverse evildoers who practice this metaphorically cannibalistic injustice echoes the story of the LORD’s journey to Sodom and Gomorrah. The LORD encounters hospitality from Abraham but goes to investigate the outcry of inhospitality and injustice from these towns which become synonymous with the judgment of God upon these unethical fools. The story of Sodom (Genesis 18: 16-19:29) is frequently misunderstood as being about God’s judgment on homosexuality, but what the story reflects is a society that does not practice hospitality to strangers and sees those strangers, and even residents, as resources to be exploited. The LORD was willing to accede to Abraham’s request not to destroy the city if ten righteous are found within this community, but the divine figures in the story[2] only find Lot who is willing to practice hospitality in this inhospitable place. Many modern people are uncomfortable with these stories of God judging these communities, but the faith of the Psalmist relies upon a God who does judge and does not allow for injustice to continue forever.

The Psalmist trusts that those who live this foolish life will eventually be shamed, rejected, and experience the terror that they have inflicted on others. Unlike the wise who are buried when they die, these foolish ones have their bones scattered and they lie forgotten in the earth. Perhaps the Psalmist envisions a judgment of those who have ‘eaten the people like they eat bread’ like the one associated with Sodom. Regardless of what form the judgement takes, they believe in a God who is an executor of justice and a protector of the community from these godless ones who corrupt the earth. The times of misfortune for the wise ones who live according to the covenant are temporary. The righteous can commit the judgment of the foolish injustice which dominates their world to their God who will bring about deliverance.

[1] The knowledge here is probably closer to the French word connaître, which refers to the knowing of a person rather than the knowing of a fact. As Beth Tanner notes the word is an active verb and the activity of ‘not knowing’ is active rather than passive. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 465) This would be more active than the NRSV’s ‘Have they no knowledge.’ These evildoers actively choose not to enter into the relational knowing of God.

[2] The actors change between men at the beginning of Genesis 18, to the LORD who speaks to Abraham and finally to angels who arrive in Sodom.

Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

Ancient Olive Tree in Pelion, Greece

Psalm 52

To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,[1] of mischief done against the godly? All day long
2 you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
6 The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 “See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!”
8 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
9 I will thank you forever, because of what you have done. In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
 
The basic question of the injustice that is present in the world when the boastful, deceptive, and wicked prosper while the righteous are persecuted informs the narrative of Psalm 52. This short poem or song which contrasts the wicked ‘mighty one’ and the righteous compares two opposing views of life and the poem pivots on God’s judgment of the mighty one in verse five. Although the superscription of this Psalm refers to a specific incident in the life of David, the big shot boaster who the first four verses describe can be found in any context. The way of the wicked may often appear to provide security in the moment, but the way of righteousness sinks deep roots of trust into the steadfast love of God.

The superscription of Psalm 52 places the words in the context of David’s flight from King Saul and the punishment of Ahimelech and the rest of the priests of the LORD. David, now fully convinced of Saul’s murderous intentions towards him, is fleeing Israel and arrives at Nob, a short journey away, where the tabernacle is. David seeks both food and a weapon from the priest Ahimelech, who is unaware of Saul’s intentions toward David, and after receiving these departs. Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds,[2] was also at the tabernacle and reports on these actions to Saul. Saul then gathers Ahimelech and the priests, accuses them of treachery, and then orders his guards to kill the priests. When the guards refuse this order from King Saul, Doeg the Edomite carries it out killing eighty-five priests and then putting the city of Nob, the city of priests, to the sword.

The psalm makes sense within the context of the narrative of 1 Samuel 21-22, as David can see the damage a violent and deceptive one has done to the righteous ones. Doeg could be viewed as one who does violence against the righteous, who plots destruction, whose words are sharp and who loves evil more than good. Doeg’s words and his sword have caused many deaths for those who offered David kindness and served the LORD as priests. In this moment, the suspicion of Saul and the deceptive words of Doeg are creating a world of injustice and violence.

Reading the Psalm in a more universal context, we can find many contemporary examples that fit the description of this ‘mighty one’ who ironically becomes the villain in this story. This ‘big man’ is one prospers at the expense of those attempting to live according to God’s will. They are schemers whose actions undercut the security of others and whose words are weapons that often cut deeper than a blade might. I’ve often parodied the old saying about ‘sticks and stones’ changing it to: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.’ When a person desires economic gain or power above the good of the community, deceitful words are often used and may do more damage to the life of the community than any action could. These devouring words once unleashed can seem to take up a life of their own, and the deceitful tongue that bears the sharp lie may produce great evil as it cuts into the trust which is the lifeblood of the communal life. As Beth Tanner can state:

We all know the damage of words. In a media-saturated world, lying words still cut like a razor. Indeed, we are surrounded by a culture that encourages us to be out only for ourselves and believes that our only protection is the wealth and possessions we amass behind gates that lock out the rest of the world. Words of advertisers and terrorists reduce our lives and diminish our delight. Abusive words by one we love and trust can do as much damage as a fist of knife. We know just as these ancient ones do that this way leads only to alienation and death. Any sane person would not choose this way to live, but instead grow slowly and surely as a great tree that flourishes in the house of God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 462-463)

Yet, in our media saturated culture which amplifies the boast of the mighty one and seems to thrive on the blood spilt by razor sharp words there are a plethora of instances where words demonized a group, split a community, and often destroy lives. Yet, the Psalmist states that this way will not stand, that God will not allow the mighty one who speaks evil and plots destruction to escape destruction forever. God will be the one who intervenes and balances the scales by removing the mighty one’s house from the people, who breaks down their defenses and walls, and who uproots them from the ground where the righteous remain planted.

Once God has acted to restore justice by uprooting the wicked, the psalm turns to the response of the righteous ones. Psalm 52 carries similar themes and imagery to Psalm 1 and in both psalms “the way of the wicked will perish.” (1:6) Yet, Psalm 52, instead of ending on the theme of the wicked perishing, now turns to the reaction of the righteous. The righteous see, and fear, and laugh. The righteous ones see and understand that the actions that uprooted the unrighteous one come from God. Fear in this context is the proper response to God, it is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 110:11, Proverbs 1:7) and fear of God is understood throughout the Hebrew Scriptures mainly as reverence and awe. But the reaction to the ‘mighty one’ who has now fallen is laughter. The mighty one who trusted in the power and wealth gained through their deceitful ways and lying words has now become the fool who illustrates that wickedness and foolishness are ultimately the same thing. The way of the foolish may prove successful in the short term but in a world where God’s justice eventually levels the scales they find themselves uprooted while the wise/righteous endure like a green olive tree in the house of God. The wise know that the violence and deception of those who aggregate wealth and power will not endure, instead it is the steadfast love (hesed) of God which proves trustworthy and enduring. The injustices of this world and those who profit from them are real but they are not permanent.

[1] The Hebrew gibborim typically denotes a mighty warrior or hero. Here the context makes clear the ‘mighty one’ may be a big shot at the moment but is not in the Psalmist’s view heroic.

[2] Shepherds in the scriptures may be literally those who watch sheep, but the term is often used metaphorically to refer to a leader.

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.