This is the poem Obfuscation from my new book Creative Words. Here is the text of the poem:
Ascend all you augurs and astrologers in agony but not antipathy
Beings banished at the behest of barons and bureaucrats beyond
Chance the chanting of your cadence clear into crystalline caves
Divining the design of destiny; you dabble and daub and deliberate
Echoing Elohim or Eros or the Ennead, earth and energy enervated
Fulfilled filter for future fortunes, fool fount of the fates
Grasping for grace, grappling with gods;griping, grousing gazer
Haruspex of Helen, hold hard the heel of Hermes, ye harbingers of hell
Inspiration or Justification, Karma or Kairos come at last
Magus, medium, medicine man, necromancer, obfuscator, ovate
Plundered prophet promising to prevail in profusely promulgated prayer
Recalling in a rasp revelation released or read rapturously
Scanned in the stars as you stand, stumbled upon softly is the surge of sea
Totem trying to thrive, timing the turning of the tarot or tea leaves
Universal venture of wanting, ye xenophiles yearning for zen
This was a challenge for the Common Language Project: had to be less than thirty lines and use the following thirty words without change to tense or form: agony, ascend, behest, cadence, chance, clear, crystalline, daub, design, destiny, echoing, filter, fool, fulfilled, grace, heel, last, plundered, prevail, rasp, revelation, scanned, stand, stumbled, surge, thrive, timing, totem, trying and venture. An enjoyable afternoon challenge.
Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
9 O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
11 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.
20 He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.
21 Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Psalm 34 is another acrostic poem (each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew Alphabet) where the teacher passes on a robust life of trust in God’s faithfulness and presence. Its form points to the psalm being an A to Z (or Aleph to Taw) exposition of what a whole life under God’s care looks like. Faith becomes something passed on from the speaker to the hearer as they impart the wisdom they have learned from their experience of life. What they are handing on is not a naïve faith that cannot endure heartbreak, struggle and disappointment but a fully embodied faith which learns to trust in the LORD’s seeing, hearing, and action in the difficult times.
The beginning begins in blessing, a blessing that comes continually from the poet’s mouth. The blessing is not conditional upon the feelings of the moment, nor is the psalmist’s faith dependent upon never enduring hardship. Praise is the appropriate action for the one who trusts and fears the LORD. They can praise based on their experience of God’s dependability. The faithful one has learned to boast in the LORD, and it is God’s strength and power that is their foundation. As Psalm 33 reminds us it is not armies, or strength, or military might that is the place where we are to put our trust but instead we magnify the LORD and exalt his name. This places the speaker and hearers in a place where they can acknowledge, “Praise does not make God greater, but it acknowledges that God is greater than I.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 324) The life of faith learns peace by trusting in the strength and protection and trustworthiness of their God.
The poet invites those hearing into their experience of faith. Faith has an experiential component, and here the psalm can look back upon times where the speaker cried out and they were heard. The psalmist trusted in the LORD and feared the LORD and the LORD extended protection around them. Taste and see that the LORD is good, one of my favorite lines of this psalm, is an invitation to come and experience, or in the words of the lectionary gospel reading from John for this week, to “come and see.” (John 1: 46) This may have originated as a portion of a sacrifice of thanksgiving where the invitation to taste and see the blessings of God may have been an invitation to the table. There is value in taking the time to reflect upon the provision of God throughout our lives and, whether at times like Thanksgiving or simply as a portion of a prayer before a meal, to be reminded that the things that we taste and see are ways in which God has provided for us. Happiness resides in being able to accept the things that one has as a gift rather than something one is entitled to.
The young lions, those beasts which are the strongest and seem to be able to seize their security for themselves, suffer want and hunger in contrast to the faithful ones who trust in the LORD’s provision. The continual call of instruction to those who are hearing, like a parent to a child, of what it means to fear, love and trust God above all things becomes the center of handing on this embodied and experienced faith. Those desiring to experience a fullness of life throughout their days are encouraged to seek the paths of righteousness and faithfulness in contrast to the ways of deceit and evil. They are to depart from evil, seek peace and pursue it for the LORD will actively watch over the righteous.
This care of the LORD takes on the familiar human senses. The LORD will see since the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, God will hear because God’s ears are open to their cry and the LORD’s face will be set against those who work against God’s ways. Being a faithful one does not guarantee a life free of heartbreak or affliction, yet the LORD is present amid those experiences and does not allow those experiences to separate the faithful on from God’s steadfast love. Even though the wicked may seem to prosper there is a trust that evil itself will bring down the wicked. Perhaps this is a part of arc of the moral universe bending towards justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders could speak of. At the foundation of this faith is a belief that goodness ultimately triumphs over evil, that righteousness will persevere long beyond wickedness and that God’s will shall eventually be done on earth as it is in heaven. I’m going to close with a quote from Peter C. Craigie I found helpful in hearing this psalm:
The fear of the Lord establishes joy and fulfillment in all of life’s experiences. It may mend the broken heart, but it does not prevent the heart from being broken; it may restore the spiritually crushed, but it does not crush the forces that create oppression. The psalm, if fully grasped, dispels the naiveté of that faith which does not contain within it the strength to stand against the onslaught of evil. (NIB IV: 815)
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
12 Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.
15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
18 Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.
19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
20 O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
22 Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.
The Psalms are poetry and many types of poetry rely upon certain forms. One of the forms that Hebrew Poetry seems drawn to is the acrostic, where the poem divides by line or verse by descending letters of the alphabet. Psalms 9 and 10 together form an acrostic poem as do several other Psalms, yet it is a form that lies unseen in the English translations of this Psalm. One of the reasons for using an acrostic is to express a complete thought from A to Z (or from Aleph to Tav in Hebrew).
Many commentators remark upon the disjointed structure of the petitions in this prayer and conclude that the disjointedness comes from the form of the poem (having to start a petition with the next consonant in the alphabet) and divide the Psalm up into distinct units that share themes. Yet, spending some time with Psalm 25, I think the form, content and vocabulary of the Psalm point to a larger picture of the struggle of faith in the space of the ambiguity of life. The Psalm wrestles with the difference between the experience of the faithful one who is praying and their own experience of being put to shame, seeing others who are treacherous succeeding, and wondering about the promises of God’s steadfast love in the concrete experiences of life where that love may seem distant. It is a conversation of faith, not a cheap faith which sprouts up quickly when everything is going right, but the more complex examined faith that still continues to call out to God in the experiences of struggle, guilt and shame.
The petitions begin with the cry out to God and the perceived distance between the life the Psalmist is living and their expectation of what the covenant life would bring. It is a psalm of waiting for the LORD to act and experiencing a time where the Psalmist feels they are, at least for the time, on their own. Their place within the community is threatened by their enemies and their honor and standing is threatened by shame. They have trusted in the LORD and the treacherous ones seem to be prospering. The long struggle of how bad things can happen to good people and the wicked can prosper continues to play out in this Psalm and it is a question of fairness and justice that the scriptures never settle. Yet, the scriptures allow a place for this struggle and for the protest against reality as they are experiencing it.
The petitions in verse four begin to take a new direction within this struggle of reality. The Psalmist cries for God to show them the path they are to walk. They come from the perspective of not understanding the way the world is unfolding before them so they turn their questions back to God, “make me know your ways, teach me your paths, lead me in truth.” The petitioner now moves to being the one requesting guidance, like a student or disciple seeking their master’s wisdom. There is a more introspective tone that emerges as the sins of the past are brought to the seekers mind and they are now the sinner seeking guidance. The petitioner brings to voice their own failings and sins and once again it is to the LORD that they turn, this time for forgiveness. The Psalmist captures the paradox that encompasses life, where in Luther’s famous terms we can at the same time be the sinner and the righteous one calling out for help. So often in the Psalms the life of the poet encompasses the paradoxical reality of being a steadfast one seeking the LORD’s path, the shamed one seeking the LORD’s vindication, the forgiven one who wrestles with guilt and the one who can trust in the LORD’s covenant love even when the treacherous are prospering and causing trouble for the righteous.
In verse twelve the petitions go back to the promises: that God will teach, that God will grant not only prosperity but friendship and will deliver those in trouble from the troubles of the heart and their physical distress. It lifts up before the LORD the promises that have been made and calls upon God to act upon those promises. It presents the difference from the covenant promised and the covenant experienced and asks for God’s intervention to guard and deliver the faithful ones from their foes. The foes may be the foes of the individual petitioner or the foes of the people of God, and yet the trust is that God can and will deliver the faithful ones in their time of need, that the covenant promised will someday become the covenant experienced, and that ultimately the treacherous will not prosper forever. The life of the Psalmist is a life of prayerfully and honestly struggling with the world as they experience it, with their own shortcomings, with their confusion about what God asks of them in their life, with the promises of God and yet holds fast to the trust that God hears and acts. The Psalms allow a space to wrestle with the entire messy reality of life with all of its paradoxes from A to Z (or Aleph to Tav).
<To the leader: according to Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.>
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
2 I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
3 When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you.
4 For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.
5 You have rebuked the nations, you have destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name forever and ever.
6 The enemies have vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities you have rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished.
7 But the LORD sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment.
8 He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity.
9 The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
10 And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.
11 Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion. Declare his deeds among the peoples.
12 For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.
13 Be gracious to me, O LORD. See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,
14 so that I may recount all your praises, and, in the gates of daughter Zion, rejoice in your deliverance.
15 The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.
16 The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands. Higgaion. Selah
17 The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.
18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
19 Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.
20 Put them in fear, O LORD; let the nations know that they are only human. Selah
Most scholars think Psalms 9 and 10 were originally linked together for a number of reason but the form we have them now they have been broken into separate Psalms. Together they form a movement from the current Psalm where the Psalmist reflects upon the way the LORD has been powerful in the past into the cry for deliverance from enemies in Psalm 10. Separated as they are now Psalm 9 forms a psalm praising God’s power and justice but there are lots of indications that this is not all of the story. Psalms 9 and 10 together seem to form an acrostic poem, where roughly every other verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, yet it is not a fully consistent pattern. For example verse 5 should begin with Dalet (the Hebrew ‘D’ equivalent) but it does not and there is no sensible way to create a break where it would begin with either Dalet or He and we will never be able to explain exactly why, but more to the point the movement of the two Psalms together in effect move from A to Z to form a completion.
In its current arrangement Psalm 9 poetically reflects back on the past beginning and continuing with a theme of praising the LORD and the victories the LORD has delivered in the past. Perhaps one reason for the current separation is the difference between the seemingly final judgment on the enemies of the Psalmist and the reality of the reemergence of the same or new enemies. Psalms are poetry so they may tend to be dramatic about the reality to express a point but the Psalmist remembers how their enemies stumbled and perished, how the nations (presumably those challenging Israel) were rebuked and the wicked destroyed, and their names were blotted out forever. The enemies are vanquished to the point where the memory of them has perished. In contrast between the strength of the enemies and the strength of the LORD the enemies are overwhelmed. In contrasting the equity and fairness of the LORD with the wickedness of the enemies the LORD reigns as a righteous judge ensuring justice and equity and defending the weak and powerless.
Yet, in verse 13 we see the turning from the broad picture to the narrow. From the LORD’s actions toward the nations to the peril of the individual. We may not know what the crisis of the Psalmist is but it him from praise to pleading. The petitioner asks God for deliverance so that they may continue to lift up praise and worship in Zion and return back to the primary motif of Psalm 9. Perhaps this one piece of the acrostic (verses 13-14 would be the Heth, an H sound) is the key on which the whole psalm turns for it introduces the dissonance between the hope of the psalmist and the reality of the plight they see themselves and other faithful ones enduring. The psalmist has a vision for how God is to interact and intervene in the world and calls upon God to act and to take notice. In a situation where it seems like the needy are forgotten and the poor are perishing and might is making right the psalmist calls on the LORD to act, as the LORD has acted before. To save and to liberate, to establish justice and to protect and save the righteous.