Tag Archives: hesed

Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog Worldview

Battle between Cimmerian cavalry, their war dogs, and Greek hoplites, depicted on a Pontic plate

Psalm 59 God’s Steadfast Love as an Alternative to the Dog-Eat-Dog World

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.>

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.
2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.
3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,
4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah
6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”
8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.
9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.
11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.
12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,
13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob. Selah
14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.
16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.
17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.

Many of the Psalms in this section of the psalter are attributed to the time when David’s life is continuously under threat from his king and father-in-law Saul.[1] These desperate pleas to God, which can fit a number of circumstances that people encounter in a world, are an underutilized portion of Psalms. They are perhaps overlooked because they may appear too vengeful for some Christians, but they point to a resilient faith in the reality of God’s steadfast love in the midst of a world of dogged opposition. The psalmist trusts that God’s protection will allow them to see their opponents punished for their unjust violence they have done and will vindicate their continued trust in their God which allows them to opt out of the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence.

God is the one who must deliver the psalmist from their situation. The psalm is a series of imperatives directed at God: deliver, protect, deliver, save, (1-2) rouse, come, see, awake, spare none, (4-5) make them totter, (11) and consume (twice in verse 13). Immediately the psalmist begins with an impassioned appeal for God to save them from dire circumstances that are created by enemies who are conspiring against them. These evil working and bloodthirsty ones continually create a world of conflict and violence for the poet despite their innocence. The psalmist emphasizes their innocence by utilizing the three major Hebrew words for ‘sin’[2] and declaring they are without fault, transgression, or sin. This three-fold appeal to the psalmist innocence is followed by a three-fold titling of God: LORD (the divine name of God) God of hosts (a militaristic image of God as the leader of armies) and God of Israel (the God of the chosen people). God is one who can be called upon by name, and yet has the power to aid in conflicted situation, and is also the God who stands with the chosen people in the midst of the nations. The psalmist trusts that the God that they call upon is able to save and deliver them from this world of trouble created by their persistent and unjust enemies.

The metaphor used in this psalm for the enemies is dogs. They prowl like a pack, and they wound with their words. They continue to prowl the city and utter their threatening howls which inform the poet that there is no time when they are free of their presence. These enemies consider themselves strong but all their growling, prowling, and howling ultimately evoke laughter from God. In Psalm 52:6 the righteous laughed at the foolish and violent enemies, but here it is God who laughs at these violent ones who take themselves and their power so seriously. Their strength when compared to the protective and sheltering strength of the God of Israel or the liberating strength of the God of Hosts is laughable, and their boasts are hollow. The faithful and innocent one trusts that God’s steadfast love (hesed) will ultimately be the final word and will put these dogged opponents in their place.

This prayer comes from the perspective of one who is struggling in an unjust world and is calling upon God to act decisively against their oppressors. Perhaps one of the reasons this Psalm is seldom used is the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies and there is some danger when those in a privileged position view themselves as oppressed and use that narrative to justify their own actions of oppression. Yet, in the Psalms the actor who restores the oppressed one to justice is always God. Here the psalmist wishes not for a quick removal of the enemy, but a staggering but not fatal blow where the enemy becomes the unwitting example of God’s justice that is not quickly forgotten. As Bellinger and Brueggemann can say appropriately, “even in its most confident faith Israel can be honest about its resentments and its hope for vengeance and retaliation.” (Brueggemann 2014, 266) The psalmist is maintaining their innocence and committing themselves to God’s steadfast love and justice.

This psalm again confronts us with the distance between the world as it is experienced by the psalmist in this moment of their life and the world as it should be under the steadfast love of God. As J. Clinton McCann can aptly summarize the world the psalmist experiences, “What we end up with is a dog-eat-dog world, a culture of cut-throat competition in which we’re convinced that no one will look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves.” But the psalm points to “a deeper reality, an alternative world, which is drive not by the lust for power but by the power of love.” (NIB IV:914) In the belief of the psalmist, we may begin with the need for deliverance from the dog-eat-dog mindset of competitive violence. The final words in this psalm and in worldview of the psalmist is God’s steadfast love (hesed). The wise live their lives oriented towards this deeper reality where the lust for power will be proven foolish and the power of God’s steadfastlove will endure.

[1] The superscription refers 1 Samuel 19: 8-17 when Saul has David’s home watched and Michal (David’s wife and Saul’s daughter) helps David escape and deceives her father.

[2] NRSV translates these words as ‘transgressions,’ ‘sin,’ and ‘fault’ in verses three and four.

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 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.