Tag Archives: lament

The Lament of the Forgotten Son

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 1

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 2











You stand out on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Waiting for the return of the one who cashed in his heritage
Who took what we worked so long to build and walked away
He wished for your death and plundered your house
And yet day after day you wait for his return, this lost son
Like some wandering sheep you set out in search of him
Like some lost coin you search every corner to find again
And so, you stand out at the crossroads today and every day
While I rise up in your stead, tending the flock, sowing the seed
Working to ensure that for all of us there will be a harvest
You pine for your lost son, I grieve for my lost father

This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine
Unwilling to dirty his hands among the fields or to care for the home
Who shirked the yoke that I bore for you countless seasons
There were always excuses that were made on his behalf
I thought that his last request might finally cross a line
That this final insult, this slap in the face might raise your ire
Is there nothing he could do, no request he might make
That might cause you to put your foot down and say, ‘no more’
How could you let him take away the work of our hands
Going off to a distant land with the wealth of generations
This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine

The days you spent on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Are the days you never once looked at me managing the house
Sweating with the servants in the field to sow and reap a harvest for you
Holding everything together while you stayed lost in your grief
Did your eyes never fall upon me as I shepherded your flock?
Was a word of praise ever uttered from your lips for my longstanding obedience?
Did your desire to see what was lost blind you to what remains?
The absent son who erased the son with calloused hands and burnt skin
Who stayed and never strayed from the homestead
And who is still waiting here for you to join him as he works in the vineyard

Then, one day, as I exit the fields at the end of a weary day
I hear merriment as the town eats our food and drinks our wine
The fatted calf has been slaughtered for the prodigals return
And while the entire town was invited to the celebration
You never considered coming to the fields to retrieve me?
It is only from a slave that I learn that my brother has returned
And my father as well, back from the crossroads and the ends of the earth
You rejoice with the town while my soul bleeds outside the home I sustained
What must I do to be seen, heard, loved and welcomed?
Must I also become the prodigal for you to celebrate me?
Must I deny you so that you might accept me?

How long before you realize that there is a son missing from your feast?
Before you make the journey into the fields you abandoned for the crossroads?
Until you see the son who didn’t squander your wealth with prostitutes
He feasted away your fortune and you throw him a feast of rich foods
I worked your fields, maintained your table, fed your flocks
Yet, not even a goat was to be spared for me and my friends
Welcome home father, I hope you appreciate the pantry I stocked
Welcome home brother, I hope you enjoyed the calf I raised
Hear this lament of the forgotten son who awaited your return
To the family you both turned your backs upon

Psalm 31- Faith, Questions and the Life of Faith

Can You Hear Me by jinzilla@deviantart.com

Psalm 31
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.

If you are looking for a strong linear progression in the poetry of a Psalm, then this will not be the Psalm for you. Yet if you are willing to acknowledge that life and faith are rarely linear and that doubt and faith are often places which people in crisis oscillate between. If you can understand that a life of faith is a place where one calls upon the LORD and trusts in the LORD but then must inhabit the space of waiting on the LORD’s actions in the presence of enemies and persecutors who are seen and felt. Then Psalm 31 with its movement from crisis to trust to crisis to trust may be a Psalm that feels complete, honest and genuine to your experience.

Some people have wanted to break the Psalm into two separate Psalms based on the division between verse eight and nine where verses six through eight demonstrate a resolution and a trust in God and verse nine begins again in crisis which seems an even more intense. While the Psalm does have two progressions from crisis to trust and it makes sense to look at the two progressions within it, as I mentioned above life is rarely a nice linear progression from crisis to resolution. Faith and trust may be quickly followed by doubt and despair in the poet’s life. We do not know what type of crisis they are dealing with but there is this continual movement in the Psalmist’s words from the cry to the LORD in the midst of crisis where one asks for God to be the refuge or strength in their life back to the assurance of faith in who the LORD is to the petitioner.

The first four verses of the Psalm call upon God to be their refuge, the one who protects them from shame, their deliverer, their strong fortress and the open who delivers them from a trap. These are all familiar images for God. The Psalmist doesn’t ask for God’s action because of their own righteousness and honor but rather on the LORD’s righteousness and honor. The Psalmist is one who has trusted in the LORD and believes that God will deliver them from this crisis and those who seek to destroy their life and their reputation. Being put to shame, which the Psalmist asks the LORD to prevent, is not merely being embarrassed or humiliated but rather in an honor-shame based society it was to lose one’s standing in society. Dishonor in the ancient world would ruin a person’s name and often could lead to death or ‘a broken life of no hope.’ (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 157)

Verse 5 may sound familiar to many Christians because in Luke’s gospel these words are spoken by Jesus during the crucifixion (Luke 23:46). The Hebrew word for spirit (ruach) means wind, breath, or spirit (in the connotation of one’s life). In the Psalm itself the poet commits their life into God’s hands so that God may deliver them amid their crisis. In Luke’s gospel these words take on a slightly different tone because now Jesus is commending his life into the Father’s hands even as he lets go of life on the cross. The hope of the Psalmist is a hope of God’s deliverance within the span of their days, Christ calls upon God’s deliverance beyond the bounds of death.

For the Jewish people the LORD is one who sees and acts. From the foundational story of the Exodus on the LORD is trusted in to hear, see and act for the one who is in oppression. The corporate trust of the people becomes the individual trust of the Psalmist. In this brief window into the faith of the poet in verses 6-8 we see the how the covenantal faith that they are a part of shapes their trust and expectations of their life with the LORD. Much like the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23, the broad place of Psalm 31 is a place where the petitioner finds rest and renewal. Yet, this space of rest and renewal do not guarantee a future life free from persecution and trials.

By verse nine the language of distress returns, and it is expressed in language far more intense than originally present in the Psalm. One of the gifts of spending time with the Bible is the deep and sometimes raw honesty that can exist between God and God’s people. Jeremiah, for example, would bear God’s painful emotions to the people but would also use honesty to speak to God on behalf of the people and on behalf of his own experience. The Psalms are emotionally honest poetry, songs and prayers which don’t sanitize the experience of grief, joy, pain, disappointment, fear, distress, jubilation or regret when speaking to God. The Psalms, like all good poetry seeks to move beyond the rational part of our life and moves into the emotions that we must deal with. As Beth Tanner says

Poetry is meant to engage our memories and our imagination and in that transform our relationship with God, so the meaning of this psalm is to examine the thin line between faith and doubt that we all share as we strive to better understand and embrace our relationship with God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 305)

The Psalmist prays for God to be the God who hears and sees and acts, like the God of the Exodus. The poet remembers the covenant and calls upon the LORD of Israel to intervene in their own struggles. The corporate faith becomes embodied in the individual struggles of faith and life. The life of the faithful one is not free of struggle and oppression, yet even in times of struggle the LORD the God of Israel is the one who the Psalmist places their trust in. The faithful one may question why God appears to not act on their behalf when they are being dishonored and threatened but they trust that their God do see, hear and act faithfully.

Psalm 22-A Desperate Cry to God

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Psalm 22

<To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.>
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
 6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
 7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
 8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
 10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
 12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
 15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
 16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
 17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22 echoes heavily in the gospel writer’s telling of the crucifixion of Jesus and it forms a central part of the liturgy of holy week (closing the Maundy Thursday service and serving as the pivot into Good Friday). For both Jewish and Christian readers this Psalm of suffering and lament has been a place that can reflect the reality of the faithful life when God seems absent and God’s promises not to forsake seem far away. Many people are troubled when they read the language of the Psalms of Lament, particularly the vivid language of Psalm 22 because it seems unlike the language of faith. Yet, here in the place of suffering where the faithful one calls out to God and questions God’s seeming lack of intervention is a faithful (even if difficult) place. As Beth Tanner can state, “Crying out in pain and expressing trust are not incompatible.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 233) There will always be those, like Job’s friends in the book of Job, who want to equate suffering as proof of the suffering one’s unfaithfulness and demand a rigidly ordered world where the righteous prosper and the unrighteous are punished but the real world is seldom that tidy. My experience as well as my reading of the story of many of the saints of the church and the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish story reveal a very different dynamic: frequently those saints and ancestors in the faith do suffer, and often in ways that seem unreasonable, yet they can hold their suffering within the framework of a world where God still remains sovereign even if the world is often incomprehensible.

The Psalm begins with a cry to a known God, the one the sufferer calls out to is their God who they have known in the past, who has been present and active throughout their lives and who now seems absent. It is this absence of God’s presence that makes a space for the crisis of the sufferer and allows their oppressors to have their way. For the petitioner who cries out to God they trust that God is a God who hears, much as in the Exodus when God heard the cries of the Israelites, and the Psalmist calls upon this history of God’s action in the past on their behalf and on behalf of the people. The Psalmist contrasts the position of their ancestors ‘who trusted in you and were not put to shame’ and their own experience of being despised and scorned. The Psalmist oscillates between the ways in which God has acted in the past and their own experience of abandonment, terror and shame. The poetic language of this Psalm is particularly rich in representing their opponents as wild bulls, ravening lions, a pack of vicious dogs and their experience takes a toll on their own body in vivid ways: mouth dried up like a potsherd, being poured out like water and bones being out of joint with a heart that has melted like wax, and they are dying of hunger to the point where their bones stand out against their skin. The person places their petition to God in the direst terms possible, their petition is a matter of life and death and their only hope is for God to hear and act like God has heard and acted in the past and to honor God’s promise not to forsake.

As with most of the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 22 allows us to see the reversal of the petitioner’s condition. In the middle of verse 21 the situation changes and the tone changes. The verse begins ‘save me from the mouth of the lions’ but then abruptly switches ‘from the horns of wild oxen you have rescued me’. We don’t know the time that elapses in this transition but the deliverance occurs and the prayer switches to one of praise. Since God has not despised or disdained, there is a hope for tomorrow. Those who sought the LORD now become those who praise, the poor whose bones could be counted can finally eat and be satisfied and the God who seemed to forsake has become the LORD who reigns over the nations. God’s action in the speaker’s generation ensures that another generation will be told about the God who watches over God’s faithful people and hears their complaints and prayers.

For the first tellers of the story of Jesus the resonant images of Psalm 22 probably helped to make sense of their experience of the crucifixion. For both Matthew and Mark the words Jesus speaks from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lema sebachthani, my God, my God why have you forsaken me” would resonate with the beginning of this Psalm and the question of the righteous suffer. Even within the experience of that day where the soldiers cast lots for the garments of Jesus, the Psalm provides an easy connection for followers trying to make sense of the senseless suffering. The Psalms provided a language for their experience and words for their pain.

As important as Psalm 22 is for Christians in telling the story of the crucifixion both in scriptures and in the liturgy of Holy Week we cannot leave it only there. Psalm 22, and the psalms of lament more generally, are rich and powerful words that for generations of Jewish and Christians followers of God have given voice to a cry for deliverance. Whether it was the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, slaves crying out in suffering, or the person dealing with a devastating injury or illness that has robbed them of their sense of belonging we need to hear again that the God who we perceive has forsaken us can indeed hear our cry. We need to be able to claim that the experience of suffering and isolation need not be read as an implication of our own unfaithfulness or unrighteousness, but that indeed crying out to God in that time of suffering and isolation is itself a mighty cry of faith. Groaning words can indeed be powerful words when they reach the ears of the LORD who rules over the nations.

Psalm 13- The Cry from the God Forsaken Place

Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922)

Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922)

Psalm 13

To the leader. A Psalm of David
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
   How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
   How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
   Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
   my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Psalm 13 is one of the examples used to talk about a Psalm of lament because it comes out of the experience of struggle and strife and calls upon God to act upon the crisis that the faithful one is experiencing. The crisis is not only a physical or emotional crisis but for the Psalmist, at its core, it is a theological crisis. The confident opening of the Psalter with Psalm 1 that sings about how the LORD watches over the righteous and the way of the wicked perishing is called into crisis by the moment of conflict where God seems to have forsaken the one lifting up this prayer. In the midst of the crisis the Psalmist cries out to the LORD and calls upon God to act.

This type of bold prayer, which calls upon God to act and to intervene, might seem unusual for many people. Many Christians were taught growing up that you didn’t accuse God or question God’s motives and that prayers were always to be polite and stoic. Although this view is common it has little to do with the Biblical model of prayer or the relationship of many of the faithful with God. Jeremiah, for example, makes numerous accusations towards God throughout the book of Jeremiah, Job also can cry out and expect God to act upon his complaints, and finally the Psalter is full of powerful, unfiltered emotions that are directed towards God and wrestle with the LORD who can bring about a resolution to the struggle. It takes courage to ‘gird up ones loins’ and stand before God in this manner, to be willing to accuse God in failing in God’s responsibility to maintain faithfulness and watchfulness as a covenant partner. The Psalmist views the relationship with God as pivotal for their life and if God turns God’s face away and removes God’s protection and allows the enemy to prosper and prevail then God is not fulfilling God’s part of the relationship. The Psalmist’s faith is strong enough to confront God that all is not right in God’s creation (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 163) and that God is the responsible party to ensure that the righteous are protected and the wicked are punished.

How long, which is repeated four times in the first half of the Psalm is not asking for a time period but rather for an immediate intervention. It is a rhetorical device that is common in African-American preaching to increase the intensity of the expectation and hope that change is coming for the way things are cannot be sustained in a creation where the LORD is paying attention and is active. For example Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965:

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 79)

How long will the Psalmist continue to cry out to God before God answers? The hope is certainly not long. In the God forsaken place that the Psalmist cries from they know that only the enemy’s triumph and the sleep of death wait for them. They are at the end of the strength and the end of their resources and despair is coldly creeping into their soul, and yet in an act of defiance the call out to their God to act on their behalf, to fulfill God’s promises and to rescue the righteous one from the triumph of the wicked.

The Psalm ends with a note of trust or perhaps, as many commentators believe, the Psalmist has seen God’s answer to their prayer. If the prayer is answered we have no way to know how long elapses between verse four and the final statements in verses five and six. Perhaps they come hours, days, weeks or even years later when the Psalmist now stands in a place where God’s face continues to shine upon them. Yet, perhaps the ending is not a triumphal as a final answer but the whisper of trust into the deafening depression of despair. From my own experiences there can be this type of internal dialogue in that place of hopelessness where one struggles with and for one’s faith. One can boldly cry out to God and call upon God to act in the situation. Even in that space where all one perceives is isolation there can still be that turning back to the foundations of one’s life. I have trusted in you before, your love has not failed in the past, the how long will be not long and even though I may not see it now I can trust that I will indeed sing the songs of the LORD again.

Deuteronomy 32- The Last Song of Moses

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 32: 1-14: The Faithful Rock Provides

1 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
 2 May my teaching drop like the rain, my speech condense like the dew;
   like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth.
 3 For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
    ascribe greatness to our God!
 4 The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.
    A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he;
 5 yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him,
   a perverse and crooked generation.
 6 Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?
 7 Remember the days of old, consider the years long past;
    ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you.
 8 When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind,
    he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;
 9 the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.
 10 He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste;
    he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.
 11 As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young;
    as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions,
 12 the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.
 13 He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field;
    he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock;
 14 curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams;
    Bashan bulls and goats, together with the choicest wheat—
    you drank fine wine from the blood of grapes.

This poem of Moses could fit in the book of Jeremiah as easily as the book of Deuteronomy. It in poetic form foreshadows the sweep of the Deuteronomic history which runs from Joshua to 1 and 2 Kings. This is a difficult song to write out and let the words seep out of the pen onto the paper as you hear them. It is dark, and as we heard in Deuteronomy 31:19 the purpose of the song is to be another witness against the people of Israel when they turn to be unfaithful. When they trust in other gods and the LORD abandons them (or actively brings about) the consequences the people are to know and understand. If the song looks forward, peering into the darkness of the future, the poet speaks the darkness in the hope that the words (for those are the only weapons the poet and songsmith have) might alter the path of the future. While the author of Deuteronomy has a dim view of the potential for the people of Israel to remain faithful, it is still their hope. Their anxiety over the disaster they foresee is matched by the intensity of the words they use to try to wake up the people to change the course they seem to be marching upon.

The song begins in praise of the God of Israel and the faithfulness of that God. Throughout this song the Rock will become the metaphorical name for God and be a contrast between the unbending faithfulness of the LORD the God of Israel and the degenerate children of a perverse and crooked generation. Yet, even this generation is called back to their ancestors who still remember and the elders who still trust in the LORD. Just as throughout the book of Deuteronomy it is the responsibility of the previous generation to ensure the fidelity of the upcoming generations, to remind them over and over of the way in which their God has provided for them and the special relationship they have with their God.

One of the reasons that many scholars think this is an early poem (or at a minimum this first section) is that it is not strictly monotheistic. The LORD allots to the other nations other gods, and what make Israel unique is that the Most High God has chosen them and therefore they are to have no other gods before the LORD their God. In beautiful poetic language it expresses that the people are God’s beloved and the ways in which God has sheltered and provided for them. God is an eagle hovering over its nest or bearing its young into the air on its wings. The LORD has provided all the best things: crops of the field, milk and curds from the cows and goats, the best meat from the sheep and bulls and goats, fine wine and bread. Yet, the fear of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance that the people will forget who provided for them. That is where the poem takes its dark turning. 

Deuteronomy 32: 15-25 The Fattened People Forgets

15 Jacob ate his fill; Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked. You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!
    He abandoned God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
 16 They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him.
 17 They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known,
     to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared.
 18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
 19 The LORD saw it, and was jealous he spurned his sons and daughters.
 20 He said: I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be;
    for they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness.
 21 They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols.
    So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation.
 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol;
     it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
 23 I will heap disasters upon them, spend my arrows against them:
 24 wasting hunger, burning consumption, bitter pestilence.
    The teeth of beasts I will send against them, with venom of things crawling in the dust.
 25 In the street the sword shall bereave, and in the chambers terror,
     for young man and woman alike, nursing child and old gray head.

As I’ve been listening to this song of Moses throughout this week I’ve also been reflecting upon the way other popular songs work to try to bring about change and yet may feel overwhelmed by the social forces that seem to be giving rise to the undesired reality. For example, when the punk band Green Day released their American Idiot CD they weren’t desiring the character of the American Idiot to be the reality, they were mocking the emerging culture controlled by a conservative media. Countless songs from numerous genres could be lifted up as attempting to be a voice calling upon the future to change and yet the poets may feel powerless as in the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence:

“Fools” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Here the words of the song are placed in Moses’ mouth and just as in the previous chapter the hope is that the words will turn the direction that the people are moving in even when the anxiety is that the words will echo in the wells of silence. The words may bear witness but the people are hearing without listening. Moses prophetically chimes against when the people will bow and pray to the gods of stone and iron and gold they will make. In their fatness and wealth, they will forget the source of their blessings and attribute it to themselves and other things. Later prophets, like Jeremiah, who will attempt to be an echo of the words of this song will be treated as traitors, as woe bringers and will be resisted throughout their life. In the poetry of the song and of the later prophets sometimes the LORD will passively hide God’s face and surrender people to their fate, at other times God will actively bring upon the people their destruction, famine, and illness. In exchanging their Rock for idols of stone they have turned away from their foundation and reason for being. The song desperately rages to try to call the people to return to the LORD their God, and yet it knows people are likely to craft images of other gods rather than accept the God whom they cannot make an image of.


Deuteronomy 32: 26-30 A Remnant but Not for Your Sake

 26 I thought to scatter them and blot out the memory of them from humankind;
 27 but I feared provocation by the enemy, for their adversaries might misunderstand and say,
     “Our hand is triumphant; it was not the LORD who did all this.”
 28 They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them.
 29 If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern what the end would be.
 30 How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight,
     unless their Rock had sold them, the LORD had given them up?
As in the book of Jeremiah, much of the language here is of a wounded God, a God who is contemplating the betrayal of the people of God. Woven into this song is the appeal of Moses in Exodus 32: 11-14 where he appeals to God on behalf of the people after the incident with the golden calf.

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Here the logic of Moses now becomes woven into the logic of God and the logic of the song. It is so other nations do not become puffed up in their own accomplishment that a remnant is allowed to remain. In a set of brokenhearted lyrics where the LORD no longer appears to love the people and yet feels obligated to save them yet again we find a reason for that remnant to remain.

Deuteronomy 32: 31-43 There is No Rock Like our Rock

 31 Indeed their rock is not like our Rock; our enemies are fools.
 32 Their vine comes from the vinestock of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah;
      their grapes are grapes of poison, their clusters are bitter;
 33 their wine is the poison of serpents, the cruel venom of asps.
 34 Is not this laid up in store with me, sealed up in my treasuries?
 35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip;
     because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.
 36 Indeed the LORD will vindicate his people, have compassion on his servants,
    when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining.
 37 Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge,
 38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations?
    Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!
 39 See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me.
     I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.
 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever,
 41 when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment;
     I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.
 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh—
     with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy.
 43 Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods!
    For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries;
    he will repay those who hate him, and cleanse the land for his people.

The song ends with a move towards hope, much like in Deuteronomy 30 where now the LORD will turn on behalf of the remnant of the people once they have undergone the judgment. In a poetic turning the vanquished people now mock their former conquerors in their weakness after the LORD’s vengeance. For the people of Israel, the LORD is the primary actor and the gods of the nations are unable to stand in the presence of the LORD. Much like Isaiah 44: 9-20 which mocks the idols of the nations or Jeremiah 50-51 which speaks of the destruction of Babylon, these words can speak for the hopeless people with the hope of the LORD’s actions on the idols and the nations. The poem closes with warrior imagery for God (flashing sword, arrows drunk with blood, etc.) where God’s vengeance is acted out in a bloody fashion. I have talked about the warrior imagery of God in other place, but here for the people of Israel it is a reminder that there is no Rock like their rock. Even in their apparent weakness their God is a mighty God.

 Deuteronomy 32: 44-52 Preparing for Moses Death

 44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua son of Nun. 45 When Moses had finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them: “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law. 47 This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.” 48 On that very day the LORD addressed Moses as follows: 49 “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites for a possession; 50 you shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; 51 because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites. 52 Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it– the land that I am giving to the Israelites.”

As the song ends we are reminded once again that we are approaching the end of Moses’ story. Here, in contrast to the earlier narrative of Deuteronomy where the LORD is angry with Moses because of the people (see Deuteronomy 1: 37, 3: 26, 4:21), now we are linked back to the narrative of Numbers 20: 10-12 as the reason for Moses’ upcoming death. The stage is set for the final chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses ascends the mountain never to return, yet Moses still has a final blessing to declare upon the people prior to the ending of his journey. One final benediction to come from the teacher, leader, mediator, judge and bringer of the law to sustain the people on their journey into the promised land.

The Limit of Words

Sometimes in the deep wounds of the world
Those places where the spirit is reduced to groans
Where words only have the power to inflame and incite
And the cry of lament is still unspeakable
Living in the shock of the brutality of reality
Seeing the pain that you cannot stop
Or reeling from the hole that resides in your soul
Where the limit of words are reached
And tears speak a language of their own.
Those places where logic fails and poetry perishes
Where death steals away life too soon
And violence destroys the beauty of the ages
Where trust is overcome in betrayal
The deep wounds of the world that cry out
In sobs that surpass the limit of words

Psalm 6- How Long, O LORD

Paris Psalter, folio 136v  'Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

Paris Psalter, folio 136v ‘Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

  Psalm 6

<To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.>
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
 2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
 3 My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O LORD– how long?
 4 Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?
 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;
 I drench my couch with my weeping.
 7 My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.
 8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
 9 The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.
 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.

We will never know the situation that any particular Psalm is spoken originally from, except perhaps in cases where the Psalm itself gives us clues. Psalm 6 cries out in terms that reflect in turn a sense of alienation from God’s steadfast love, physical ailment or illness, anxiety and depression, and persecution by enemies and it is possible that all of these were afflicting the Psalmist at one particular moment or that the Psalmist may have used language and memory of these experiences to speak to the distress they feel in the moment as they cry out to the LORD. The Psalmist views their life as resting in the LORD’s hands and begins the appeal directly to God, crying out the name of the LORD. The Psalmist appeals for God’s graciousness not for the Psalmists own merit or worthiness but out of God’s hesed (steadfast love). In language that appears frequently through the psalter, the Psalmist speaks of their anguish and asks for God to end it. God’s anger may not be the only struggle of the Psalmist but it is the decisive one, for God’s anger is what the Psalmist is crying out for God to set aside so that they may be healed and their enemies may be put to shame.

The Psalmist cries out ‘how long’ and pleads for God to turn and relieve the poet’s suffering. Whether the poet is literally suffering in their bones (vs. 2) soul (vs. 3) and eyes (vs.7) there is a connection between external stresses and physical symptoms. As Rolf Jacobson aptly states, “anguish can dehumanize a sufferer, so that one’s sense of self is reduced to pain in one’s bones, body skin.” (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 105) Crying out how long while a traditional cry of lament also may indicate that the “pain described is no longer bearable and the speaker is at the breaking point. The intent of the phrase is to mobilize YHWH in a moment of desperate need.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 48) And perhaps if the question how long can be answered the Psalmist can endure until the LORD’s anger has passed.

This is one of the first Psalms we deal with the anger of God in relation to the faithful one, the Psalmist who cries out in lament. God’s anger is a necessary corollary of God’s love or as Jim Nieman, my preaching instructor years ago put it, “God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, God’s indifference would be the opposite of God’s love.” God’s love is not a sweet sentimentality to the Psalmist or throughout the Bible. God may care for and love me, but God also loves my neighbor and when my actions result in suffering or death to my neighbor then God’s anger arises from that love. Yet God’s steadfast love is always stronger than God’s anger and God’s anger is always connected to that love. (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 107)

The Psalmist trusts that in going to the LORD in lament that the Psalmist words are heard. Faith is far more than an optimistic state of mind for the Hebrew people, it is an active calling upon God to act according to God’s steadfast love precisely from the position of suffering. Even though God’s ways may be unknowable at times and mysterious there is still potent power in crying out to the LORD and that God actively hears and intervenes in their lives and in their world. And from my own experience it is often these times of questioning and suffering and anguish where later we can see the faith of the one who endures and cries out deepened. It is a fuller faith that trusts in a God who is present in the midst of the times of joy and the times of tears. A life which can endure the times where our bed is flooded with tears because we know in God’s mysterious time that God’s steadfast love will show itself and that God’s steadfast love will last longer than the suffering or the anger.  That eventually the LORD does hear the sound of the Psalmist, ancient and contemporary, weeping and that the LORD does act upon these pleading words.

One final note on the Psalm in verse 5 where it mentions “for in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” In ancient Israel there is not yet a hope for a resurrection of the dead or anything more than a shadowy existence in the afterlife. Thinking about the resurrection is something that emerges much later and is up for debate at the time of Jesus. In the New Testament this will be a part of the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. At the time the Psalms are written they are written with a very earthly understanding of God’s blessings and God’s anger. God’s steadfast love was a worldly reality that unfolded in the ways God took care of God’s people (or disciplined God’s people) and this may be hard for us to approach in the same way today in a secular world where we no longer think of unseen forces moving on our world but part of the Christian and Jewish understanding of reality is that God does act upon our world. For Christians it becomes a part of the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Psalm 3- Hope in the Heart of Brokeness

Gapare Traversi Die Erordung Amnons beim Gastmahl Absaloms (1752)

Gapare Traversi Die Erordung Amnons beim Gastmahl Absaloms (1752)

 Psalm 3

<A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.>
 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
 2 many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.” Selah
 3 But you, O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
 4 I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah
 5 I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
 6 I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
 7 Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
 you break the teeth of the wicked.
 8 Deliverance belongs to the LORD; may your blessing be on your people! Selah

Psalm 1 begins with happy/blessed are those and Psalm 2 ends with happy/blessed are all who take refuge in the the Lord, and then we begin a series of laments in Psalm three and four as well as six and seven. There is something more to this than some simple sort of life and a blessed life (my preferred translation of the word in Psalm one and two) is not an easy life. In my experience some of the people who have the strongest faith are those who have been through the most difficult and harrowing struggles. To be a person ‘after God’s own heart’ does not grant one an untroubled life and there is a need for an expression of desperation, a faithful cry for help in the midst of the struggle.

The superscription of the Psalm takes us back to one of the dark moments in the story of King David and in the narrative this is a part of a series of dark times for the king which so many have placed their trust in. After 2 Samuel narrates the story of David and Bathsheba, where David has sex with Bathsheba and conspires to have her husband Uriah the Hittite killed and the immediate after effects of this with God sending the prophet Nathan to David, the child dying and then a new hope with the birth of Solomon (2 Samuel 11 and 12) we reach a story of a deeply broken royal family. Absalom and his sister Tamar of children of one of David’s wives while Ammon is his son by another wife. Ammon conspires to bring Tamar into his room and then rapes her and King David does nothing to Ammon, his oldest son. Furious with his brother and the king’s inaction Absalom takes vengeance himself and during a banquet murders Ammon, his brother. Absalom flees, but is later welcomed home and forgiven. Once Absalom is home he begins to create his own power base and several years later leads a coup which forces David from Jerusalem and leads to Absalom’s eventual death. (2 Samuel 13-18). In the heart of the brokenness where families have failed, where forgiveness has been turned away, where power has been seized and life is at risk, the superscription places the words within that story.

In a world where we think God helps those who help themselves, the Psalm points to a different reality. God helps those who cannot help themselves. (Elizabeth Actemeir, et. al., 1994, p. IV: 692f). In the narrative world of the story of David evoked in the superscription and in the opening verses the surrounding people believe there is ‘no help for you in God.’ But for the Psalmist, the Lord is shield, refuge and strength. Even in the times where it seems like hope is lost the persistent faith of the Psalmist calls out to God and trusts that there will be an answer. The petitions of the Psalmist are great and their foes are many and yet the confidence that the petitioner holds to comes from the God who has sustained them. There is the trust that even in the crisis that the Psalmist can entrust deliverance into the Lord’s hands and the even as their name may be uttered as a curse, the deeper reality is that they are a part of the people the Lord has set apart as a blessing.