Tag Archives: Psalms

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 45 A Love Song Among the Psalms

 Psalm 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 44 Demanding a Fulfillment of God’s Covenant Promises

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

Psalm 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 42 Thirsting for God in an Arid Time

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

 Psalm 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 41 The One Who Cares for the Poor

 

Artistic Reflections on the Beatitudes of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Stephanie Miles. Image from http://agatheringatthewell.blogspot.com/

Psalm 41

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 Happy are those who consider the poor; the LORD delivers them in the day of trouble.
2 The LORD protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land. You do not give them up to the will of their enemies.
3 The LORD sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.
4 As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
5 My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish.
6 And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad.
7 All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me.
8 They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie.
9 Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.
10 But you, O LORD, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.
11 By this I know that you are pleased with me; because my enemy has not triumphed over me.
12 But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.
13 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.

The final psalm in the first book of the psalter (Psalms 1-41) begins with a beatitude (Happy/blessed are…) just like the first psalm in this collection. Psalm 1 begins by stating “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the LORD” and now closing this section of the book of psalms we hear, “Happy are those who consider the poor.” The structure of the book of psalms wants to encourage us to hear the connection hear between a life that avoids the way of the wicked and delights in the law of the LORD with a life that considers the poor. Looking back at the previous forty psalms that comprise this first section of the psalter it becomes clear that one of the central messages is that God hears those who have been oppressed or isolated from their community and so the one who considers the poor models their path after the God who hears the cries of the poor and neglected of the world. This psalm begins with the one who considers the poor being able to count upon the LORD’s deliverance in their own time of trouble. A life that is blessed is one that in following the law of the LORD hears the way in which they are to be a community which cares for the weak, the widow, the orphan, the alien and all the others who are vulnerable in society.

The similarity between the beginning of this psalm and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 3 (or Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20) is just one of many places of resonance between the psalms and the message of Jesus. Jesus vision of the kingdom of God reflects the law of the LORD which imagines a society where the wicked no longer take advantage of the weak. The psalms, along with the law and prophets, the gospels and the letters of Paul as well as the rest of the bible attempt to imagine for the world a different kind of community. I’m reminded of a story that the New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell shares about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel. He asked his American student why the son who goes to a foreign country ends up starving and they almost all point to him squandering what he had, the son’s life was his own responsibility. When he had the opportunity to ask students in Russia the majority pointed to the reality that in the story there is a famine in the land, that the person’s peril was due to external conditions in the environment. Perhaps most interestingly for the reflection on this psalm was the answer he received when he was in Tanzania about why the son was in danger of starvation: “Because no one gave him anything to eat!” and they went on to explain that:

The boy was in a far country. Immigrants often lose their money. They don’t know how things work—they might spend all their money when they shouldn’t because they don’t know about the famines that come. People think they are fools just because they don’t know how to live in that country. But the Bible commands us to care for the stranger and alien in our midst. It is a lack of hospitality not to do so. This story, the Tanzanians told me, is less about personal repentance than it is about society. Specifically, it is about the kingdom of God. (Powell, 2007, p. 27)

This is the type of society that this psalm attempts to help us imagine, a world where the poor are considered and cared for, but the psalmist doesn’t live in that world. Just because the poet believes that God delivers those who care for the vulnerable they also are honest that attempting to live righteously does not exclude them from the challenges of life or from feeling the exclusion that the poor often feel.

The poet spends most of this psalm reflection on how their own community was not a blessing to them in their time of trouble. The LORD sustains those who care for the poor on their sickbed, but now the psalmist community has only the LORD to call to for healing on their own sickbed. Perhaps their community believes that the illness is a judgment from God and therefore they are justified in their exclusion of this one. It may also be that the illness demonstrates the true nature of the community. The community seems to be a place where only those who can actively contribute are valued and where people are actively waiting on the death of the psalmist to inherit his property. At a time where the community was needed the most for the poet, they found themselves a member of an unjust society that does not consider the vulnerable and weak. The community of the speaker has become warped and close friendships revealed as fading and shallow. Yet, the LORD can bring the one who has a deadly thing fastened to him back to life.

Like in Psalm 38 the psalmist wrestles again with a connection between sin and sickness. On the one hand many modern Christians too quickly dismiss any connection when there are times when one suffers because of one’s own actions or choices. Yet, there are other times where both people too quickly and tightly assume a connection. As Rolf Jacobson shares from his own life:

Even modern agnostics or atheists prove themselves capable of making this assumption when they assume that a person’s poor health is automatically the result of poor lifestyle choices. In my own life, when I was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, a well-meaning but misguided neighbor remarked to my mother that it was a shame she had not been feeding her family the proper, high anti-oxidant diet, or her son would not have developed cancer. Besides being incredibly unhelpful, this comment was simply wrong—the type of cancer I had is not lifestyle dependent. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 390)

Regardless of whether a person’s plight is caused by personal actions and choices or whether they simply find themselves among the weak, sick, injured, poor, or otherwise vulnerable the psalms imagine a community that can respond differently than what the writer of Psalm 41 discovers in their community.

The psalmist asks to be able to ‘repay’ those who have not acted as a supportive community in their plight and unfortunately in English we lose the double meaning of this phrase. On the one had the psalmist does desire that their health would be restored so that those waiting on their death to claim their payment from their property would have no inheritance because the psalmist continues to live. But the word translated to repay comes from the noun shalom and has the connotation of making complete, restoring, to recompense or reward. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 200) The poet may also be pointing to being a person who can demonstrate what a righteous life looks like by in the future caring for those who failed to care for them in the present.

The LORD has cared for the one who has cared for the poor. The righteous one can point to their own life as a witness to the LORD’s action on their behalf. Even when their community failed them God proved to be faithful. And they end this psalm and this portion of the psalter with a blessing to the God who has avoided the way of the wicked, who has delighted in the law of the LORD, and who has cared for the poor.

Psalm 39 There Are No Words

Image from Associated Press

Psalm 39

<To the leader: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>
1 I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
 2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,
 3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
 4 “LORD, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
 5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
 6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
 7 “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.
 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
 9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it.
 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
 11 “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
 12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.
 13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”

“There Are No Words” was the headline in my morning paper as the news covered yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old was equipped with smoke grenades, a gas mask, and an AR-15 rifle and killed at least seventeen people. As the leader of a community of faith I had to stand before my congregation last night as we came together for an Ash Wednesday service and they looked to me for words of wisdom, words of faith, words that fit the paradox of a day that on the secular calendar celebrated Valentine’s day but on the religious calendar reminds us that, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” There are no words that are adequate to the pain that the parents and students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must feel. Sometimes we discharge our own inadequacy with platitudes or promises of prayer. I would prefer to remain silent for I know the inadequacy of any words I may say. I would prefer to not speak from my own sense of weakness and frustration at the powerlessness that we seem to have around any issue related to who may possess a weapon in our country. I wonder for the parents of previous shootings who have turned their pain into a desire to make a change only to be frustrated again and again by the politicians who seem untouched or patronizing by these parents’ desire to never again allow this to happen to another family.

This psalm speaks to me this week. The beginning of Psalm 39 is paradoxical as the speaker speaks of their silence, of their desire to hold their tongue and muzzle the mouth. The movement from silence to protesting speech to silence and back to speech reminds me of the words of Richard Lischer:

Before any prophet speaks, the prophet is absolutely positive that he or she must not speak. Moses claimed a speech impediment; Isaiah confessed his own impurity; Jeremiah appealed to his inexperience. After the temple was destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel was transported to a refugee camp at Tel Abib. There he sat for seven days stupefied among the refugees, or, as one translation has it, “in a catatonic state.” Imagine the denizens of the twentieth century, beginning with ninety-three million dead in wars, gazing up from their mass graves or through the barbed wire of their camps, stupefied, catatonic. Something has ended. Visit the Holocaust Museum or Dachau. The normative demeanor is silence. (Lischer, 2005, p. 5f.)

I don’t know what terror the psalmist feels. Their silence could come from a personal illness, a communal tragedy, events that threaten the security or the identity of their nation, or they could just be silenced by the sheer magnitude of horrors both experienced and whispered in their life. Like Job the psalmist here begins in a state of silence. They hold back their tongue for fear of uttering blasphemy against their LORD. Yet their silence does not bring healing. The unexpressed wounds on their soul continue to fester as they remain locked behind their closed mouth. The words which the poet choked down burn now within them. The unresolved injustice burns their heart. They were absolutely positive they must not speak but the words burned within them and so they utter their words of protest. They cry out to God from the unspeakable tragedy of their life and with their words they give the tragic a voice.

“LORD let me know my end, what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” On a day where Christians gathered and ashes formed the sign of the cross upon their foreheads we remember that our days are a few handbreadths. Yet, we do not accept the senselessness of suffering in silence. The witness of the faithful ones of scriptures bear witness to the words that must be spoken otherwise they burn within us until we speak. We take our words and our feelings into our dialogue with our LORD. We wrestle with how things like this can happen in a world created by a loving God. These words may move us into the uncomfortable place of girding up our loins to stand before God as Job was asked to do. We may stand in the place of Jeremiah who amid his pain would say to God, “Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 18) or in less poetic language to dare to say to God that God’s promises were untrue, or God’s strength was unreliable. We may cry with the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22: 1) for the pain must go somewhere and the character of God revealed to the people of Israel is a God who sees the misery and hears the cry of God’s people. (See for example Exodus 3: 9) The words which seemed unutterable must be spoken. In the pain of the people and from the pain of the prophet the words cannot be held back. While the measure of days still lasts these the people cannot remain speechless before their God or in the world they live in.

In verses five and six behind the translation of ‘mere breath’ and ‘for nothing they are in turmoil’ lies the Hebrew word hebel (the word behind ‘vanity’ in Ecclesiastes which literally means vapor or mist but often represent emptiness and futility). The poet lapses into the language of the wisdom traditions of the bible trying to make sense of the senseless, to give words to the unspeakable, and grasping for certainties that are not there. Outside of their faith there are no satisfactory solutions for the psalmist wrestling with the crisis which for them makes meaningless a life that once held meaning. They turn to their LORD, where their hope lies, and they dare to speak. They ask for deliverance from their transgression of speech, silence and action.

The paradoxical speech from silence continues as the psalmist feels their personal crisis is a result of some judgment of God. God is the one who is punishing them, God has sent this crisis, God is the one whose chastisement threatens to consume them. The person feels cut off from community and is vulnerable like the wandering foreigner in the land. They have no people, no family, no group other than God. They cry for God to hear, give ear, and not to remain silent. Yet, while they have no family but God they also ask for God to turn God’s gaze away. Even though God may be their only support they are unable to see from God anything other than wrath in the moment. In the confused space of a crisis where there are no adequate words they perhaps need some time in their own silence. Yet, perhaps ironically it is in this confused space where they want God to act in mercy. In a time where words seem to fall flat, and emotions are confused the poet still trusts that God hears and that ultimately God will act. They feel a mixture of self-condemnation, fear, anger, betrayal, shame, pain, and there are no immediate resolutions. They long for the day when they can smile once more, and they pray that that day is before their life ends. Yet, these words echo on days where there are ‘no words.’ The psalm ends without resolution but still with a defiant hope that the silence and speech of this psalm will not be the final word. That even during the futility of this moment and their life they might still find joy once more.

Perhaps the reason these words speak to me today is that they do not claim to have the answer. There may come a time when these words transform into different words and different actions that once again try to imagine a world where these words and feelings are not necessary. To imagine a world where a nineteen-year-old either can’t use a weapon to shatter so many families or where this type of action is somehow prevented. I know my own feelings on this issue may not be popular in Texas where I serve. When I served in the military we did place an M-16 or M-4 (which are the military versions of this rifle) into the hands of young men and women this age but always within structure and supervision. In the time of the psalms and the prophets conflict was a frequent part of the people of Israel’s story and perhaps that is why the psalms and the prophets so often dream of peace and of a world free from the implements of war. Perhaps they had seen too many times where mothers and fathers mourned the son and daughters lost in violence. Perhaps they too knew what it meant to be at the point where there are no words and yet the words they choked back burned within them. They would enter the space where they cried out and questioned God and yet knew that it was only God who might eventually heal the emptiness they felt inside. But on this day, I am running out of words and like the psalm it may not bring any resolution, yet they needed to be spoken.

Psalm 38 A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing

Psalm 38

<A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.>
1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes — it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear, and in whose mouth is no retort.
15 But it is for you, O LORD, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

This is a song for a broken heart, a broken body or a broken spirit. The psalm cries to the LORD for mercy, for reconciliation and for renewed presence. We never hear in this psalm the sin which the author believes they are suffering from but this sin which is mentioned but never named is the perceived cause of the psalmist’s suffering. Something has come between the singer of these words and the LORD whom they cry out to. Something has, in the poet’s mind, caused God to turn away in anger and indignation. Something they believe has caused God’s disposition to them to change dramatically. They are no longer at peace with God. Their relationship with their creator has been fractured and they stand in the position of helplessness and weakness. They feel the weight of God’s judgment and perhaps their own as well upon them.

 While there is no easy or direct correlation between sin and sickness in the bible, the psalmist’s cries do ponder a connection between their physical, emotional and spiritual health. Sin can cause suffering in body and mind and the feeling of abandonment or shame can manifest in physical and emotional ways. While the psalmist language is probably in some senses metaphorical it doesn’t mean that the language of the psalm doesn’t base itself upon the actual pain that the psalmist feels. As Beth Tanner can say, “The burden of sin burns inside, and the whole body feels the strain (v.7) The insides feel faint, and the spirit is crushed (v.8); even if quiet on the outside the mind roars over the torment in one’s heart (v.8)” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 358) The poet has something they feel intensely that has separated them from the protection and provision of their God, some unspoken sin that is seen by God and makes itself known in their body and spirit. They stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation which will also begin the healing of their mind and flesh.

The poet’s plight is heightened by the distance and judgment they now feel from their community. Friends and neighbors who one relies upon now stand at a distance. Perhaps they feel like a leper who is cut off from the community for fear of contagion or perhaps, like the friends in Job’s narrative, the neighbors and friend have decided the sickness must be a judgment of God. Friends and neighbors stand aside while enemies perceive an opportunity. The weakness of the psalmist becomes a reason for their increased isolation from the community which they also rely upon. They have no words to answer the whispers they imagine being spoken of them as the lie (actually or metaphorically) prostrate and crushed unable to rise.

Though God may have turned away in indignation, at least in the psalmist’s perception, and they feel that God is just in God’s anger they plead for mercy and restoration. They trust that God will not ultimately forsake them. They have reached the point where they are ready to let go of the sin they conceal in their breast and the burden they have carried. They wait upon the LORD for their strength to be renewed. The psalm ends with the cry for the LORD’s steadfast love to overcome the indignation rightly felt. Where the poet feels distance from God and community they call for God’s return and healing. They call out in urgency for their case is dire. They end with the cry for their salvation and we, with the psalmist, enter their time of waiting for the LORD’s action.

Psalm 37 A Song of a Wise Life

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

Psalm 37

<Of David.>
1 א  Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
 2 for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
 3 ב Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
 5 ג Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
 6 He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
 7 ד Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
 8 ה Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret — it leads only to evil.
 9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
 10 ו Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
 11 But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
 12 ז The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them;
 13 but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.
 14 ח The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly;
 15 their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
 16 ט Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.
 17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
 18 י The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever;
 19 they are not put to shame in evil times, in the days of famine they have abundance.
 20 כ But the wicked perish, and the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish — like smoke they vanish away.
 21 ל The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving;
 22 for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
 23 מ Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way;
 24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the LORD holds us by the hand.
 25 נ I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.
 26 They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.
 27 ס Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever.
 28 For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.
    ע The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
 29 The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.
 30 פ The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak justice.
 31 The law of their God is in their hearts; their steps do not slip.
 32 צ The wicked watch for the righteous, and seek to kill them.
 33 The LORD will not abandon them to their power, or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.
 34 ק Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.
 35 ר I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
 36 Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found.
 37  ש Mark the blameless, and behold the upright, for there is posterity for the peaceable.
 38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.
 39  ת The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
 40 The LORD helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him.

I have introduced the Hebrew letters at the beginning of each acrostic line to show the structure of this poem. The psalms frequently use acrostic poetry as a form which tends to denote a completion of thought from Aleph to Tav (or in our alphabet the equivalent would be from A to Z). Psalm 37 uses this form to express the contrast between the life of the wicked and the life of the righteous. The psalm was works in a similar way to the book of Proverbs where the words are a tool for passing on a manner of life that values the correct things. It encourages the hearer to take the long view of life as it compares the momentary success of the wicked and the way of the righteous.

Psalm 37, like much wisdom literature, wrestles with the common question of every age: Why do those who seem to be wicked often prosper and those who are faithful struggle? Or in simpler terms: Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people? No psalm, poetry, proverbs or philosophy can adequately address every aspect of this fundamental question, but the poets, wise ones and prophets of the bible do attempt to give their provisional answers to these questions because they are important to how they understand what a good life looks life. In the psalms God is fundamentally trustworthy and, even when situations seem to testify otherwise, the authors trust that God’s will and God’s way will prevail. Psalm 37 attempts to make a case for faithfulness in the seeming prosperity of the faithless and for the long view of life in contrast to the ways of the wicked which focus on the immediate reward of their actions.

The psalm invites us into a life that is not dominated by worrying about how other’s actions are rewarded but rather to trust in the LORD amid the positives and negatives of life. It encourages the hearer to expand the horizon of their consideration beyond the transitory present. Throughout the psalms the LORD is trustworthy, sees the struggles of the righteous and does, in God’s time, act. The longstanding faithfulness of God is contrasted with the transitory prosperity of those who act unethically or who live wicked lives that are centered on their own interests. Vengeance and justice rest in God’s hands and it is ultimately God who will cut off the wicked, who will bring their plots and their power to an end. Their own actions will become their undoing and in time they will fade away while the righteous endure. For now, they may be imposing, like the cedars of Lebanon, but the day will come when the LORD’s ax will cut them down at the roots.

This psalm echoes in the sermon on the mount, where Jesus can state, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) In contrast to a worldview where one should seize all that one can this psalm offers a view of the world that outlasts those who grasp for land, wealth and power. This bit of wisdom points to a life of generosity and trust. One can lend and give generously because the righteous one can trust that the LORD will provide for their needs. They in their lives of generosity, the lives they model and hand on to their children, become a blessing to the world around them. They seek the good of the community and justice trusting that their God is a God of goodness and justice.

Psalm 37 in particular and wisdom literature in general attempts to pass on a way of life and cultivate practices that lead towards a whole life. I believe we ask this question too infrequently in our time. The question of the practices and values of a good life are questions that need to be asked as they are handed on from generation to generation. Part of the answer comes from the experiences of life. Like the psalmist we may be able to reflect upon times where someone’s power and prosperity that were accumulated in an unjust manner proved temporary. Like the psalmist we may reflect upon the way that God’s prosperity has provided for us in our own life. Reflections like this one do not deny the challenge of those who prosper while doing evil or who struggle while trying to live a righteous life. But they wrestle with these questions from the position of trust. The psalmist and those who echo this psalm believe that God is ultimately trustworthy. They believe, even when confronted by those who see prosperity in a life that goes against their values, that a life lived in the practices of wisdom and righteousness are worth living. They view life in a longer horizon than the profits of the moment or the experience of the day. Without discounting their present experience, they can set aside their anger, envy and strife because they trust that the LORD who has created the day will provide for them today and tomorrow. They sing a song of gratitude and trust and that song shapes the values and practices of the life they live.

Psalm 36: The Way of God and the Way of the Wicked

Psalm 36

<To the leader. Of David, the servant of the LORD.>
1 Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.
2 For they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
3 The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
4 They plot mischief while on their beds; they are set on a way that is not good; they do not reject evil.
5 Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.
7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
10 O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!
11 Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
12 There the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.

Martin Luther, borrowing from St. Augustine, could talk about sin as a state of incurvatus in se (being turned/curved inward on oneself) in contrast to the will of God which curves the individual outward towards both God and neighbor. I borrow this phrase because I find it helpful in the psalms thinking about the contrast between the wicked and the righteous. The righteous one in the psalms is the one who trusts and depends on the LORD for their protection and provision through life. The righteous life is directly connected to the presence and life of God and is open to seeing the way that the LORD’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and judgements are exhibited even in the fabric of creation itself. The wicked in contrast have no fear of God before their eyes and are blind to the presence and power of God in their world and so their words and actions become curved inward on their own interests and glorification.

Psalm 36, like Psalm 1, devotes its beginning to discussing the wicked as a contrast to the type of life the faithful one is to live. However, now the character of the wicked will be contrasted with the character not of the righteous, but instead with the character of the LORD the God of Israel. The wicked are those who have transgression or rebellion speaking to them from deep inside their hearts. They are those whose inward curved lives provide an environment where sin thrives. There is no external source for their morality, there is no fear of God, for their lives are self-directed and self-governed. They believe that their words and actions are either unable to be criticized by others or are above others. They live a life oriented around their own self-interest rather than the way in which the law attempts to orient peoples’ lives around the neighbor’s interest. Their orientation on their own words, actions and interest blind them from seeing the character of God that the psalmist discusses as they turn to God’s steadfast love.

The character of God is poetically anchored in the elements of the earth through the psalm’s beautiful language. God’s steadfast love extends to the heavens and God’s faithfulness to the clouds linking these elements of God’s character into the skies above the earth while the righteousness of God and the judgments of God are linked to the highest and lowest expanses of the earth, the mountains and the deep. As in Psalm 33:5 the heavens and the earth are full of the steadfast love of God and the creation points to God’s majesty. The psalmist’s poetically opened eyes see the character and nature of God written all throughout the creation while the wicked remain only able to flatter themselves in their own eyes.

The poet behind Psalm 36 rejoices in their connection and their reliance upon God. The steadfast love of God is a precious thing to them, the shadow of God’s wings become yet another place of refuge within the psalms. God is the great provider who provides a feast in the house of the LORD and drink from the river of delight. God is, for the psalmist, the source of life itself and the light by which all things can be seen. As C. S. Lewis’s famous proverb states, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 346f.) For the poet who celebrates God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and justice the LORD becomes the very means of understanding the world and everything in it.

Even in the beauty of the psalm’s beholding of God’s character written into the structure of the cosmos there is still an allure to the blindness of the wicked. Particularly in modern times where the myth of the self-made and self-directing individual who generates their own standards of life has become the assumed orientation we would be wise to consider that this glorifies the state of incurvatus in se that Augustine and Luther warned about and the psalmist’s way of the wicked. The allure of the self-directed life means turning away from the character of God that is written on the cosmos itself. There will continue to be times where the prosperity of those who have become their own moral compass blind even the faithful to the presence of God’s steadfast love, righteousness, justice, and faithfulness. We, like the poet, continue to pray for our eyes to see God’s steadfast love on those who seek God and God’s salvation on the uprightness. We continue to seek the refuge of God’s wings when the ways of the wicked threaten us and drive us away. Perhaps there will come a day when the wicked will lie prostrate, as in prayer, so that they can heal and they too can see the character of God written on the creation itself. Yet, the lure of sin continues to turn people inward on themselves seeking their own interests and away from the steadfast love of God which permeates the entire world.