Tag Archives: Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 55-A Desperate Prayer from an Unsafe Environment

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Psalm 55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance

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

Psalm 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

Ancient Olive Tree in Pelion, Greece

Psalm 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 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.