Tag Archives: struggle

New Growth

Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots, (1890)

 

Water washes away the sins of the night, pushing them downward to the gutters
Running back through the storm sewers and into the rivers and eventually into the sea
Where they sink down, deeper and deeper, into the abyss where no light shines
Blood is thicker than water, so in the deluge of the summer monsoon it sinks
As the rain washes away the chains that bind and the relations which smother
Allowing the newly baptized child to walk through the renewing waters as a new thing

Perhaps the blood will wash deep into the earth, passing on its life to the fecund ground
Reaching down towards hell with its roots, or perhaps rising towards heaven in the trees
Or perhaps doing both at once connecting the hell of the past and the reborn hope
Forming a perpetual reminder of the journey from darkness to light, from seed to sapling
That even new growth comes from the ground fertilized by the struggles we lived through
That only the killing frost of winter can prepare the earth for the new growth of spring

Death and life, bound together like the elements of ground and air and water and fire
Dying and rising, sin and salvation, blood, breath, water, new hope and long departed dreams
The past may no longer be seen, may have washed away in the rain and still it remains
Flowing through our veins, the blood of our forefathers and the sweat of our children
The earth gives its silent testimony of the blood it has ingested and the tears it drank
In the flowers, leaves and grass which cover it like a blanket, its bright quilt of resurrection

Psalm 40 Experienced Faithfulness and the Hope of Deliverance

Extract of Herbert Boeckl’s fresco “Saint Peter’s rescue from the Lake Galilee” inside the cathedral of Maria Sall, Carinthia, Austria

Psalm 40

<To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.>
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
12 For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
16 But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.

Any deliverance we may experience during our life is provisional. That doesn’t mean that the deliverance is insignificant or unimportant, merely that there will be future crises that we encounter in our lives. The experience of God’s faithfulness and the answer to one’s prayer does not grant us a life exempt from future struggles or conflict. Yet, these experiences of God’s faithfulness can give shape to the prayers that we state when we encounter a new crisis. Our history with God’s actions on our behalf teach us to trust that God does hear our prayer and respond and gives us a hope for deliverance in the future as we endure what hardships may come.

Psalm 40 moves from praise for a past time of salvation into a prayer in a moment of crisis. Some people have broken the psalm into two pieces and dealt with it as two distinct psalms, especially since verses 13-17 comprise the entirety of Psalm 70. Yet, here they are joined into one psalm and there is wisdom in the way Psalm 40 flows. The movement from the experience of faithfulness to praise to finding oneself needing to callon God’s deliverance is a movement that is frequent in the life of faith.

The psalm begins with recollection. The petitioner remembers a time when they waited on the LORD’s deliverance and their waiting was recognized. They were drawn out of a metaphorical pit and miry bog and placed in a secure place. God was their rock and a foundation which proved trustworthy to rely upon and to build their life around. Their response to this deliverance was one of praise, of singing and or testifying to others in the community what they LORD had done for them.

As the praise of the psalmist continues they can proclaim that ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ is the one who makes the LORD their trust. Earlier the path of happiness was for those who do not follow the wicked and delight in the law of God (Psalm 1) or for those whose sin has been forgiven (Psalm 32) and now the path of happiness is for those who trust in the LORD instead of any other object of faith. Instead of trusting in their own strength or turning aside to follow other gods the faithful one finds peace and happiness in relying on their God. Their trust has been rewarded by seeing the wondrous deeds towards the faithful community in the past and they remind themselves of the blessings they have received. The path of the ‘happy’ one is a path of gratitude for the continued provision of God throughout their life and in the life of their community.

What the psalmist believes their LORD desires is a life that is lived according to the covenant rather than sacrifice and offering. Like the prophets (see for example 1 Samuel 15: 22; Isaiah 1: 12-17; Hosea 6:6 and Amos 5: 21-24), here the psalmist recounts that the LORD desires more than merely right worship. The God of the psalms is not swayed by lavish sacrifices or offerings or worship. No sacrifice meets what God truly wants for God’s people. Instead it is a life lived in trust, praise and obedience that is desired by God. While worship, sacrifice and offering are all a part of this life they are not sufficient.

Interpretations vary on the ‘scroll of the book of the law’ in verse seven. I read this as a way of talking about a life that conforms to God’s law. Perhaps the person brings in a scroll of either a narrative of the way in which God rescued them, or the psalm itself becomes the offering, or the scroll is an accounting of how the individual has lived in accordance with God’s will. As Rolf Jacobson can state

“the psalmist delights in doing what God truly does find acceptable. And what God delights in is a life that conforms itself to God’s teaching (tôr; see comment on Ps. 1:2)—a life so conformed to God’s teaching that the torah is alive deep (betôk mēāy) a person.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 379)

Like Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Ezekiel 36: 26-28 we have within this psalm a heart that has the covenant imprinted on it.  Their experience of living the law, of trusting in the LORD, and knowing the benefit of the LORD’s protection and provision form the content of their witness to the community of faith. Their life and their song become tied together into a public act of worship the God who has heard them.

Yet, the faithful life is not exempted from strife and trials and within this psalm the texture changes as the psalmist is again in a place where they need to call upon the LORD’s salvation. In the past they have called, and God has answered and here again they lift their cry for God’s mercy, steadfast love and faithfulness. Evils and iniquities have somehow occluded the psalmist’s ability to see God’s action on their behalf. Those who desire their hurt may be those actively working against them or seeking to profit from their misfortune or they may simply be those who take pleasure in another person’s suffering. But the psalmist prays out of the position of trusting in God’s deliverance, a trust that has been validated in the past. They are poor and needy, they are vulnerable and yet they trust that God sees their turmoil and hears their cry. They recounted waiting patiently in the past for the LORD’s deliverance and now they are in the space of waiting again. They ask for God to act quickly to restore them to the place where once again they can testify to God’s deliverance and how God has again set their feet upon the rock instead of being caught in the pit or the miry bog.

 

Psalm 30- The Life of Praise

Mosaic Mural of Pentecost by Manuel Perez Paredes in Nuestro Senor del Veneno Temple, Mexico City

Mosaic Mural of Pentecost by Manuel Perez Paredes in Nuestro Senor del Veneno Temple, Mexico City

Psalm 30

<A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.>
 1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
 2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
 3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
 4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
 5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
 6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
 7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
 8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:
 9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
 10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
 11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
 12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

This is a Psalm of praise but as Rolf Jacobson also can state it is a Psalm about praise. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 298) Psalm thirty with its poetic polarities looks at what a life of praise might look like and how one’s experience of God’s deliverance can lead to a life where one’s soul can praise and not be silent. The Psalm also moves beyond the individual Psalmists praise to the community’s experience of the deliverance of God and the attribution of the Psalm as a song at the dedication of the temple can let us wonder how the words originally written by one speaker now gets echoed to the faithful ones through their testimony and becomes reflective of a communal faith at the dedication of a place of worship. Praise leads the person not to remain silent, to proclaim their life before the gathered community and ultimately to dedicate a place where God’s name can be praised.

The superscription which lists the Psalm as being used in the dedication of a temple has two possibilities in ancient Israelite and Jewish writings: the dedication of the second temple in 515 BCE (as described in Ezra 6) or the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE after it had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes (which Hanukah and the books of Maccabees talk about). (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 289) In either case the community has come out of a time where the LORD appeared to hide his face and remove the protection from the people and yet ultimately the people stand in the position of being renewed and redeemed from either captivity or persecution. In using these words in the position of praising God with the dedication of a new (or renewed) temple the people take the experience of the Psalmist and the words of praise and relate them to the experience of the Jewish community as they emerge from the shadow of oppression and the threat of death.

The Psalm itself bursts with praise from the writer’s experience of redemption. From the very beginning the poet show how their LORD saved them from the point of death. The language is full of images reflecting a struggle for life against the possibility of death. Being drawn up, brought up from Sheol, having one’s life restored from among those who have gone down to the Pit: these are all ways of representing the near-death experience that the Psalmist trusts that God has redeemed them from. So, the Psalmist feels compelled not only to tell and praise but to command others to praise and give thanks as well. In sharing their experience and song they begin to teach the community how to sing praises to the LORD and to give thanks to his holy name.

In the center of the psalm is the testimony of a life that has forgotten praise and which became comfortable in its complacency. The Psalmist, like many in our own time, made security their idol and they began to trust in their own strength rather than the LORD who had provided for them. They began to believe that they would never be moved. Yet, this is where the LORD hides the protecting and benevolent face of God. To many people who believe God only brings prosperity and blessing this may indeed feel like what Martin Luther would call ‘the alien work of God’: the actions of condemnation, judgment or punishment. Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer could say in a 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge,

Thus our coming of age leads us to a truer recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as those who manage their lives without God. The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15: 34!) (DBW 8:479)

The Psalmist describes the descent into the Godforsaken place that leads them to pleading for life. The Psalms come from a time before the Jewish people would even begin thinking of a resurrection and so the ending of life is the ending of praise. Death silences the songs of the faithful but even at the edge of the abyss the faithful can cry out. They know that God’s anger will pass, that joy will come in the morning. That God can and will act to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, turn mourning into dancing and brokenness into healing.

So, the Psalmist and the community that can echo these words learn to praise and not be silent. They participate in a faith in a redeeming God who delivers the faithful ones in their time of trouble. Having participated in the renewal of life after the brush with death, persecution or destruction they learn that it is because of the LORD that they shall never be moved. As St. Paul could echo this idea in a later time, talking to the early followers of Jesus, ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our LORD.” (Romans 8.38f.) And as the faithful gather together in the places dedicated to praising and giving thanks to God forever as the old song says, “How can they keep from singing.”

 

Psalm 25: The Struggle of Faith From Aleph to Tav

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tet

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tav

Psalm 25

<Of David.>
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
 11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
 12 Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
 13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
 14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.
 15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
 17 Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
 18 Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.
 19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
 20 O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
 21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
 22 Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.

The Psalms are poetry and many types of poetry rely upon certain forms. One of the forms that Hebrew Poetry seems drawn to is the acrostic, where the poem divides by line or verse by descending letters of the alphabet. Psalms 9 and 10  together form an acrostic poem as do several other Psalms, yet it is a form that lies unseen in the English translations of this Psalm. One of the reasons for using an acrostic is to express a complete thought from A to Z (or from Aleph to Tav in Hebrew).

Many commentators remark upon the disjointed structure of the petitions in this prayer and conclude that the disjointedness comes from the form of the poem (having to start a petition with the next consonant in the alphabet) and divide the Psalm up into distinct units that share themes. Yet, spending some time with Psalm 25, I think the form, content and vocabulary of the Psalm point to a larger picture of the struggle of faith in the space of the ambiguity of life. The Psalm wrestles with the difference between the experience of the faithful one who is praying and their own experience of being put to shame, seeing others who are treacherous succeeding, and wondering about the promises of God’s steadfast love in the concrete experiences of life where that love may seem distant. It is a conversation of faith, not a cheap faith which sprouts up quickly when everything is going right, but the more complex examined faith that still continues to call out to God in the experiences of struggle, guilt and shame.

The petitions begin with the cry out to God and the perceived distance between the life the Psalmist is living and their expectation of what the covenant life would bring. It is a psalm of waiting for the LORD to act and experiencing a time where the Psalmist feels they are, at least for the time, on their own. Their place within the community is threatened by their enemies and their honor and standing is threatened by shame. They have trusted in the LORD and the treacherous ones seem to be prospering. The long struggle of how bad things can happen to good people and the wicked can prosper continues to play out in this Psalm and it is a question of fairness and justice that the scriptures never settle. Yet, the scriptures allow a place for this struggle and for the protest against reality as they are experiencing it.

The petitions in verse four begin to take a new direction within this struggle of reality. The Psalmist cries for God to show them the path they are to walk. They come from the perspective of not understanding the way the world is unfolding before them so they turn their questions back to God, “make me know your ways, teach me your paths, lead me in truth.” The petitioner now moves to being the one requesting guidance, like a student or disciple seeking their master’s wisdom. There is a more introspective tone that emerges as the sins of the past are brought to the seekers mind and they are now the sinner seeking guidance. The petitioner brings to voice their own failings and sins and once again it is to the LORD that they turn, this time for forgiveness. The Psalmist captures the paradox that encompasses life, where in Luther’s famous terms we can at the same time be the sinner and the righteous one calling out for help. So often in the Psalms the life of the poet encompasses the paradoxical reality of being a steadfast one seeking the LORD’s path, the shamed one seeking the LORD’s vindication, the forgiven one who wrestles with guilt and the one who can trust in the LORD’s covenant love even when the treacherous are prospering and causing trouble for the righteous.

In verse twelve the petitions go back to the promises: that God will teach, that God will grant not only prosperity but friendship and will deliver those in trouble from the troubles of the heart and their physical distress. It lifts up before the LORD the promises that have been made and calls upon God to act upon those promises. It presents the difference from the covenant promised and the covenant experienced and asks for God’s intervention to guard and deliver the faithful ones from their foes. The foes may be the foes of the individual petitioner or the foes of the people of God, and yet the trust is that God can and will deliver the faithful ones in their time of need, that the covenant promised will someday become the covenant experienced, and that ultimately the treacherous will not prosper forever. The life of the Psalmist is a life of prayerfully and honestly struggling with the world as they experience it, with their own shortcomings, with their confusion about what God asks of them in their life, with the promises of God and yet holds fast to the trust that God hears and acts. The Psalms allow a space to wrestle with the entire messy reality of life with all of its paradoxes from A to Z (or Aleph to Tav).

Debtor

For years I’ve struggled and fought tooth and nail
Sacrificing the possible pleasures of the day to pay
Every time I think that I have almost overcome
The mountain I have been tunneling through
Another landslide places several feet more of iron
Between myself and the light at the end of the tunnel
Sometimes I feel trapped within the mine
A slave continuing to excavate gold and jewels
Indentured into servitude by the cost of living
Perhaps if I had some expensive habit to give up
If I had gambled or drank away my salary
Or enjoyed some grand series of trips or experiences
I might take some solitude from the memory of those times
Or find strength in the turning away from the bad habits
Yet, it is merely the cost of responsibility that hangs over my head
The cost of being a father, of bearing the burdens that life has given
So I know nothing more to do than to grasp the pick again
To apply my strength and sweat to the bedrock that lies in my path
Determined not to be overwhelmed by the mountain above
To continue to clear the tunnel for that elusive other side

Psalm 18 Royal Thanks at the End of the Journey

Matteo Rosseli, Triunfo de David (1620)

Matteo Rosseli, Triunfo de David (1620)

Psalm 18

<To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:>
1 I love you, O LORD, my strength.
2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice.
14 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the LORD was my support.
19 He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
20 The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.
24 Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
25 With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
26 with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
27 For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
28 It is you who light my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.
29 By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
30 This God– his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?–
32 the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe.
33 He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights.
34 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great.
36 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back until they were consumed.
38 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.
39 For you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them.
42 I beat them fine, like dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
43 You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.
44 As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me.
45 Foreigners lost heart, and came trembling out of their strongholds.
46 The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation,
47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me;
48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.
49 For this I will extol you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.
50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.

Psalm 18 is nearly identical to 2 Samuel 22 and both probably share a common source. The narrative superscription of Psalm 18 also makes sense when linked to the ending of the story of David (1 Samuel 22 is directly before the last words of David in the books of Samuel). It is a Psalm that looks backwards at the ways in which the LORD has been present in the midst of a life of faith and now at the end of the journey the Psalmist is thankful. Even though the great commandment of Deuteronomy states that a person is to love the LORD their God with all their heart, soul and strength it is unusual for the Psalms to speak of a person loving God and Psalm 18 unique to use loving the LORD as an opening for the words of praise. Most often, throughout the Psalms it is the LORD’s love that is lifted up but now in response to all of the actions reflected upon throughout the Psalm, the singer gushes about the way that the LORD, having protected and cared for them, having rescued them from death and hearing their distress, is now the object of the Psalmist’s love. Like St. Augustine could state in Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee.” If David is the author of this Psalm then perhaps this is an illustration of what it means to consider David ‘a man after God’s own heart.’

In several of the preceding Psalms the petitioner has asked God to see and to hear, and now looking backwards they reflect upon the ways that God saw, heard and acted. In that time of crisis, the place where it seems like God may not be listening, it is often hard to perceive the ways in which God may already be at work. Yet, in hindsight the poet can see the movements of God as earth shatteringly powerful. The poet takes up the colorful language of mountains trembling and pulling the rescued one from the cords of Sheol (not hell but the place of the dead-concepts of heaven and hell as dwelling places for the dead are not a part of the early Hebrew expectations).  God is the rock, deliverer, fortress, shield, horn of salvation, the warrior who comes with smoking nostrils and devouring fire, who bends the heavens and brings darkness to the earth, and who can ride upon the cherubs (not the chubby little baby angels we imagine, but creatures that are both terrifying and whose few mentions in the scriptures seem to defy easy definition but they are definitely not human and are used for example to guard the tree of life in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3).

I have written about the image of God as the Divine Warrior in other places (here, here, and here). And while this is an image which can be abused and twisted to any number of negative expressions of religion (especially when that religion is linked to the power of the state and the state becomes enforcer of Orthodoxy) it can also become a potent image for liberation. If we were to look at the story of David, the period where his life is threatened by King Saul or the numerous points in his reign where he was under threat from external or internal forces, the belief that God sustained and watched over him and was able to act in ways against his enemies was a powerful one. This imagery has often been used in positive ways by the righteous in times of persecution. In a world where many people assume God is benign or unconcerned (the opposite view of the Psalmist) the belief that God sees, hears and can act powerfully is a beacon of hope for the faithful.

Much of the language of the Psalms is hyperbolic (exaggerated language which is common in poetry- the mountains, for example, didn’t literally have to shake) and that language can also extend to the Psalmists own righteousness. If we take the story of David, even though he did seek after the LORD, he was far from perfect and his reign was far from always righteous. Yet, the language does echo the desire for what a king should be in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20. The Psalms will wrestle with the language of righteousness and unrighteousness and here the Psalmist feels they are in a state of peace with God. God has watched over their estate and prospered them. Perhaps it is an idealization of the difficult past but the trust is that God has viewed the writer as one who is worth saving and worth lifting up.

With the Psalms harkening back to David we need to remember that the poet is not a person who is distanced from the conflicts that were a part of the life of ancient Israel, but rather David and the other Psalmists were likely warrior poets. David was a warrior king, from early in his life he was not only the boy who slew Goliath of Gath but quickly became the leader of King Saul’s army and his exploits earned him both praise and the envy of his king at that point. In 1 Samuel 18: 7 the women can sing as they meet King Saul:
Saul has killed his thousands; and David his ten thousands.
Or as Deuteronomy 20 can discuss the expectation is that the people will be going forth to war and that God will act on their behalf. Psalms like Psalm 144 and Psalm 149 exult in the language of the warrior whose military prowess has been enhance by God. The triumphal language may make us uncomfortable in a context where we thankfully have known peace at home for several generations but this was not the ancient world.

The Psalmist’s faith is a faith that has endured in the midst of trial, conflict and hardship. In the midst of all of the challenges that their life has faced their belief and trust is that God has watched over and preserved them in the midst of all their challenges. Sometimes God has provided them the strength to conquer their enemies and enact vengeance (again even the vengeance is proclaimed in hyperbolic language- beating them fine as dust for example). Sometimes God rescues them in a condition of mortal peril. In all these things their experience is that the LORD is faithful. As St. Paul could say a millennium later:

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 31-39

 

 

Quiet Courage

candle
We see it everyday and seldom give it a second thought
For the courage we are trained to see rests in the extraordinary
Acts of heroism that loudly demand us to stand up and take notice
But far more common and often more daring is the quiet courage
The daily decision to enter into the little battles to make it past our fears
A refusal to let the past failures place a limit on the futures potential
The silent struggles against illness, weakness, depression and fatigue
Courageously embracing the pain we carry with us without losing hope
Hope that someday the unseen struggle will light a better way
For us or for those who will follow in the footsteps and pathways
We leave behind us in the sedimentary soil of others’ pasts
And perhaps the sun that will light the skies of tomorrow
Will not be the short burning explosion of one time heroics
But the billions of small flames of quiet courage that are lit that day
 
Neil White, 2014