Look at the gorgeous poetry of Psalm 144!
The LORD is my Rock, my Fortress, my Stronghold, my Deliverer, my Shield….
But humans are like a breath or a passing shadow…
These words echo words and sentiments from other psalms, especially Psalm 18 and Psalm 8. It’s as if our psalmist has been reading the earlier songs in Book I and is now re-reading, re-interpreting and re-newing these long ago praises for his own time.
Even after returning home from exile in Babylon, Israel is surrounded by adversaries and feels as if they are drowning in a sea of infidelity by those whose “right hand are false.” This psalmist of Israel struggles against uncertainty and against the unreliability of their betrayers.
No wonder this vision of the Savior is strong and solid and substantial.
No wonder the poet imagines this Redeemer…
…bowing your heavens to come down
…touching the mountains so they smoke
…making the lightning flash and sending out arrows
…stretching out your hand to rescue me from the mighty waters.
Psalm 144 alludes to the miracles of judgment against the oppressors of Egypt and the ancient and reassuring story of rescue through the waters of the Red Sea. Ancient history for this people is not the boring stuff of textbooks; rather history is story, OUR story. This is us.
The New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version of Psalm 114 demonstrate some interesting philosophical differences within their respective interpretations. The first is seen in verse 2 where the familiar Hebrew word repeats the theme of God’s “steadfast love.”
Thus NIV translates verse 2: “He is my loving God and my fortress…” While the NRSV renders verse 2 as: “My rock and my fortress” with a footnote that mentions “my steadfast love.”
Later, in verse 12, the NIV takes the hope of deliverance as a segue to the promises of safety and security:
THEN our sons will be like well-nurtured plants…
NRSV sees it differently, separating the cry of deliverance from his hope for posterity: MAY these blessings come to pass.
Remember: Every translation is an interpretation.
There is no such thing as an inerrant biblical text.
It’s interesting to see what an internet search of Psalm 144 turns up. Gun lovers and supporters of the military often use this psalm to justify their positions. Do you remember the sniper character in the movie Saving Private Ryan? Every time he took aim, Private Jackson whispered this psalm to himself in order to steady his hand: “Blessed be the Lord who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”
The earliest Christians were passivist, rejecting all violence, choosing instead to “turn the other cheek.” Conscientious Objectors even today choose to take literally the teachings of Christ and letting Jesus’ example of peace override the ancient example of war.
Here is another reminder that appropriate interpretation of biblical texts across the centuries must be done carefully and prayerfully.
The beautiful poetry of Psalm 144 continues.
Ours psalmist yearns for the assurance of a solid legacy, a future populated with descendants who will carry his existence forward so that he is not forgotten. He yearns for the surety of abundance and for the safety of his people.
May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown;
our daughters like corner pillars cut for the building of a palace.
May our barns be filled and may our cattle be heavy with young.
May there be no breach in the walls, no exile,
and no cry of distress in our streets.
“Psalm 144 is an invitation to treat the Psalms not as historical artifacts but as living words which can continue both to address us with God’s claim upon our lives and our world and to express our hopes and fears, our praises and prayer,” explains theologian and pastor, Clinton McCann.
Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall;
Happy/Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.
Again internet searches demonstrate how some American Christians interpret this message because Google will produce multiple images of this blessing attached to pictures of the American flag. This way of thinking about America can be good as long as we take it not as a pronouncement of privilege but rather as a call to faithful living.
Here again is a challenge for us modern readers: to hear the blessing – “Happy are the people whose God is the LORD” and then to go about our living in such a way that the blessings of God may actually take root and bear fruit.
Like our psalmist here, we too must re-read, re-interpret and re-new these ancient prayers and praises in appropriate ways for our own days.
The Book of Psalms, The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.