Reflections on the Psalms

The Lord sits enthroned upon the praises of his people.

Isn’t that a lovely thought ?!

It comes from Psalm 22.

But interestingly, Psalm 22 is actually a powerful lament … one we associate with Jesus’ passion.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me….?

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

So this raises an important question:

How can we praise when we are in the midst of pain and trouble?

The Psalms teach us how.

In the Psalms, we can learn how to pray, how to express our thanksgiving and how to ask for what we need. Here we also learn how to name our doubts and anger; to give language to our disappointment and grief.

And here – in the Psalms – we grow to understand how praise is absolutely crucial to the life of faith.

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Psalm 110 (another look)

Psalm 110 sings confidence: Israel’s God upholds Israel’s king.

This royal psalm celebrates the king as the one anointed to rule and empowered to vanquish all of Israel’s enemies.

This famous psalm also seeds the tradition that understands God’s anointed one to be “prophet, priest and king.”

Living in The Story takes a second look at this important psalm and how it nurtures Christianity’s prophetic imagination.

King

The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Much of our Bible assumes a violent culture in the ancient world of its origins. Armies and battles, victories and defeats, walled cities and calls to arms defined daily life for many of these nations and their inhabitants.

For Israel, Yahweh God became the quintessential warrior god.

From the Lord’s overwhelming defeat of the army of Egypt to the conquering of the Promised Land to the the establishing of David’s monarchy, God was seen as One who went before them in battle to save and secure Israel.

The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter: Rule in the midst of your foes…

From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you.

In the imagination of Israel, Zion was God the King’s ultimate dwelling place: the holy throne situated in the highest heavenlies.

Thus everything built in the Temple signified and symbolized these invisible heavenly realities.

Even though Israel often used the words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” interchangeably, the city and the Temple were always and only physical metaphors that pointed to the spiritual unseen-ness of God’s presence in Zion.

Psalm 110 sees Yahweh the King as the Source of an eternal divine authority that establishes Israel’s kings with a consequent divine authority.

(Jump to the New Testament and recall that Luke also used Psalm 110 as a basis for his Christology of kingship. In Acts 2, Peter’s Pentecost sermon sees the Risen Christ as heir to David’s throne: The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right handuntil I make your enemies your footstool.”)

Priest

But here is a twist: along with kingship, the psalmist of 110 claims Israel’s kingly leader also is a priest.

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The Prophetic Imagination

This phrase “prophetic imagination” is from Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars.

Brueggemann’s academic writings come across as poetic and passionate. His deep insights of ancient texts inform current understandings of our own world, and thus Brueggmann has become one of our modern day prophets.

Unpacking the prophetic imagination is especially helpful as our Living in The Story readings lead us through the works of the Hebrew prophets as well as the bold, prophetic vision of The Revelation of John in our New Testament.

Prophets counter conventional wisdom and status quo.

Sometimes even within ancient Israel, the sacred traditions of Torah became dry bones, needing fresh breath and new life.

Torah needs the Prophets.

Prophets see from a heavenly perspective; they name both the human brokenness and the divine remedies. “Speaking truth to power” is the vocation of the prophet.

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Psalm 73

Psalm 73 reads like a commentary on today’s world.

In the United States, we are seeing the demise of the middle class and a significant rise in poverty. We are watching the rich get immensely richer while the poor get significantly poorer.

Across the globe, across the ages this has been a terrible truth for most of the people on the planet.

The problem is not simply that some people are rich and others are poor.

The problem is the arrogance, self-righteousness and indifference prosperity often creates within the wealthy. The problem is the deep inequities that diminish and devalue the poor, people who are made in God’s own image and likeness.

Our psalmist saw this first hand.

I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.

The oppression of the rich over the poor is as old as humankind itself.
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As You Read The Revelation of John

“Bizarre” is a pretty good word to describe the book of Revelation.

In this vision, we see images of four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven bowls of wrath, tormented sinners crying out from the lake of fire, the satan bound for a thousand years and then the final battle of Armageddon.

“Bizarre” is also a good word to describe many of the interpretations of the book of Revelation that have been offered over the years. There is some deeply flawed theology out there – I’m sure you’ve noticed.

For one entire semester in seminary, I dug into the Revelation with my favorite professor, Dr. Gene Boring. His commentary is one of the gems of recent scholarship and he is well known for his wise, thoughtful approach to this odd but important last book of the Bible.

Ask good questions

Always, whenever we study the Bible, we must be asking two fundamental questions: “What DID it mean?” and “What DOES it mean?”

What did this pastoral letter mean to the seven churches of Asia who first received it at the end of the first century? And what can it mean for us now in the twenty-first century? Finding that bridge of appropriate interpretation across time and culture is no simple task.

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Living in Apocalypse

The Story of the human race has cycled through numerous apocalyptic ages throughout our history.

And when we are there, it feels like the end of the world.

Our current Living in The Story leads us readers into Exile with Israel. Their world has ended in many ways and things will never be the same.

At the same time, as Living in The Story readers, we encounter the experience of the first century Christians. With the destruction of the Second Temple during the Great Jewish Revolt and the great defeat of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., their world also had come to an end.

During both these epochal ages, Judaism and Christianity evolved into something completely different. Something old died and something brand new emerged.

A new creation was birthed into the world.

This image of birthing is helpful as we consider how to respond to these apocalyptic times. When everything we know, everything we are is in transition, it can feel as if the the whole earth is in labor.

As I write this in the fall of 2019, our world is in tumult.

  • Climate crises.
  • Constant war.
  • Rising violence.
  • Ethnic conflicts.
  • Class divides.
  • Waves of authoritarianism in the U.S. and around the world.

I keep reminding myself this is not the worst things have ever been. But things are pretty bad.

Are we also in labor?

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Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137 breaks our hearts. It also is one of the only laments that breaks the pattern: the pain is so deep that it never finds its way back to praise.

In Psalm 137, there is no “nevertheless.”
On the willows we hung our harps …

… for our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Jerusalem’s destruction is complete. The walls are toppled, the Temple is razed, the last of David’s kingly descendants are executed and God’s people are marched across the Fertile Crescent to Exile in Babylon.

All they have now are their memories.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Some of the memories picture the shining Temple on the hill of Zion, sparkling in the light of the morning sun.

More recent memories see blood running in the streets.

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As You Read Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah is a tremendous work. It is long and meaty, full of fascinating prose and brilliant poetry.

Isaiah icon by Lynne Beard

Isaiah shaped the entire theology of Israel during a critical turning point of their history. As they looked back at their experience of Exile, Jewish theologians sought to understand what had gone wrong within their covenant relationship with Israel’s God; they sought to learn from their mistakes and forge a new future with hope and faithfulness.

Isaiah also is quoted or referenced over and over again throughout the New Testament. Within the pages of Isaiah, New Testament theologians discovered profound insights helping them make sense and understand this one, Jesus, whom they proclaimed to be Christ, God’s Messiah.

1st, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah

Scholars note three major and distinctive writings within the one book that carries the name Isaiah.

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Psalm 77

I cry aloud that God may hear me.

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying.

My soul refuses to be comforted.

Psalm 77 reads like the diary of anyone who has ever suffered unspeakable pain.

I think of God, and I moan.

I meditate, and my spirit faints.

I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

This dark night of the soul is speechless. There are no words that can communicate the trauma and grief. Like Job, sitting in silence in the ashes for seven days, sometimes there is nothing to say.

And then, after the silence (as is true of all the laments of the psalms), comes the challenge.

For Israel, God is the Covenant God, the One who has promised to keep promises. So – where is God now? – the poet cries.

Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever? Are God’s promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious and in anger shut up his compassion?”

But then – after the silence, and after the challenge – this psalmist finally turns to memory.

Even in the midst of the current despair, his spirit searchings produce memories of another time when God’s faithfulness was actual and visible.

Remembering is a strategy.
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Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorites.

I have a strong memory of a time when I was overwhelmed with self doubt and a negative self-image. When I got to verse 14 and read these beautiful words, I cried: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know that very well.”

During those dark days, I certainly did not think of myself as a “wonderful work,” but the psalmist helped turn my insecurity into humble confidence.

With all my flaws and failures, I know I am a wonderful work of the Creator. 

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea – even there your hand shall lead me; your right hand shall hold me fast.

There is no place where God is not.
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