Psalm 41

How blessed is he who considers the helpless;
The Lord will deliver him in a day of trouble.
The Lord will protect him and keep him alive,
And he shall be called blessed upon the earth.

Psalm 41 completes Book I of the Psalms. It begins much as Psalm 1 begins: with a beatitude.

Blessed is the one who takes consideration for the helpless, the weak, the poor. It is these considerate ones who are blessed upon the earth. The psalmist affirms once again a crucial theme of the First Book of the Psalms: God is gracious and particularly committed to those who are weak, poor, needy, afflicted, humble, meek and oppressed.

Today’s Liberation Theologies are drawn from this understanding that God holds a “preferential option for the poor.”

Consequently those of us humans who also commit ourselves to these helpless ones are behaving the way God behaves; WE are blessed as we emulate Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

Our poet then makes clear that he sees himself as one of the “helpless ones.” He details some of the treacherous acts of his enemies and pleads for God’s intervention and salvation.

Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
Who ate my bread,
Has lifted up his heel against me.

The treachery of a close friend, a person with whom one has made peace, a person who has shared bread together – this kind of enemy brings especial grief and sorrow. The psalmist has experienced such a traitor and cries out for vindication, for confirmation of his integrity in the face of accusations.

O Lord, be gracious to me and raise me up…
By this I know that You are pleased with me…

Usually we see the psalmists ask God to pay back the evil that is named, however our psalmist in 41 seems to want that job himself: “raise me up that I may repay them…” This request may be an expression of revenge but more likely, the one who began this psalm with a beatitude is seeking justice, not revenge.

“Liberation for the oppressed means judgment upon oppressors,” Clinton McCann observes. Again and again, our poets cry out for justice not only for their personal vindication but also as a way to vindicate God’s holy name.

As the Gospel of John tells the story in chapter 13, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is interpreted as a fulfillment of Psalm 41. As Jesus shares the final Passover meal with his disciples, he says one of them would betray him. And then Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and kneels to wash their feet, even – and significantly – the feet of his betrayer.

I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats My bread has lifted up his heel against Me.’ From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.

So for this New Testament theologian, Jesus’ act of humility and death actually demonstrated God’s holiness. God did not take revenge upon the “enemies” of Jesus. Rather God vindicated the Holy Name by defeating treachery and death with resurrection and life.

According to this christology drawn from Psalm 41, God vindicated the suffering Jesus just as the psalmist had requested:

O Lord, be gracious to me and raise me up.
By this I know that You are pleased with me.

Each of the five books of the Psalms completes its message with doxology. And so as the conclusion to Book I, Psalm 41 ends with praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

Amen indeed.

 

J. Clinton McCann Jr. wrote the “Psalms” commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.

Psalm 30

Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30 sings some of our favorite phrases of hope and redemption.

You have turned my mourning into dancing.

In our Living in The Story readings, this psalm is coupled with the story of Job and seems to echo his experience. Job’s prosperity was plunged into a lengthy devastation before he was restored to well being.

Job and Psalm 30 demonstrate the paradigm Walter Brueggemann articulates when he describes states of Orientation, Disorientation and New Orientation. This is our human experience, Brueggemann believes, and The Psalms (and the characters in Job) speak to those back and forth, up and down cycles of confidence and confusion.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
    “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
    you had established me as a strong mountain.

You hid your face;
    I was dismayed.

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Here is the cosmic story of resurrection:

Life. Death. New Life.

But note how this psalmist confesses a common human hubris: “I said in my prosperity, I shall never be moved.” Isn’t that a typical mistake all of us are tempted to? When things are going well, we take the goodness for granted. We forget to live in gratitude. We forget that every day, every breath is a grace.

I have a counselor friend who taught me: Everyone is somewhere on this line —– Either in the midst of a crisis. Or just getting over a crisis. Or unaware that a crisis is just around the corner.

This is life. This is our normal cycle. Life has always included death, tragedy and trauma.

Many people will experience a natural movement through these cycles into and out of crisis and confusion. But people of faith hold a bigger picture, a paradigm of meaning that allows us to stand with both confidence and humility.

People of faith give credit to God: thanks when things are going well, hope when things are not going well, and praise when things open up into new possibilities.

This doesn’t have to mean we understand God moves us around like chess pieces, but rather that – in some cosmic mystery – the Creator holds everything together and is always working for goodness and wholeness.

You have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

 

Read more about Walter Brueggemann’s paradigm of Orientation/DisorientationNew Orientation in Charlotte’s blog on Psalm 22.

Charlotte’s blog for Week 24:  Job A Faithful Gentile

Psalm 6

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
                             —how long?!?!

More questions.

The Psalms overflow with the mystery of living. Psalm 6 struggles with what may be some physical illness. This psalm certainly speaks to those of us who have languished in the pain or fear or misery of our body’s un-health and dis-ease.

Ever since our earliest history, we humans have wondered if our physical circumstances could be the result of some sin of ours; some failure to please the gods.

Does the drought or the flood come because of sin?

Did the cancer or heart failure happen because of a life style or the thoughts of our most secret heart?

Are we being punished? Or disciplined? The psalmist seems to think so.

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
    or discipline me in your wrath.

Probably a faithful response to this dilemma may be “maybe.”

Or “Yes” AND “No.”

Or “Both/And.”

We moderns have learned the power of the psyche and its influence over the physical. “Psycho-somatic” is not a put-down; thoughts, feelings, emotions really can create physical realities.

We moderns have seen how our own patterns of exercise, our eating and drinking habits can contribute to preventable but deadly conditions.

We moderns have understood the consequences of our actions within our environment. Polluted water, soil and air really can create cancers and way too many other diseases.

So “no” – I don’t think God reaches out from heaven and zaps us with depression,  diabetes or asbestos poisoning as punishment for our wrongs.

But “yes,” our actions have consequences. And yes, we may have opportunity to learn some important lessons from the “discipline” of life’s challenges so that we may change our ways for the future.

That said, no matter what caused the sickness, dis-ease or un-health, the psalmist stands firm in the promises of God’s covenant. No matter what foolishness I have engaged in; no matter what recklessness someone else may have inflicted upon me – even so – nevertheless – we count on God for faithfulness, salvation and healing. Not because we deserve it, not because we are faithful enough but rather because God is always faithful enough. “For the sake of God‘s steadfast love.”

For the sake of the cosmic witness and testimony to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?

“Turn, O Lord.” In other words, “repent.”

Does this idea bother you? That Scripture sometimes describes God as “repenting” ? If so, it’s probably because we badly understand the concept of “repentance.”  In biblical language, repenting doesn’t mean feeling badly, feeling sorry, feeling ashamed of what we have done. Repentance doesn’t have much of anything to do with feelings.

Rather, repentance is action. A reversal, a turning. Stopping one way of acting and beginning another very different action.

The psalmist entreats God to turn, to cease the inactive waiting and start to do something. Begin the healing, redeeming, saving that is God’s nature and work.

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears…

Who else has been here – flooding your bed with tears and staring into space with a paralyzing self-pity? Once again, the psalmists articulate the human condition and remind us that we are not alone in our suffering. There is nothing sinful about feeling sad, angry, hopeless and helpless. This is the condition of finite mortals in a universe that does not bend to our control.

When I used to care for church folks, I always tried to affirm their emotions as completely normal; a logical response to an unfair, unsettling or uncomfortable circumstance. Sometimes when I would pray with them, I would pray these psalms and name the cancer or the other dis-eases as “the enemy.” Not that I thought of them as an evil power in themselves; demons able to inflict tragedy upon innocents. I do, however, think of these conditions as part of the “evil” and brokenness of our fallen world. Something that exists that God did not, does not intend for us.

This is not the understanding of some people. There are some very pious believers who are so committed to assign all power to God and to submit to God’s sovereignty that they figure everything that comes in life must come directly from the hand of God. If God is all-powerful, then everything must happen by the will of God. For them, it’s all about God.

In some other versions of Christian thinking, there is a heresy that claims sickness can be prayed away if a person has enough faith. It claims that illness or poverty or tragedy is proof that someone lacks faith. It claims faith as a magic talisman against evil; that “enough faith” (and maybe “enough” financial donations!) will protect us from any negative experience. For them, it’s all about us.

Surely our psalmist is thoroughly theo-centric.  For him, life IS all about God but, what that means for the psalmist, is that God is IN everything that happens. But also, life IS about us; no matter our emotions or feelings, we can still choose to trust God IN everything that happens.

Even as his faith assures him that the Lord has heard his weeping, acknowledged his supplication, accepted his prayer, the psalmist recognizes that his circumstances may not magically change. And so in the midst of the weeping, we too can trust and rest and wait.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
    for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord
who made heaven and earth.

The beautiful and beloved Psalm 121 offers deep comfort and assurance. It is part of the collection of Song of Ascents, hymns sung as travelers made their way on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Remembering the Lord who travels with them on the way to Temple continues as a powerful metaphor for the God who travels with us every step of the way in all of life’s journey.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
The One who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

When I was a girl, sometimes our church would sing a old favorite of the old timers: “There’s an eye watching you; there’s an all seeing eye watching you…” It gave me the willies. I imagined a judgmental eye watching my every move, just waiting for me to make a mistake.

Of course, that was not the intent of the hymn and the old timers got that. They took comfort in the image of God’s wakefulness and constant presence much as Israel must have taken comfort in Psalm 121.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.

The poetry of this psalm is gorgeous. Psalm 121, as short and powerful as it is, might be right up there with Psalm 23 as one incorporated into the memories of people of faith for all these centuries. It is easily memorized and invites recitation as one is settling into sleep or trying to find one’s footing in a difficult situation.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

Clinton McCann, in his commentary on The Psalms, reflected on Jesus’ life, a journey with God that eventually led him to a cross. “The good news,” McCann reminds us, “is that God was there too, keeping his life. As we follow Jesus on that way, God is our keeper as well.”

 

J. Clinton McCann Jr. “The Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingon Press, 1996) page 1182.

Psalm 7

O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me …

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me …

Our psalmist in Psalm 7 stands boldly before the LORD his God and proclaims his righteousness in this situation. He prays for vindication, for God to keep the promise of protection and rescue in the face of unjust persecution.

 Awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment …

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God.

Many of the psalms confess sin and acknowledge God’s right to judge and punish. But many others poems call out injustice and petition God to keep faithfulness to covenant by protecting the righteous and hindering those who practice unrighteousness.

There is a sense in which the psalmist seeks protection and celebrates that “God is my refuge, my shield.” But in another sense, the yearning of the poet is that God’s own righteousness will be vindicated in the earth. That “the wicked” will come to know beyond any doubt that God’s righteousness and integrity will triumph and reign throughout the world.

See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief,
and bring forth lies.
They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.

Look here at the images of conception, pregnancy and delivery. The poet’s brilliance allows us to see clearly how wickedness develops from thought to action.

Also see the karmic wisdom of the psalmist: “they fall into the hole they have made…” Yes, he calls for God to judge but he also considers that judgment upon wickedness may happen within the normal workings of the cosmos.

Barbara Taylor says it this way:

God’s judgment is not so much some kind of extra punishment God dumps on [us] as it is God’s announcement that we have abandoned the way of life. Like some divine jiu-jitsu master, God simply spins the rejection of life around so that we can feel the full force of it for ourselves.

Many of the psalms are eschatological: that is they trust in an ultimate judgment and vindication and they articulate a hope that is much larger than the reality of their current circumstances.

Awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment …

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end…

Whatever that may actually, ultimately look like, here is the constant hope of all people of faith.

 

See Charlotte’s Living in The Story blog on Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation.

 

Psalm 103

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and do not forget all his benefits—

And then Psalm 103 proceeds to list some of those benefits.

Forgiveness

Healing

Redemption

Steadfast love

Mercy/Compassion

Goodness

Vindication

Justice ….

Any who claim the Old Testament God is a god who only judges and condemns need to read again the grace and mercy of this psalm. Our psalmist – writing to and for his people in exile – makes the point that the God who liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt is the very same God who will be faithful to Israel in Babylon.

As this broken, exiled people face the future without their land, their Temple, their kings, the poet reminds them of a time long before they came into the land, built their Temple or established their monarchy; the time of Moses when God alone was Home and Temple and King.

God made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…

This beautiful formulaic description of the character and nature of YHWH also hearkens back to the stories from the Exodus. God’s self-revelation to Moses communicated this understanding of God’s essence: mercy/compassion, grace, patience and steadfast/eternal love.

God does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.

“Justice” might suggest a tit for tat repayment for wrongs. “An eye for an eye…” was a kind of justice incorporated into ancient Hebrew law. But Psalm 103 proclaims the Creator is entitled to practice mercy and offer compassion instead of always meting out consequences.

As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For Creator knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust … our days are like grass.

Mortals are dust. Mortals are grass. Mortals are time bound and their lives are fleeting.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
    and his righteousness to our children’s children…

God’s eternal and steadfast love transcends a mortal life span and stretches on endlessly throughout the generations and beyond.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.

Our psalmist praises both the intimacy of compassion and love – the immanence of the Lord – and also and the timeless transcendence of the Eternal One. God is Both/And: near and lifted up, close by and seated in the heavens.

Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding,
    obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Psalm 144

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:

Deliver me…

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.

Psalm 146

Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Psalm 146 sings of the rightness of creation with God reigning as Lord and Sovereign.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

The Davidic monarchy is no more. The experience of Israel in Exile in Babylon reminds them that blindly trusting in any human is bound to bring disappointment and even despair. There is only One who is truly faithful within all creation: the Creator.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them …

For Israel, the Creator-of-All is also the specific God of Jacob. Israel’s God. The One who called and chose them to be God’s own people. For Israel in exile, struggling to hold on to hope and faith, it is God alone who is faithful forever.

The LORD who keeps faith forever!

So what does “keeping faith” look like? The psalmist is specific:

executes justice for the oppressed
gives food to the hungry

sets the prisoners free
opens the eyes of the blind
lifts up those who are bowed down
loves the righteous
watches over the strangers
upholds the orphan and the widow

This is what the psalmist means by “keeping faith.” A proactive divine initiative on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the righteous brings hope. Hope that – no matter the machinations of empires – the Lord of all empires is ever at work lifting up the lowly.

Here is the core tenet of Liberation Theology. If the Lord-of-All holds a “preferential option for the poor,” then this is the consequent work of the Lord’s people as well. We also are called to work on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind and the bowed down. We too should be all about watching over the strangers and immigrants, the orphans and the widows.

How has the church missed this core calling?

Liberation Theology and its prime proponent, Gustavo Gutierrez, have influenced me and so many other students of theology over the years.

“Clearly the gratuitousness of God’s love challenges the patterns we have become used to,” Gutierrez writes. “The Bartimaeuses of this world have stopped being at the side of the road. They have jumped up and come to the Lord, their lifelong friend. Their presence may upset the old followers of Jesus, who spontaneously, and with the best reasons in the world, begin to defend their privileges.”

Those of us who are privileged First World North Americans may bristle at this theology that asks them to let go of their privileges, make that option for the poor and seek Christ in their struggle for justice. But Gutierrez assures us that this movement of the Spirit among us not only hastens God’s reign of justice and peace, beginning with those in extreme poverty, it leads to new blessings. This is good news. We, too, are being liberated!

The Lord’s “keeping faith” employs another dimension according to the psalmist. Not only is God actively for the poor, the psalmist declares God is actively against the “wicked.”

 but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

But note, it is “the way of the wicked” that this Perfect Judge judges because this “way” is the antithesis to God’s own way. This way of the wicked is opposite and opposed to The Way that is The Way of the right working design of the cosmos and all creation.

The “right way,” the way of the Lord, assumes and expects people to care for one another as the Creator cares for creation: working on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind and the bowed down.

The Lord will reign forever…
for all generations.
Hallelu-Jah! Praise the LORD!

As the Sovereign of the Cosmos continues to reign and bring all creation into perfect harmony and unity, there will be peace and perfect balance. It is our call as God’s people to work in alignment with God’s own working for justice and compassion within and among all people. To work while we wait for God to finally bring all creation into perfect shalom.

 

Please read this excellent summary of Gutierrez and his work.

National Catholic Reporter offers Gustavo Gutierrez and the preferential option for the poor by John Dear, 2011.

 

 

Also read more about James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology. Dr. Cone died in the Spring of 2018.

Psalm 49

Hear this, all you peoples;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high, rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb…

Psalm 49 sings like the couplets of the Proverbs. Here is a wisdom psalm, reassuring the faithful that God’s way is the way of true wisdom. Human wealth and success may look like the wisest course, but the psalmist has no doubt that – finally, ultimately, eschatalogically – God’s way is the way that will endure.

The Wisdom Tradition of Israel offers an intriguing mix of literature. The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job – each gives insight into various approaches for making sense of the world. The Proverbs are generally hopeful as opposed to the cynicism of Ecclesiastes. We continue to see the variety of the Psalms: joy and lament, thanksgiving and warnings.

Psalm 49 urges a persevering faith among believers.

Why should I fear in times of trouble?

When we look at the wise, they die;
    fool and dolt perish together
    and leave their wealth to others...

Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
    the end of those who are pleased with their lot...

Do not be afraid when some become rich…

This psalmist speaks of Sheol, the shadowy place of the dead. The rich, he insists, take nothing with them to the grave and will make their home in Sheol while the psalmist and the faithful ones will be “ransomed” from Sheol and will be with God. The wealthy may be happy in this life, but rest assured, they will be stripped bare in the next life.

Of course to us Christians this hints of resurrection but we don’t really know what this poet believed about life after death. In the New Testament, the Pharisees may have come to believe there was some sort of life beyond death but the Sadducees scoffed at that notion. Belief in an afterlife was not an settled issue.

Through some of the Wisdom Literature, however, these hints stand out and keep us guessing. Job‘s famous bel canto sings like Handel or Mozart:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
after my skin has been destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

This psalm also brings to mind the wisdom sayings of Jesus. Probably the most well known version of the beatitudes is from Matthew 5, but Luke’s version in chapter 6 contrasts the blessings with the woes:

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

These words are good reminders for believers in our own day when the rich and the powerful seem to rule the world, careless and thoughtless of anyone but themselves. In today’s America, the wealth gap is growing into a chasm. I find myself asking: How long, O Lord?!?!

Wisdom teaches that the world is not as it seems. No matter how things look in this life, finally, ultimately, eschatalogically God’s way is the way that will endure. Psalm 49 calls for a persevering faith among believers.

 

Rich Photograph – Woe Unto The Rich by Carl Purcell

Psalm 99

The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
The LORD sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

Psalm 99 makes peace with the loss of the Davidic monarchy that occurred during the Exile. No more will Israel look to a human king for leadership; rather it is Yahweh God, the LORD God who alone is king of all the earth. Israel will forever more acknowledge only THIS Sovereign who sits enthroned above the cherubim.

The cherubim, in this reference, are the angels, the heavenly beings who sit above the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. But of course, with the destruction of the Temple, the Ark was lost. The Ark, the Temple, the monarchy, the city Jerusalem and the promised land were no more and Israel would never fully recover from their Babylonian captivity.

But this people did return to their homeland and when they came back to the land, they came as a thoroughly monotheistic people. Even if the Ark of the Covenant was destroyed, the King of all the earth still sits enthroned above the cherubim. From the time of Abraham who glimpsed a new vision of One God, through the time of Moses and then the judges and then the kings, Israel carried the vision of Yahweh as the One True God.

There was an ancient prayer of Israel that proclaimed this code of belief. The Shema is recorded for us first in the book of Deuteronomy.

Hear O Israel: the Lord is One, the Lord our God.

But for too many of God’s people, for too many centuries, the God of Israel may have been the highest God but not necessarily the only God.

It was finally during the Exile that this people became thoroughly, radically and stubbornly monotheistic. Ever since, the Shema proclaims a true faith in the One and Only God, still encapsulating this monotheistic commitment in our own day.

Mighty King, lover of justice,
    you have established equity;
you have executed justice
    and righteousness…

Extol the LORD our God;
    worship at his footstool.
    Holy is he!

The biblical concept of holiness recognizes an otherness, a separateness that marks a clear and deep difference between God and humans. This is not a “holier than thou” arrogance; rather holiness is core to the nature of the Divine One.

The old stories of the God in fire and cloud causing the holy mountain at Sinai to tremble speak of this otherness. God is not like us. God is God and we are not. The God who is holy and binds all creation together is transcendent.

And yet, at the same time, the psalmist sings, this God is near, attentive, immanent. Because Yahweh King loves justice for God’s people. Because the King of the earth is always at work establishing justice and executing equity. The Lord is near.

Notice again the parallel where “justice” functions as a synonym for “equity.” Sometimes we think of justice as pay back, retribution, a karmic kind of “poetic justice” where bad people get what they give.

But for the ancient poets and prophets of Israel, God’s justice is about creating and maintaining equity, fairness, rightness for all God’s people.

Not “equality.” Nothing in Scripture proposes that everyone is the same and everyone should be treated the same. No, we are each and everyone of us fantastically unique. But justice assumes that each and everyone of us should be treated fairly and rightly. With equity.

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
 God spoke to them in the pillar of cloud…

Just as the psalmist refers back to the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, he sings in remembrance of the Tabernacle. A time after Israel was freed from the tyranny of Egypt’s pharaoh. A time before their own monarchy. A time when Yahweh alone was Ruler, Shepherd, Lord and Mysterious Presence in fire and cloud.

Extol the LORD our God,
worship at his holy mountain;
    for the LORD our God is holy.

Holiness is a theme within the prophets as well as the psalmists. Isaiah crumpled in a heap as he was encountered by a vision of the heavenly King who is holy, holy, holy. John of The Revelation likewise was overwhelmed by a vision of the One who is seated on the throne of the heavens; One who is praised through all eternity as holy, holy, holy.

Old Testament theologians glimpsed the mystery of the transcendent God who is immanent. Holiness that makes justice available and equitable for humanity. But it was the New Testament theologians who understood Jesus as one who embodied God’s justice and holiness in a unique and unrepeatable way.

Incarnation, we call it.

Justice. Equity. Holiness became flesh and dwelt among us.

In our English grammar, we designate something as big, bigger, biggest. Good, better, best. Holy, holier, holiest. Biblical grammar does something similar but with poetic repetition. God is holy, as our psalmist proclaims. God is limitlessly, ultimately, perfectly holy: holy holy holy.

We Christians continue this song of the psalmists and the prophets even today. But for Christians, our radical monotheism has become trinitarian.

We worship One God : Father-Son-Spirit.

One God : Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

And who of us doesn’t know and love the old hymn, Holy Holy Holy!

So extol and exalt the LORD, for the LORD our God is holy!

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man, Thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

 

See the Wikipedia article on the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy.