Psalm 73

Psalm 73 reads like a commentary on today’s world. In America, 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 can create in a person. The problem is the deep inequities that diminish and devalue the very people who are made in God’s own image and likeness.

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.

But what is even more troubling is the applause and approval oligarchs often receive from the very people who are crushed and burdened by their practices and policies. We’ve heard the phrase: “voting against our interests” numerous times within the American context and there is something to that phenomenon that continues to baffle us.

Therefore the people turn and praise them
    and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
    Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Such are the wicked;
    always at ease, they increase in riches.

What is that about? How is it that poor people continue to trust rich people?

The psalmist laments the injustice of his society. His heart and his theology tell him that wickedness will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded. But “No, Not Necessarily” is his actual experience.

All in vain I have kept my heart clean
    and washed my hands in innocence.

How do we make sense of such unbalance? Maybe it doesn’t make sense. Not in any framework that we can imagine, anyway. Maybe we need to enlarge our imagination to a cosmic scale and consider our lives within the eternal, eschatological frame of reference.

When I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I perceived their end.

Truly you set them in slippery places;
    you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
    on awaking you despise their phantoms.

Jesus told a parable about the rich man and the man Lazarus who begged for a morsel as he sat homeless outside the rich man’s gate. The cosmic, divine justice in the story is either comforting or chilling – depending on where we see ourselves.

When Jesus taught the truths of the upside-down, inside-out beatitudes, poverty was clearly at the front of his mind. “Blessed are the poor…” Luke’s gospel says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Matthew softens just a bit. The point is: truth isn’t what we see and know with our human eyes; the truth of God’s eternal right-making often can only be seen with the eyes of faith.

When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant…

It is faith that allows us to grasp some inkling of God’s work of Shalom within the universe. It is faith that allows us to wait without bitterness and envy.

It is faith that motivates us to work on behalf of God’s justice.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works.

Scripture comes to us from the bottom. The Hebrew texts and the Christian writings all came from the hands and the hearts and the experiences of the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. When Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official state religion of Rome, Scripture began to be read through the lens of privilege and began to be interpreted for the advantage of those in power.

One recent movement, Liberation Theology, challenges that perspective with a clear, sharp prophetic word: “God holds a preferential option for the poor.” And God’s work of right-making has always – and will always – be about “bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.”

This is part of the divine balancing of creation.

And this is the message people of faith must trust and live and preach and work to enact within all our various societies.

Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.

May God’s people also be “good,” that is, to act with goodness, fairness and justice to all our neighbors. Our work is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

God’s work is to judge and set the world aright.

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 there we hung up our harps.
     For there 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?

Continue reading Psalm 137

Psalm 77

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he 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.
I consider the days of old,
     and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit …

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 his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

But then – after the silence, after the challenge – when this psalmist turns the lament, he turns it to remembrances of a better day. Even in the midst of the current despair, his spirit searchings produce memories of another time when God’s faithfulness was actual and visible.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds…
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

Even though this particular poet did not experience these particular deeds of the Lord, this is communal memory. What happened to the ancestors, happened to us. Even today, at every Seder meal, the litany of the Haggadah recites:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L-rd, our G‑d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.

Rivers to blood. Lightnings and Hail. Locusts. Frogs. Lice. Death.

In the memory of Israel, the Creator summoned all of creation to rise up against Egypt on behalf of an enslaved people. And then, the ultimate picture of their salvation: the winds blew, the seas parted, God’s people passed into freedom on dry land while the enemy was trapped in chaos and destroyed.

The poetry of Psalm 77 is powerful as it sings the praise of the Creator who commanded creation to participate in redemption and justice.

When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.

He sings praise of the Shepherd who guided wanderers to a new land, a Promised Land.

You led your people like a flock
     by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Here is where our grieving poet ends his prayer. This Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer God has done this mighty work before. Will God intervene and once again redeem Israel from Exile?

He begins with lament and ends with memory. The psalmist offers this remembrance for both Israel and Israel’s God: Covenant cannot, must not, will not fail.

 

Image of lament: Couple Reaching Up by Evelyn Williams

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 far away.
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 a negative self-image. When I got to verse 14 and I read these words, I cried: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” At the time, I did not think of myself as a “wonderful work” and I did not know that very well. But the psalmist turned my insecurity into humble confidence. With all my flaws and failures, I know I am 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,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

There is no place where God is not.

Sometimes people talk as if the world is divided into sacred and secular; holy and profane. But that is not the understanding of this poet. Instead, Creator reaches into every nook and cranny of creation and saturates the world with holiness.

Wendell Berry has said:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Psalm 139 continues with a celebration of mystery:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

If arguments and talking points for or against abortion sneak into your thinking at this juncture, please set them aside. Don’t argue; just relish the beautiful mystery of life the poet sings to us.

And remember it IS poetry, not physiology. (Note the part about being “woven in the depths of the earth.” And the part about a “book” that preordains our days.) God’s people have always had – and will always have – different understandings about when life begins and ends. Life is mystery and only the Creator holds that mystery. The rest of us do the best we can holding all life as sacred – and not desecrating any for any reason.

Remember also as we read these words that the poet may well be celebrating the creation of Israel. From nothingness, from slavery, God wove together a people, a beloved “son.” And God’s “book,” Covenant, Word offers the people life.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

And then there is this odd interlude …

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

Generally when this psalm is used in a liturgical setting, these jarring words are left unsaid. Some scholars even theorize that a later edit added them in.

But I think we must take the poet seriously and consider what this imprecatory prayer meant to him.

There is a pattern repeated within the psalms where the pray-ers ask God to curse the wicked, to punish evildoers, to pay back wrongs. This may be personal,  but, within the tradition of Israel, it is more likely the poet is speaking for all the people. It is the beloved community that is threatened, disrespected and damaged.

And it is Israel’s God whose reputation is at stake.

Consider that these startling prayers are a way to motivate God to step up and BE God. To act righteously in the face of unrighteousness. To put the world back into its proper balance. These prayers are eschatological: counting on ultimate justice to one day bring peace and Shalom to all creation.

And this is a way for the poet to declare unambiguously: I am on the LORD’s side.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

The psalmist knows that he is fully known; he does not shy away but celebrates such intimacy. And the psalmist also offers God’s son, Israel, for this intimate soul searching. Such knowledge is our salvation.

O that God’s people of our own day would offer ourselves to this divine searching, knowing and leading!

O that the American Church would open ourselves up to such holy, refining, redeeming knowledge!

Psalm 89

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’”

Psalm 89 begins with praise and confidence but ends with lament and confusion.

Our poet lays a solid, irrefutable groundwork: This is what you said. This is what you did. The psalmist is counting on the character of Israel’s God to come through for them once again. “I will proclaim your faithfulness…” He uses this one word ‘faithfulness’ eight times throughout the psalm. “I declare that your steadfast love lasts forever…” Our poet stakes his own reputation on the trustworthiness of the Covenant God.

God’s mighty acts in creation help him make his case.

O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed [the chaos monster] Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.

This is glorious cosmic poetry. And once again, the poet’s theme repeats:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

This is who You are, he reminds the Creator. This is what You do.

Then he moves on to proclaim God’s mighty acts for Israel and God’s covenant promises to Israel’s kings.

Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said:
“I have set the crown on one who is mighty,
I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall always remain with him…

“I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure…”

Here the psalmist is summarizing the tradition and theology of Israel rather than objectively acknowledging its history. As the story goes, the LORD actually resisted Israel’s clamor for a king. They wanted to be like the other nations and whined and noodled until God gave in. (Lesson: be careful what you ask for!)

In their original relationship, God was this people’s only Savior, Benefactor, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. But evidently an invisible “king” was not enough; the people yearned for gilded pomp and circumstance – someone they could see and hear; someone whose physical presence would represent the presence of God for them and before the nations.

They were fairly warned. The prophet Samuel resisted and persisted in his caution. But finally God gave the people what they wanted. And – as so often happens – they got more than they bargained for.

“If [David’s] children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness.
I will not violate my covenant…”

And of course – history repeats itself: kings do not remain faithful. People do not keep promises. The poet admits this and acknowledges that the Lord has every right to punish them.

But … has God gone too far?

But now you have spurned and rejected your anointed …
You have renounced the covenant with your servant …
you have defiled his crown in the dust and laid his strongholds in ruins…
Moreover, you have not supported him in battle …
You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame.

Here, “your anointed” stands in for all of Israel. As the king served as representative for the Lord, the king also stood as the summary of the people. It is all of Israel the poet grieves. And, in the psalmist’s mind, it is God who actively created these consequences.

I take issue with the theology of the psalmist at this point. My theology is that sin has its own inherent consequences and God doesn’t have to intervene in human affairs to make bad things happen to willful humans. I also believe things happen in this world that are not at all God’s doing or God’s will.

But I do recognize this reasoning of the psalmist theologian: everything that happens, occurs within the overall governance of the Creator. When my fellow Christians reason that God did something to them or for them, that is their way of honoring God’s sovereign power. (Whether or not God intervenes with such specificity is an unanswerable question; I leave them to their theology and make sense of sin’s consequences in other ways.)

In Psalm 89, the poet remembers when the Davidic dynasty came to an end, the Promised Land was ravaged, the holy city and Solomon’s Temple lay in ruins; therefore, God’s promises seem to be null and void as the remnant of God’s people languished in exile in Babylon.

How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
    How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is—
    for what vanity you have created all mortals!

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted;
how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,
with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

Many of the psalms have a similar turning point; a typical pattern is for the poets to start off with their complaint and then turn the song with a “nevertheless.” This is our dire situation: Nevertheless we will trust in the Lord.

But Psalm 89 surprises with a deep foundation of praise and then – built upon this powerful statement of faith – a mighty complaint that God is not living up to promises; Yahweh is breaking covenant.

It’s a serious charge.

But that is what lament is all about. When life turns us upside down and inside out, God’s people have always been free and bold to speak honestly the pain and confusion of our hearts. This is what solid relationship looks like: we speak our deepest truth and trust that the Other will love us unconditionally anyway.

Israel’s monarchy was never reestablished. To this day, Jews hold on to hope that there is some kind of Messianic Age yet in their future. At every Seder celebration, a chair is set out for Elijah and the faithful watch and wait for his word that Messiah is coming soon.

For Christians, however, the promise of Messiah was fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. The New Testament theologians read Psalm 89 and saw God’s promises made real in the Crucified and Risen Christ. He is the “firstborn.” He is the “highest king of the earth.” His throne is established “as long as the heavens endure.”

Eschatological faith holds onto this confidence even today when the world around us crumbles in chaos. Even as we complain bitterly at the brokenness that breaks us, we – like our psalmist – keep standing on the foundation of faith in this God who rules the raging seas and whose faithfulness is forever.

The Psalms, Book III ends abruptly:

Blessed be the Lord forever.
Amen and Amen.

Sometimes there is nothing more to say.

 

 

Psalm 78

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done…

Thus begins the marvelous Psalm 78 as the psalmist sings a history of God’s people in Israel. “Teach your children…” Deuteronomy commands. Here the poet reminds how crucial it is to share our faith with the next generations.

God established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep God’s commandments.

In America, during the tumultuous 60’s, young people in our churches wondered what was going on in their world and how they should respond as people of faith. Protests, marches, riots and assassinations challenged America to our core. Young people looked to the church for guidance as they pondered what would be an appropriate faith response to war and injustice.

In many ways, in many churches, we failed them.

And we lost them. Hundreds and thousands of youth in the 60’s gave up on church because they didn’t find “faith” to be relevant to their real lives.

…tell them to your children …
so that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

Now – fifty years later – we can see a gaping hole. The parents of my generation who thought faith was irrelevant now have children and grandchildren who were never even introduced to faith. Demographic categories for faith in America now include the “Nones” and the “Dones:” people who have given up on faith. A nation of people that once assumed some sort of wide spread faith commitment now sees an increasing percentage of Americans who are committed to secular values rather than being shaped by religious values.

Something similar must have happened in Israel.

Some scholars place this psalm in the historical period of David or maybe of a later king such as Hezekiah. Others see how Psalm 78 would clearly speak to a generation after the Babylonian Exile. Either way, the passion to tell the story of Israel and its journey with the LORD would have been crucial to the people who returned from Exile committed to rebuild their nation and re-establish their faith. Exile would have taught them the old and ongoing truth that faith is only one generation away from extinction.

Therefore Psalm 78 tells again the old, old story of God’s great faithfulness. In contrast, the psalmist owns up to Israel’s persistent unfaithfulness. So the story of the journey of faith must include the Divine balance between justice and mercy.

Psalm 78 acknowledges the rightness of God’s judgment but still rests within and celebrates the Divine grace that continues to draw God’s people back into covenant relationship.

THIS is The Story of God with God’s people throughout the ages: amazing grace, persistent redemption and surprising faithfulness.

Training the next generations only in rules and rituals or in doctrine and dogma is useless unless the foundation of faith is authentic relationship. Faith in a relationship is so much more than a belief system; rather this faith trusts and obeys in a Living God who is in real relationship with real people.

God rejected the tent of Joseph…
but he chose the tribe of Judah:
Mount Zion, which he loves.
The Lord built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.
He chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.

If this psalm came from the post-exilic period, then the references here to “Zion” and “David” would be messianic since the psalmist had experienced the loss of the Davidic monarchy and the Temple. Even so, hope remains. The prophetic vision seen here holds fast to the faith that there will be time when God’s presence will once again be known among God’s people.

This is eschatalogical hope. The confidence that – in spite of all the evidence to the contrary – the Creator remains faithful to the work of Shalom throughout all creation.

Psalms scholar Clinton McCann says this:

To be sure, Psalm 78 is a reminder that knowledge does not guarantee faithfulness; it insists that knowing the story is the foundation for faith and hope and life.

The church in recent years and throughout its history has often been so self-absorbed and preoccupied with institutional maintenance that it has forgotten what God has done and has failed to tell the old, old story that is so full of new possibilities for responding with gratitude and service to God’s persistent and amazing grace (993).

We who are the 21st century church must pay attention. Indoctrination is not the same as handing down the faith. Our own children and grandchildren must see and hear authentic witness from us: our mistakes and foolishness as well as our tentative journey of faithfulness.

We – and they – are ongoing chapters in this remarkable story of grace. The Story is our story too.

 

J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.

See here a recent Barna research study on why adults do not talk about their faith.

See here a troubling article from The Atlantic: “Breaking Faith.”

 

Psalm 53

As we’ve been considering the Wisdom Tradition of Israel, we pondered Psalm 111:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Week 31’s Living in The Story blog reminds us that the biblical understanding of one who is “wise” refers to one who is open to teaching and willing to learn; to grow. The blog also reminds us that it is ultimate foolishness to live as if WE are the measure and the standard of truth. It is only God who is the source of wisdom and submitting ourselves to God’s Way is the way of wisdom.

But there is another way. Psalm 53 goes on to describe the way of fools.

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”

This description makes us think that our poet has suffered too many fools and has had to endure the consequences of the chaos that bubbles over from a life lived without wisdom.

They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts…

They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse…

They eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon God.

The psalmist pictures God earnestly searching for wisdom and calling out for righteousness. But – as in the Garden of Eden – the Creator only finds folly.

There is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Do you hear the echos of this lament in the letter to the Romans penned by Paul?

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…

Then he launches into a litany of the ancient texts: painful descriptions of humankind drawn from the Psalms and the prophets:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave,
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

And then this astonishing statement, especially astounding to the faithful, practicing Jews of his day:

There is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

The problem of sin is not “them.” The problem of sin is “us.” All of us fall short in some way or another. None of us measures up to God’s standards by our own efforts. Those of us who are faithful, practicing religious folks look at Paul’s list of evils and reassure ourselves that we are not THAT bad. At least we don’t do THOSE things. We humans are very good at rationalizing and justifying.

But Spirit nudges us to see ourselves clearly; to name ourselves honestly. In order to begin to grasp the magnitude of the grace of our redemption, we must first grasp the deep significance of our fallenness.

So Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, God’s solution to the problem of sin, astounds us even more. For Jews and Gentiles alike. For the wise and the foolish. For the good and the bad….

….there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus…

Surely our psalmist could not have imagined the solution God would arrange for his people – for God’s own people. Even with all the impossible possibilities that continue to surprise and astound God’s people, this inclusive, amazing grace of the Christ Event outdoes them all.

Even if our psalmist could not imagine the Christ Event, he did, however, imagine that God would answer in God’s time and in God’s way to deal with the problem of sin. He put his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and he trusted that the Surprising God of Unfathomable Faithfulness would – one day, some how – make everything right.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

But we moderns see a problem, don’t we? Even with the amazing grace the redemption of Christ Jesus has brought into the world, we all still suffer fools. And we all still act the fool. We remember we humans are both good and bad, right and wrong, wide and foolish.

The faith we hold is eschatological, that is – we live with confidence in the here and now because we ground ourselves in the ultimate Shalom God is bringing for all creation. There is a peace that passes understanding that Christ already has brought into the world and – at the same time – we know it is not finished. The peace and salvation are not quite yet.

So, like the psalmist, we too hold onto hope and continue to put our trust in the Unfathomable Faithfulness of our ever Surprising God. We give witness to the Already-And-Not-Yet character of the salvation Christ has brought – and continues to bring – into our lives.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

When our children were young, my husband created a lively tune for Psalm 1 so we could all memorize it. They are in their 40’s now and can still sing this Revised Standard Version of the anchor psalm of the psalter.

I call it the ‘anchor psalm’ because the editors of Israel’s hymnal organized the 150 psalms quite meticulously into five books, each with their own internal theology. Psalm 1 sets the tone not only for Book I but also for the entire collection of poems that sing the life of Israel.

Plenty of the psalms lament the sad reality that often the world is not as it should be. But Psalm 1 boldly states Israel’s faith that God is for the righteous and God will judge the wicked. There are Two Ways, the faith of Israel insists: righteousness or wickedness. We humans are the ones who must choose our path while God is the One who oversees the consequences of those choices.

When we moderns read this, it’s important to read the words “righteous” and “wicked” within their ancient context.

See the synonyms our poet uses for wicked: ‘sinners’ and ‘scoffers.’ Scoffers is the most telling because it describes someone who does more than make a mistake or miss the mark; a scoffer intentionally rejects the instruction of the law/the Torah/the teachings. Since the precepts of the Lord are designed to bring happiness/blessedness to God’s people, those who ignore this Way will naturally find unhappiness in their lives.

Ironically, this rejection of instruction, this I-did-it-my-way Way is highly valued in our modern day culture. Autonomy is considered to be a strength in our Western culture. But looking at this word “autonomy” gives us a clue what is really going on. “Nomos” is the Greek word for law/instruction/teaching while “auto” describes the self. The correct understanding of one who is “autonomous” is a person who lives life by the law of himself.

On the other hand, within the other Way, “righteous” describes those who submit to the instruction of Torah; those who trust and obey. Righteousness in biblical language never means perfect or sinless. Here as well as in the New Testament (especially the letters of Paul), those who are considered to be righteous are those whom God has made right.

Here is a person who is the opposite of autonomous and instead lives life open to teaching of Scripture and to the wisdom of the universe. A person grounded (like a tree by a stream) but ever growing and becoming.

In our modern ways of thinking, our definition of righteousness really is a description of self-righteousness. We tend to think from a human perspective and depend upon our own understandings of morality and rule-following. We think of “happiness” in terms of what satisfies us and makes us feel good. All this is entirely different from the orientation of the Psalms where God is the center; where righteousness and blessedness are gifts given by the Creator to the never-quite-perfect-creature. Righteousness and blessedness are not feelings but real realities within the kingdom of heaven.

This core theology of Psalm 1 is woven throughout the entire psalter. Even in the laments, when the faithful complain that it is the wicked who prosper and the righteous who suffer, the core faith remains: there are Two Ways. And in God’s time, because of God’s faithfulness, justice and righteousness, the wicked will never find true happiness; they will indeed perish.

But the Lord knows/sees/protects/blesses the Way of the righteous. And it is only within this Way that we humans may find true prosperity and happiness.

 

Photo credit: Two Paths – Tim Street Photo & Design

Psalm 111

All the psalms are considered to be part of Israel’s Wisdom Tradition, but Psalm 111 is one that sings specifically and eloquently that:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Fearing the Lord.

Marveling at the Mystery.

Surrendering to the Inscrutable.

“The fear of the Lord” is not anxiety; rather it is submission and obedience with a trembling, knee-knocking, grateful faith.

“True knowledge – wisdom – is not grounded in ourselves but in God, and it involves the embrace of God’s commitments and values. Thus wisdom will take concrete shape in righteousness, grace and mercy.” Clinton McCann offers some practical help here as we seek to understand. As the divine wisdom is demonstrated by God’s ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’ works, so human wisdom shows forth in our own deeds of righteousness, grace and mercy.

Wisdom takes concrete shape.

Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.

The psalmist “delights” in God’s presence among the people, the Lord’s deeds of grace and goodness. The psalmist also delights in those intentional times to  study/converse/and explore what all this means for God’s people.

“An hour of study is as an hour of prayer,” I have been taught.

Experiencing times of wonder and and then pondering the wonder brings a wisdom that is beyond knowledge. Beyond even feeling.

Karen Armstrong’s first major book was “The History of God” as she considered the ways God is understood throughout Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another important work ponders the wisdom religious and spiritual teachers have been discovering since the Axial Age. A 2016 interview piques our interest as we hear her talk about her book The Great Transformation.

Thinking can only take you so far,” she explains. “Action, behavior, especially compassionate behavior, is more important than thinking. By constantly exercising compassion, the golden rule, you enter a different state of consciousness. This rather than thinking will get you to enlightenment.”

Wisdom teachers have been showing us the way to enlightenment for centuries and that way is always active. God’s wisdom takes concrete shape in God’s compassionate upholding of all God’s creation. Human wisdom take concrete shape in acts of compassion as well.

In Psalm 111, our poet bubbles over with praise for God’s great and wonderful works but with particular thanksgiving for God’s covenant with Israel.

  All God’s precepts are trustworthy.
They are established forever and ever
    to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
    he has commanded his covenant forever.

Covenant is the anchor of Israel.

Salvation from slavery in Israel. Protection through the wilderness. Adoption at the mountain of fire and smoke. Redemption from Exile.

And even before Israel, the covenant with Abraham, Issac and Jacob. And even before the patriarchs, the covenant with Noah and all creation.

All these “wonderful deeds” confirm God’s faithfulness to covenant and call for Israel’s trust and obedience to these “trustworthy precepts.”

So the “work” of God’s people is to trust and obey.

The Lord is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.

Here God’s people look to their Lord as their Source and Sustainer. The God who is faithful, gracious and merciful. The Lord whose wisdom takes concrete shape in righteousness, grace and mercy.

Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.

God’s praise endures forever.

Psalm 111 dovetails into Psalm 112. The editors want us to see the same connection they saw between these two praise hymns.

Praise the Lord!
    Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
    who greatly delight in his commandments.

The fear of the Lord brings both wisdom, confidence and joy.

 

 

Karen Armstrong’s book: The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, 2006.

See a video of her 2006 interview with Charley Rose here

Read the 2016 interview with the Editors of Parbola journal here.

Clinton McCann, “The Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996, page 1134.

 

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Psalm 32 celebrates grace.

Remember the poetic rhythm that often characterizes the Psalms: a lovely coupling where two lines emphasize one another, both saying the same thing in different ways.

Here “forgiven” complements “covered” and “no iniquity” aligns with “no deceit.” These are the people who find “happiness” or blessedness or contentment in life.

But Psalm 32 also remembers sin.

We don’t like to talk much about sin these days but the reality of human sinfulness can’t be ignored. Sin presents us with a huge social, psychological and spiritual dilemma because we mostly don’t live up to our own ideals, much less what God desires for us.

Our psalmist captures this condition of “iniquity” and “deceit” with powerful imagery:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Our modern day notion of “psycho – somatic” is a reality humans have been experiencing for eons. Our emotional and psychic self is deeply intertwined with our physical body, our soma. These various aspects of our human nature intersect and interact with each other in ways we often can’t understand.

But “confession is good for the soul,” they say. And our psalmist would agree.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

In the Book of Common Prayer, we confess …

that we have sinned against Thee in thought, word and deed

by what we have done and what we have left undone.

We have not loved Thee with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves…

There is an unburdening of body and soul when we are able to achieve such honesty with ourselves and with another. There is a lightening of the spirit and a refreshment we can notice in our nerves, muscles and blood pressure.

This is the grace: this openness and transparency where there are no secrets from the One who “knit us together in our mother’s womb and knows our inmost being.” The God of Grace knows us better than we know ourselves and offers us the grace of being totally and completely known.

The psalmist has been enlightened because of this experience and now, out of his own journey of sin and redemption, he seeks to shine a light on the way for others who may struggle.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

It is often the stories of redeemed sinners who inspire us most deeply, so sharing even our embarrassing or humiliating stories with those who journey with us is a bold grace we can offer. (Think of the powerful ministry of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

So do not be like a mule, without understanding.

I have to smile at his metaphor; it seems an oh-so-appropriate summary of our human stubbornness and digging-our-heels-in-arrogance. We all know someone like this. We all have been someone like this!

 

The apostle Paul quoted Psalm 32 in his treatise to the church at Rome.

David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

“Righteousness” in this biblical understanding – both of the psalmist and of the apostle – does not mean sinless-ness but rather forgiven-ness. The righteous one is she who has been “made right” by the grace of God. Those who trust in the Lord are not perfect, sinless people. We have not arrived but we are on the journey.

God’s people, the righteous ones, are those who (over and over and over again!) put our trust in the grace, goodness and forgiveness of the God of Grace who knows us completely and loves us anyway.