Psalm 57

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge…

I lie down among lions
    that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
    their tongues sharp swords...

Psalm 57 couples with the stories and visions from the book of Daniel during this Living in The Story reading week. Although the traditional setting places it during the time of Davids trials, we also see Daniel in the cries of complaint and praise.

I love the double meaning here: adversaries like lions and their accusing words like swords. Adversaries like beasts that lie in wait and plot for your destruction. Have you been there? I have.

It is all too easy to turn inward during these times of conflict. It is tempting to retreat to the “poor me’s.” I have been there too. But the psalmist teaches us a better way, a wiser response.

I cry to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

In the faith of the psalmist, it is God Most High who designs our purpose, our task and vocation within our lives. Not (I think) planning every decision and step we make, but overall; an overarching meaning for us as we live as people of faith.

It’s a comforting thought: trusting that Creator is in everything – dark and light – including (even!) me in the mysterious divine work of accomplishing divine purposes. I don’t/can’t make this happen out of my own skill or intelligence; faith leads me to trust that God Most High holds the Big Picture and is weaving everything together in ways I will never understand.

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
Awake, my soul!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Father Richard Rohr reminds us that each of us individually and all of us together are included in God’s unconditional and unending love. Our problem, he explains, is that we are too often blind and unaware of that Divine Love.

We are not awake.

So the psalmist’s challenge to himself is our challenge:

Wake Up! and Stay Woke!

In order to do that, the psalmist describes a discipline of faith that is timely practice for all of us who struggle. Singing our faith. Giving witness to our faith in God’s unending faithfulness and steadfast love.

We take what is inward and proclaim it outwardly, publicly, boldly.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
Let your glory be over all the earth.

The benediction for Psalm 57 sings like our Lord’s Prayer:

Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.

This should be our constant prayer – not only with our words and recitations but with every fiber of our being. Giving ourselves over to the Divine Purposes of God Most High who surely will fulfill the Divine Purpose for all creation. Faith’s enduring eschatological hope.

 

 

Image credit from National Gallery of Art

Sir Peter Paul Rubens Flemish, 1577 – 1640

Psalm 3

O Lord, how many are my foes!
    Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
    “There is no help for you in God.”

Psalm 3 gives us a powerful demonstration of a faith that functions without sight.

That is what faith is, we know in theory; but how often do we want reassurances before we commit? Before we let ourselves trust? We let our feelings of despair and hopelessness overwhelm our intellect instead of finding the tricky balance between the our head and our gut.

Emotions are an important part of our humanity; they serve as a valuable gauge about what is going on within us. But our mind, our thinking, our cognitive abilities must sometimes provide an important counterweight to our feelings.

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
    my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
    and he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Our psalmist proclaims the unseen, even unexperienced reality of his Lord. He names his God as Shield and Sustainer even as he struggles with the also very real reality of his tormenting foes. His faith allows him to say the words aloud: “I am not afraid of you!”

Someone said “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Living our lives with courage, encountering the various kinds of “foes” that rise against us, digging in to faith and hope doesn’t mean we do that without our knees knocking. But courage means we step up to the challenges of our lives in spite of some very appropriate anxieties of our humanity. Courage keeps fear from paralyzing us.

Courage with faith means we step into the Shield and lean into the Sustainer.

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.

Only now does the psalmist’s prayer move to the ask. Tucked away in his lament of his reality and his commitment to trust anyway is this one request for God’s intervention: Rise up! Deliver me!

This psalmist sings the belief of Israel (and the understanding of many people of faith) that vengeance IS justice.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I don’t understand God’s ways of justice, judgment and setting the world back to rights. But the psalmist shows us that whatever our need, whatever our heart, whatever our request – we can offer all that honestly, freely and with confidence. Whatever God decides to do about all that is God’s to decide. The psalmist leaves it all in the Lord’s just and capable hands:

Deliverance belongs to the Lord

Psalm 3 ends with beatitude, the pronouncement of blessing that can only come from God. And again, in this case, blessing even in the midst of turmoil and trauma.

May your blessing be on your people!

As in The Beatitudes found in Matthew and Luke, God’s blessing doesn’t wait until our physical circumstances are resolved. God’s blessing blossoms best in the dark, tearful and ready soil of our lives. Amazing grace.

Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Amen

 

Image credit: Guy Tal First Blooms

Other amazing images of nature’s amazing grace from Bored Panda

Psalm 110

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.

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 realities. Even though Israel often used the words interchangeably, Jerusalem or 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.

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

The LORD is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath…

Now here is a twist: along with kingship, the psalmist claims Israel’s leader is also a priest. Not within the Levitical priesthood, from the lineage of Aaron and the priestly tribe of Levi, but rather priest from a more ancient and enigmatic tradition.

In Abraham’s story as told in Genesis, (centuries before the Levitical priesthood) there is an odd little episode when Abraham meets “King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of God Most High…” 

Abraham received a blessing from the priest/king and gave him a tithe as an offering. That’s just about all we know from the original story.

But then the psalmist used this tradition to assign Israel’s monarch to this special category of priest/king. The divine authority to oversee God’s people is magnified beyond the usual authority of a nation’s king. The psalmist expands it to include divine authority to speak for the people directly to the One seated on the Heavenly Throne.

Fast forward to the New Testament and we find Melchizedek again in Hebrews 5.  In the Preacher’s creative use of the Hebrew Scriptures, he re-read his Sacred Texts and re-interpreted them in light of the Christ Event. The ancient “twist” introduced by the psalmist is taken to another level by his theological descendant centuries later.

Hebrews presents Jesus as the One who has divine authority to speak directly to God and to offer sacrifice (in this context, to offer his own life) on behalf of the people.

Luke also used Psalm 110 as a basis for his Christology. 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 hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

For the earliest Christian theologians, Jesus the Christ most perfectly completes the picture of the promised Messiah: the Resurrected Lord is Prophet-Priest-King.

Within the Christian tradition, this royal psalm anticipates the Christ as one anointed to rule over all the nations with compassion and justice, to speak God’s Word with divine authority and to abide in God’s presence in order to intercede for all God’s people.

 

Psalm 136

Psalm 136 combines praise and thanksgiving. 

O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever…

The refrain of praise repeats again and again: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Praise punctuates Thanksgiving.

There is a difference. Sometimes we praise the Lord for Who God Is. Sometimes we thank the Lord for what God does.

A core quality, a central characteristic of the Divine is Love. The Hebrew “steadfast love” can also read: “mercy or compassion.”

In the defining story of Israel’s birth as a people brought into being through the labor of Eternal Covenant God, there is an odd little tale of Moses meeting the One Who Cannot Be Seen and Is Beyond All Knowing. (Ex 34) Like his encounter at the bush that burned but was not consumed, Moses heard God’s Self-Description. “I Am” was the Name from the burning bush. “Compassion” was the Name from the cloud and fire on the mountaintop.

And God passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord , the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”

This is Who God Is.

(Please do not buy into the mistaken notion that the God of the Old Testament was judgment while the God of the New Testament is grace. No! No! A thousand times No!)

Always and forever, God’s steadfast love endures. The psalmist praises God for Who God Is.

And – in tandem – he thanks God for the many great wonders God has done: The Lord made the heavens, stretched out the earth on the waters and created the great lights, one to rule the day and one to rule the night.

The Creator of heaven, earth and all the cosmos. The Lord of all the nations. The poet of history.

Then Israel’s poet thanks God for wonderful works on behalf of Israel.

God brought Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm…

God divided the Red Sea while Israel passed through on dry land. While Pharaoh and his armies, God overthrew in that same sea.

God led Israel through the wilderness, protecting them, feeding them, guiding them. For Israel, God is a God who remembers, rescues and sustains.

God remembered us in our low estate,

for his steadfast love endures forever;

God rescued us from our foes,

for his steadfast love endures forever;

God gives food to all flesh,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Forever and always, God is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer. This is Who God Is. This is what God does.

 

 

 

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.”