How good it is to sing praises to our God for God is gracious! A song of praise is fitting …
Psalm 147 overflows with thanksgiving for the Lord of the cosmos Who is abundant in power with understanding beyond measure.
Within the context of Living in The Story, we consider Psalm 147 at the same time we see the remnant of exiles returning from Babylon to the Promised Land. Even as they came home to a devastated land and city, they chose to sing of the grace of Yahweh who once again kept covenant with Israel.
Be merciful to me, O God, 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 David’s trials, we also see Daniel in the poet’s cries of complaint and praise.
The songs of pious pilgrims are collected together in Psalms 120-134. These Songs of Ascent offer a glimpse into the ancient community of Israel: how faith and faithfulness infused their lives.
Imagine pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Imagine the gradual gathering of more and more travelers joining together as the roads drew closer to the Holy City. Imagine the final ascent up the hill of Zion where the Temple shone bright in the morning sun. Imagine the joy, the wonder and the deep sense of community these pilgrims must have experienced.
Now imagine them singing these psalms of ascent as they ascended toward Jerusalem, their shining city on a hill.
Ancient editors grouped the hymns into this collection near the end of Book Five toward the close of the psalter. They are short, easily memorized, often characterized by a call and response participation.
They sing of personal faith or family life or national pride.
And their pilgrim faith assumes God as the Source and Center of all.
The Ancient Feasts of Israel
Pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem for three holy feasts each year: in the spring and in the fall.
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths.
They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed; all shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.
Spring brought the most holy celebration of Passover, the remembrance of their rescue from slavery in Egypt. Exactly seven weeks later, the celebration of First Fruits reminded them of the grace of living in a settled homeland. Fall brought Sukkot, a re-enactment of their wilderness wanderings that brought back vivid recollections of the Lord’s meticulous faithfulness.
The pilgrims’ anticipation of these high holy days was amplified by sharing together these traveling psalms, the gathering hymns found in the Songs of Ascent.
Psalms scholar, J. Clinton McCann considers the purpose of the ancient editors as they formed this collection of hymns.
This collection was likely used by ordinary persons on the way to or on arrival at Jerusalem. The juxtaposition of psalms reflecting the daily concerns (Psalm 123-126; 130-132; 134) makes sense in the context of festal celebrations, where individuals and families from all over would have been brought together by loyalties that transcended the personal and familial.
Modern day Jews – sans the Temple, priesthood and sacrificial system – continue to celebrate these ancient feasts with notable theological and national enlargements.
Along with the biblical feasts, numerous other high holy days have developed over the centuries, festal celebrations “where individuals and families from all over [are] brought together by loyalties that transcend the personal and familial.”
Time honored traditions and purposes find fresh expression in new generations, thus accomplishing the hopes of pilgrims sung across many ages.
Psalm 110 sings confidence: Israel’s God upholds Israel’s king.
This royal psalm celebrates the king as the one anointed to rule and empowered to vanquish all of Israel’s enemies.
This famous psalm also seeds the tradition that understands God’s anointed one to be “prophet, priest and king.”
Living in The Story takes a second look at this important psalm and how it nurtures Christianity’s prophetic imagination.
The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Much of our Bible assumes a violent culture in the ancient world of its origins. Armies and battles, victories and defeats, walled cities and calls to arms defined daily life for many of these nations and their inhabitants.
For Israel, Yahweh God became the quintessential warrior god.
From the Lord’s overwhelming defeat of the army of Egypt to the conquering of the Promised Land to the the establishing of David’s monarchy, God was seen as One who went before them in battle to save and secure Israel.
The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter: Rule in the midst of your foes…
From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you.
In the imagination of Israel, Zion was God the King’s ultimate dwelling place: the holy throne situated in the highest heavenlies.
Thus everything built in the Temple signified and symbolized these invisible heavenly realities.
Even though Israel often used the words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” interchangeably, the city and the Temple were always and only physical metaphors that pointed to the spiritual unseen-ness of God’s presence in Zion.
Psalm 110 sees Yahweh the King as the Source of an eternal divine authority that establishes Israel’s kings with a consequent divine authority.
(Jump to the New Testament and recall that Luke also used Psalm 110 as a basis for his Christology of kingship. In Acts 2, Peter’s Pentecost sermon sees the Risen Christ as heir to David’s throne: The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right handuntil I make your enemies your footstool.”)
But here is a twist: along with kingship, the psalmist of 110 claims Israel’s kingly leader also is a priest.
Psalm 73 reads like a commentary on today’s world.
In the United States, we are seeing the demise of the middle class and a significant rise in poverty. We are watching the rich get immensely richer while the poor get significantly poorer.
Across the globe, across the ages this has been a terrible truth for most of the people on the planet.
The problem is not simply that some people are rich and others are poor.
The problem is the arrogance, self-righteousness and indifference prosperity often creates within the wealthy. The problem is the deep inequities that diminish and devalue the poor, people who are made in God’s own image and likeness.
Our psalmist saw this first hand.
I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
The oppression of the rich over the poor is as old as humankind itself.
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.”
… for our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Jerusalem’s destruction is complete. The walls are toppled, the Temple is razed, the last of David’s kingly descendants are executed and God’s people are marched across the Fertile Crescent to Exile in Babylon.
All they have now are their memories.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Some of the memories picture the shining Temple on the hill of Zion, sparkling in the light of the morning sun.
More recent memories see blood running in the streets.
I have a strong memory of a time when I was overwhelmed with self doubt and a negative self-image. When I got to verse 14 and read these beautiful words, I cried: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know thatvery well.”
During those dark days, I certainly did not think of myself as a “wonderful work,” but the psalmist helped turn my insecurity into humble confidence.
With all my flaws and failures, I know I am a wonderful work of the Creator.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea – even there your hand shall lead me; your right hand shall hold me fast.
O my people, give ear 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 the glorious deeds of the Lord to the coming generation; and his might and the wonders God 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.
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 and 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.
Our failure as Church in America
In the United States, during the tumultuous 60’s, young people in our churches wondered what was going on in our world and how they should respond as people of faith.
Protests, marches, riots and assassinations challenged this nation to our core and young people looked to the church for guidance as they pondered what would be an appropriate faith response to war and injustice.