Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.

 

Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58


Psalm 44: Communal Disappointment with God

March 4, 2015

Israel had recently experienced defeat. Though perhaps an exilic context, it probably reflects a military defeat in the pre-exilic period (e.g., the invasion of Zerah the Cushite during the reign of righteous Asa in 2 Chron 14:9-10, the invasion of the Moabites during the reign of righteous Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron 20:1, or some other unknown battle). The protestation of innocence does not fit the exilic community (cf. Lamentations). Though the voice of the Psalmist is sometimes singular (44:4, 15-16), the plural indicates it’s communal character though perhaps led by one who represents the people.[1] The king or priest speaks for the people. Israel is bewildered by Yahweh’s hostility and indifference despite their own relative faithfulness, but they nevertheless trust in God’s own ultimate faithfulness to Israel because this is God’s history with Israel. Their communal lament confronts God with complaint and accusation but at the same time appeals to Yahweh’s faithful love.

Psalm 44 may be divided into five stanzas.[2]

  1. Praise: Memory of God’s Past Acts (1-3)
  2. Trust: Present Community’s Orientation (4-8)
  3. Complaint: God’s Unfaithfulness Towards the Community (9-16).
  4. Protestation of Innocence: The Community’s Faithfulness (17-22)
  5. Appeal: Divine Aid in the Present (23-26).

The Psalm begins with the past history of God’s faithful acts and the community’s trust in their faithful God. At the center of the Psalm, however, is a complaint directed at God’s seeming unfaithfulness. God has acted against Israel even though the covenant community had been faithful throughout the episode. Despite this incongruence, Israel appeals to their God for redemption. Psalm 44 is the communal lament of a people who, though bewildered, even angry, nevertheless invoke the faithful love of Yahweh.

The stories of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history shape this poem. They are the background for the communal lament. As Crow comments, “In Israelite thought the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation, JMH] was not merely a story about the past, but a mythos [a narrative worldview that shaped understanding, JMH] which touched the life of every person.”[3] Israel’s story as a corporate people shapes the individual lives of each person. Israel’s story is their story. But more importantly, it is God’s story. To rehearse God’s acts is not only a mode of praise, but it also evokes expectation of divine action in the present and reminds God of the covenant made with Israel. Kraus rightly notes that the motive clause in verse 3 (“for you loved them”) is a “hidden appeal.”[4]

In contrast with God’s past history with Israel, the present stands in radical contrast (the adversative in verse 9—“but now”). The series of second-person addresses in 9-14 presents God as the actor in the disaster that befell Israel. “The verbal presentation of God as taking drastic action against his people,” Crow states, “is so surprising as to be doubly forceful. Its value is primarily shock.”[5] Israel accuses God and blames God!

The protestations of innocence (17-18, 20-21) are each followed by an adversative (“yet”) that describes God as the responsible party in their suffering (19, 22). The appeal is relational. It is not simply a matter of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, but it is an appeal to the relationship that the covenant formalizes and embodies. The appeal might be characterized as not only the logic of covenant obligations but also the emotional appeal of betrayed relationships. Israel feels betrayed. God has not been faithful to the covenant.

The tension is highlighted by the phrase “all the day” or “all the time” in verses 8, 15 and 22. Israel boasts in God “all day long,” but now their disgrace is before them “all day long” despite the fact that they have faced death for God’s sake “all day long.” Despite Israel’s “all day long” praise and sacrifice, they presently experience disgrace “all day long.” Israel is disappointed with Yahweh. This is also highlighted by the shepherd/sheep motif. The Shepherd watches the sheep slaughtered (44:11, 22), and this creates the question: “where is God?” (44:23-24).

The community appeals to their sleeping giant who is no longer pictured as the aggressor but is inattentive. The appeal, however, is made from the posture of “prostration or self-abasement” where the belly cleaves to the ground (25-26). As Israel prostrates itself, God is exhorted to “arise” on their behalf.[6] “Falling to the ground is the posture taken after Israel lost against Ai (Joshua 7:6), while the six men in Ezekiel’s vision were killing the people of Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:8), and when Pelatiah son of Benayah died (Ezek. 11:13). In all these cases the posture is accompanied by fervent prayer to Yahweh not to destroy his people.”[7]

The final appeal to God’s love brings God’s past salvific acts into the present as the motive or rationale for the petition. The appeal for redemption uses the language of the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:12; Deut 13:6; Micah 6:4; 1 Chron 17:21). God’s story is the norm by which God should act. God will eventually act out faithfulness to that norm which is Yahweh’s faithful love. The petitions (23, 26) frame the questions (24-25). The petitions remind Israel of God’s forever love for them, and this shapes the nature and function of their complaint. Israel complains, but it complains in faith as it appeals to God’s faithful love.

The Psalm is filled with rhetorical and theological tension. “God as the only savior (king) (2-9) is in tension with God as initiator of the disaster which the people experience (10-15).”[8] The covenant faithfulness of the people (18-19, 21-22) is in tension with God’s hiddenness (10-17, 20). This creates an appeal filled with questions, but yet rooted in God’s character.

National or communal disaster evokes disillusionment and disappointment. It should also arouse introspection and self-examination as a communal process. In the process, the community laments—sometimes perhaps in penitent confession, but sometimes (as in Psalm 44) with protestations of innocence. Doubt, frustration, bewilderment, questioning, and complaint often arise in the hearts and prayers of the faithful people of God when they suffer.

The confidence of God’s people is God’s own history with the covenant people. The history of salvation testifies to God’s faithfulness to the covenant even when Israel is disappointed or disillusioned. That history climaxes in Jesus Christ who is the testimony of God’s covenant loyalty. Nothing—no communal or individual disaster or tragedy—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how Paul applies Psalm 44 to the new situation that Christ creates. God has demonstrated faithfulness to the divine redemptive intent through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

Israel probably read Psalm 44 in times of national distress when there was no seeming reason for the disasters that befell them as in the days of Asa or Jehoshaphat. Narratizing Psalm 44 in the life of Israel is a helpful way of contextualizing it, and it provides a link with our own narrative. Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS during June, 1964. On the 17th of that month the African-American church was burned, and on the 21st James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by seven members of the KKK.

Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed by Christian churches in southern Sudan where the African Dinka people living in Bahr-El-Ghazal were raided in January 1996. Several of their daughters were taken into slavery.

Psalm 44 might be prayed by Syrian and Iraqi Christians are driven out or slaughtered by the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Psalm 44 is even now proclaimed, sung and prayed in memory of millions who died during the Nazi Holocaust, especially the six million Jews—a million of whom were children. The following is a contemporary Midrash on Psalm 44:[9]

“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.

“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.

“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.

“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.

“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.

“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.

“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.

“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.

“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.

“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.

“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.

“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.

In the midst of communal tragedy, the people of God are bewildered by God’s absence. We protest God’s inaction or, more potently, God’s violence against the covenant people, just as Israel did. However, as Israel models for us, we also remember God’s past redemptive deeds and appeal to them. We remember God’s faithful track record.

However, the present seems so incongruent with that past. Why does God sleep? Why does not the shepherd protect the sheep? Has God forgotten the covenant? The present and the past do not line up, and something seems terribly wrong, even wrong with God. Nevertheless, the people of God maintain their covenant commitment as they appeal to God’s faithful love. Given God’s track record, the bewildered and confused community trusts even as it accuses.

The homiletic point is that in the midst of our distress we lament God’s apparent hiddenness, but yet we appeal to the unfailing love that characterizes Yahweh. Our God has a track record—that history with Israel reveals God’s love, particularly the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ.

[1]Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), 332.

[2]Based on Loren D. Crow, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 44,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992), 394-401 and Ingvar Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 59.

[3]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 395.

[4]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 446.

[5]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 397.

[6]Crow, “Rhetoric,” 399-400.

[7]Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 57.

[8]J. H. Coetzee, “The Functioning of Elements of Tension in Psalm 44,” Theologia Evangelica 21 (March 1988), 4.

[9]David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 99-100; available at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/MidrashPs44.html;

*This is part of an essay that first appeared in Performing the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2005), edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer.


Psalm 139

February 19, 2015

This psalm is a favorite for many. The first eighteen verses are some of the most intimate and lofty descriptions of the God-human relationship in the Psalter. Most find it comforting, even affirming.

But then a jolt hits us when we read Psalm 139:19-22. What does that have to do with what came before it? Why does this meditation turn toward a passionate rejection of evil and a wish-prayer that God would destroy the bloodthirsty? Where does that come form?

For this reason, some liturgies ignore 19-22 and only use verses 1-18. Some simply stop reading at verse 18 as if verses 19-22 make no contribution to the point that verses 1-18 raise. As it stands, however, Psalm 139 is a unit, and there is some reason (at least to the mind of the author/editor) for verses 19-22 to follow verses 1-18. It is important, I think, to come to grips with what is happening in this psalm and make some sense of this transition which is not only appropriate but telling.

Allen (in his World Biblical Commentary commentary on the Psalms) suggests an interesting scenario which might account for this seemingly disturbing conjunction of thoughts (Brueggemann and Goldingay generally follow his suggestion.) He places the psalm in a setting where a person is falsely accused (as in Psalm 7) or where one is pursued by violent people who want him to participate in their activities. In other words, the psalmist is under such pressure that it is important that God know him/her so that God knows (and the community as well) that the psalmist remains committed to God’s agenda. This person will not be lured or pressured into evil.

Verses 1-18 explore the point that God fully and truly knows the psalmist.  The word “know” (in some form) occurs six times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23).  God knows this believer because:

  1. God has searched the heart thoroughly (1-6).
  2. No one cannot escape God’s presence (7-12).
  3. God created the psalmist (13-16).

The psalmist concludes that God is always with him/her, even thought the thought of this is more than the brain can contain. The wonder of divine knowledge and presence transcends the human capacity to fully understand (and perhaps even to appreciate).

The majestic descriptions in the first part of the psalm are often regarded as pleasant reminders of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibeneficence. God can even appear cute and cuddly in some readings of this section.

But perhaps it should be read with a bit more ambiguity.  Is the divine searching of our hearts something that comforts us or alarms us? When do we really want such? Do we really want anyone to know everything that is in our heart? Are we really comfortable with God probing every aspect of our being and discovering who we really are? This searching is open-ended, and it may have an uncertain end.

Nevertheless, the psalmist does take some comfort in God’s searching, presence, and creative intent. The reason, I suggest, is that the psalmist knows his/her own heart, and the psalmist wants to be known by someone given the circumstances. Yet the danger of self-deception remains, and this why the psalmist wants God to search the heart and root out any evil that lies in it. The psalmist knows his/her commitment to God, even if it is sometimes flawed and we are sometimes self-deceived. The psalmist seeks holiness and at the same time seeks vindication against those who would do him/her harm or corral him/her into violent and evil acts.

It is as if the heart cries, “please, somebody, know me…understand me…and be assured that I am committed to God!”  The psalm’s response is: God knows, and God understands. God knows the psalmist’s commitment and integrity.

The psalmist’s problem, however, is that his/her world is filled with violent and “bloodthirsty” (a lust for blood) people who want to involve the psalmist in their activities. They want the writer to join them and take up their way of life.

The psalmist’s response seems rather harsh to modern ears. The psalmist “hates” the wicked and hates those who hate God.

This is certainly not “polite” language. Some call it malicious language or hateful language. It is certainly intolerant language, and it is not surprising that one dedicated to God is intolerant of evil, especially bloodthirstiness.  But before we pour all our modern emotive dislike for the word “hate” into this language, it is important to remember that this language is about one’s priorities. To hate one thing and love another reflects one’s commitments and values. It is not necessarily a malicious personal dislike but an ethical commitment to a life void of violence and bloodthirstiness. It is a prov0ctive and emphatic way of saying, “I am a God-follower; and I will not follow you into violence.”  In other words, “I hate you” is a succinct and bold way of saying, “I have different ethical commitments than you and I will not participate in your activities.”

But how can “hate” your enemies here square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Just because “hate” and “love” stand in opposition in our common speech does not mean that this is the case in two widely different texts with different contexts. “Hate” and “love” are not necessarily opposites. Even Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must hate our parents (cf. Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we must have a personal dislike for them. Rather, he was talking about priorities, just as Psalm 139 is doing.

Commitment to the divine agenda–seeking first the kingdom of God–involves both a hatred (rejection, opposition) of evil and a love for enemies.

So, how might we pray this prayer? Under what circumstances would it be an appropriate and right thing to do?

Imagine this scenario (and others come to mind as well). Suppose a young teenage believer, living in an urban environment, is pursued by a violent gang. They want him to join their group and participate in their next initiation evening, which includes a rape. He feels the pull of the gang since it is a protective community (at least for them), but he also knows it is not consistent with God’s intent for the world.

So, he prays. What does he pray?  He prays that God will thoroughly search his heart and know every aspect of his being so that whatever he prays is something that arises from his own integrity and commitment to God’s cause rather than out of personal vengeance. He recognizes God’s abiding presence and that no matter what happens, God is with him. And he trusts in God’s goals for him and knows God already knows the days that lie ahead for him.

On the strength of this intimate and trusting relationship, he prays that God will destroy this gang and keep them far away from him. They are violent people, and they seek to involve him in their cycle of violence, which always has negative consequences (it leads eventually to their own deaths in many cases). So, he passionately prioritizes the reign of God over the reign of this gang, and consequently “hates” them with a godly hatred that recognizes the evil that pervades their violent community.

On the one hand, he loves these gang members and would hope for a better life for them, and some of them are good friends whom he has known all his life. But, on the other hand, he hates them, that is, he hates the movement of their lives toward violence and intimidation.

His prayer is not about personal vengeance, and neither does he take violence into his own hands to destroy the gang. Rather, he entrusts this outcome to God and leaves it in God’s hands. Further, he asks God to search his own heart and to root out any evil motives or intent in his life or prayer. God is the ultimate arbitrator of both his own heart and the gang’s lifestyle. God alone knows the human heart, and God alone is the judge.

Psalm 139 is, in fact, an individual lament. It laments the violence of those who would drawn God’s people into their way of life, and it is a lament that contains an imprecation against evil.

Indeed, it is a prayer we might pray for all the victims of violence and for every woman enslaved by the sex-trade. It is a prayer for victims as well as a commitment to pursue justice.

With the psalmist, can we say, “I hate the bloodthirsty?” I think so.


Psalm 104

February 18, 2015

Psalm 104 is one of the great creation praise hymns of Israel. As worship, it blesses God as both creator and provider. As theology, it identifies creation in theocentric rather than anthropocentric ways. God is not only sovereign over the creation but is immanent within it. The creation is more about God than it is humanity.

Indeed, there is no hint in this psalm that humanity shares God’s dominion over the creation. While Genesis 1 looms large in the background of Psalm 104, the psalm does not allude to the role of humanity within the creation as the image of God (and does not deny it either; cf. Psalm 8). Instead, the hymn stresses that God is the central figure in a theology of creation. God creates for God’s self, rejoices in the creation for God’s own sake, and enjoys the creation to God’s own delight. God is the primary actor in this hymn, and no aspect of creation is without God’s presence.

Following some of Goldingay’s suggestions in his Psalms commentary, the psalm moves through various dimensions of creation and climaxes  climatically in the heart-felt worship of a believer. Psalm 104:31-35 is a liturgical response to the reality the psalmist envisions in 104:1-30.

In that vision the psalmist moved from divine transcendence to divine immanence, from God’s sovereign ordering of the chaotic waters to the use of those waters for the care of the plants, animals, and humanity. The psalm moves easily from God’s initiating acts (as in Genesis 1) to God’s ongoing acts in the care of the world.

God’s Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 does not entail inactivity. Rather, God created a world in which God would dwell with humanity and in the creation much like builders live in their houses.  Yahweh spread a tent–the heavens (sky) themselves–and came to dwell within the creation. God completed the divine work of building the home (bringing the creation into being and ordering so that it was now habitable space), but God’s work continues in the care, development, and enjoyment of what God has created. God is no couch potato lazily overseeing the world, but an active agent within the creation as an expression of God’s own joy.

I suggest, following Goldingay in many ways, the movement of Psalm 104 looks something like this:

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (1a)

God’s Transcendent Identity (1b-4)

God’s Ordering of the Chaotic Waters (5-9)

God’s Benevolent Use of Land and Water  (10-18)

God’s Ordering of the Cosmos (19-23)

God’s Ordering of Life (24-30)

Liturgical Response to God’s Creative Work (31-35ab)

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (35c)…and Praise Yah! (35c)

God’s transcendent identity is clear by the allusions to Genesis 1 in Psalm 104:1-4: light, heavens, waters. God towers above and beyond the creation; this is God’s greatness or transcendence.  This is clear in the images the psalmist utilizes. Yahweh wraps on light like a garment and stretches the sky like a tent. Yahweh dwells in the clouds; God has a luxury apartment in the heights (“in the waters”). Yahweh rides the clouds like a chariot as even the storms carry Yahweh back and forth throughout the creation.

The images, of course, are not literal; they are poetic. The language describes a God who fills the sky from one end of the earth to the other. Yahweh reigns over the earth and thus we ascribe honor and majesty to God. The poetry offers a picture God’s limitless power. The cosmos does not confine God, even light itself is a coat that God wears and the heavens are a tent Yahweh spreads. It does not limit God. Rather, God chooses to dwell in the tent.

Just as in Genesis 1, God orders the chaotic waters. At one time the earth was covered with water (cf. Genesis 1:2) and was uninhabitable. The waters represent chaos, that is, they are a threat to the existence of creation as a habitable space. But God is not threatened by chaos. On the contrary, God rebukes the waters and at the sound of divine thunder, the waters flee and gather together in the place God designed for them.

As the waters flee, the ground emerges with its mountains and valleys. Dry ground emerges from the waters, and the waters are given boundaries so that they will not cover the earth.  In other words, God creates habitable space for plants, animals, and humanity. God takes the initial chaotic watery world first created (Genesis 1:2) and orders it in such a way that now habitable land is present within the creation (thus, now it is “very good”). God takes the chaos and brings order to it.

God then makes benevolent use of this land, and the water satisfies the earth. Goldingay helpfully suggests that Psalm 104:10-18 has a kind of chiastic structure:

Mountains and Wild Animals (10-11)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (12-13)

Yahweh Provides for Animals and Humanity (14-15)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (16-17)

Mountains and Wild Animals (18)

Interestingly, water–though representative of chaos in the previous section–now becomes a blessing. God satisfies the earth with the rain, and the earth produces plants, which feed the animals.   The “circle of life” is present in the Psalm; life is situated in an ecosystem by divine design.

This “circle of life” involves birds in the branches of trees, goats on high mountains, badgers living in rocky crags as well as domesticated animals. God provides for animals that have no intimate connection with humanity, that is, animals that live in the wild or live in places inhospitable to humankind. Nevertheless, God cares and provides for them. God is interested in the creation even when it has no direct relationship with or connection to humanity!

The centerpiece of this structure, however, is the food God provides for animals and humans. Specifically, God provides humanity with

  • wine from vines to enjoy life
  • oil from trees to enhance human health
  • bread from grain to nourish the body

Each of these is subject to abuse (e.g., bread can lead to obesity and wine to drunkenness), but they are nevertheless fundamental goods which God gives to humanity through the creation. Each has its own purpose. Wine is for joy, grain is for nourishment (“strength”), and oil is for refreshed living (oil was used medicinally as well as to moisten the body after a hard day in the sun and scorching winds). These are creation’s goods that God intends for humanity to enjoy, even amidst the chaos that sometimes (even often) surrounds us (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

God orders the cosmos. The present creation has darkness and light, night and day. The sun and moon have their functions within that order, and there is regularity in their movements. They are predictable.  There are twenty-eight days in the lunar calendar, and the sun rises and sets at predictable times. At root, this means that science is possible because the universe functions in regular, predictable ways.

This order extends to the the function of night and day in the creation.  At night the lions hunt, and humanity works their fields by day. There is balance to life, and God values each.  God wants both the lions and humanity to have their food; God wants both to pursue life, and  God enjoys both.

The reality of darkness, however, is paralleled by the “tooth and claw” nature of the creation.  The psalmist does not idealize the present creation, or speak of the present creation as if is the future new creation. Rather, it is realistic–lions kill their prey. Eschatologically, this may not always be so, but it is true now. Chaos still exists, and creation has not yet reached its full potential or its eventual goal. Darkness yet exists though tempered by the light of the moon and stars, but one day there will be no night in the new creation. That day, however, has not yet come. So, lions still hunt their prey in the night, and humans–unfortunately–often do the same, and even bring their violence against fellow-humans and the creation itself into the light of day.

God’s orders life. Like Proverbs 8, the psalmist appeals to divine wisdom as the root of God’s creative work. The creation exhibits divine wisdom, even if perhaps we might not be able to discern it at times. And it is evidenced in the wide variety of life within the world–on the earth and in the sea, both small and great. Indeed, God has an aquarium the size of the earth’s oceans, and only God has seen most of those sea creatures.

In fact, this ordering of life is most famously exhibited in how God orders the chaos of the Leviathan, which is well-known in the ancient world as a (mythological) sea monster. The Leviathan represents the chaotic waters and lives in those waters. Often it is pictured as hostile to humanity, and certainly no human is able to tame it (Job 41; Isaiah 27:1).

Yet, God plays with the Leviathan (NJPS) or enjoys watching the Leviathan play in the oceans. God is not threatened by the chaos that the Leviathan represents. On the contrary, God enjoys and delights in the play of the Leviathan. Even “sea monsters,” which fostered dread and fear among ancient peoples, do not intimidate God because God created “sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). The chaos within creation, the Leviathan, is yet under God’s sovereign control and so much so that God can enjoy the Leviathan’s playfulness.

The ordering of life, however, is not all play.  The psalmist’s realism emerges once again in the affirmation that both life and death are in God’s hands.  When God sends ruach (spirit, breath, wind), God gives life.  When God hides God’s face and withdraws ruach (spirit, breath, wind), then there is death. This is the nature of our creatureliness, and one we share with all life on earth.  Whether cattle or lions, or human beings, life depends upon God’s breath. Just as humans came to life through the breath of God in Genesis 2, so they return to the earth (the dust of the ground) when that breath is taken away. Life and death lie in God’s hands, and so it should be since God is the Creator.

The psalmist offers a liturgical response to this poetic narration of God’s creative work.  The creation serves the glory and delight of God, and the wish-prayer ascribes this to God.  Powerfully, God rejoices in creation; God enjoys what God has made! The creation is about God rather than humanity.

Humanity joins God in this joy and delight, and sings and offers musical praise to God in the light of this good creation.  We are grateful for what God has provided, and we admire the beauty, diversity, and order as well as the mysterious chaotic rhythms of creation. So, we sing and play.

The psalmist describes his reflection as a “meditation,” as most translations render it. The word is not exactly about meditation. Often it is translated lament, complaint, or protest.  Here, of course, it is used in a positive sense. The semantic point appears to be that this is a passionate and deeply held perspective. It arises out of the deepest regions of the soul, and the poem is a passionate outpouring of love and praise for the Creator.

If the praise and wish-prayers for God are a natural response to this passionate poem, Psalm 104:25a comes somewhat as a shock. From where does this wish-prayer for the destruction of the wicked arise? How is this congruent with the psalm as a whole?

The passion for the good things of creation is mirrored by the passion against those things that are toxic to the creation. The psalmist’s passion for creation is also a passion against those who would destroy it. The “wicked” and the “sinner” may have a general reference, but I think it probably relates more specifically to what spoils the earth, the goodness of creation, and the ends for which God created the world. In one sense all sin does that, but the prayer is that God will consume those who are committed to the subversion of God’s goodness in creation.

It should not surprise us, I think, that in passionate worship that we also display a passionate commitment to God’s goodness. Should we not be angry with poachers who endanger the Black Rhino? Should we not be angry about pollutants that render our air and waters toxic?

The prayer that God might rejoice in God’s own works is concomitant with the prayer that God would destroy those who destroy God’s creation.

The psalm ends on a final call to praise. Though the psalm begins and ends as an individual hymn of praise (“Bless Yahweh, O my soul”), its final words address the congregation. “Praise Yah” is a plural imperative. The psalmist invites Israel to praise God in the light of the poem the composer has just sung. It as if a soloist has asked the congregation to affirm his/her testimony of praise by singing the last verse with him/her.

This praise affirms that the creation is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric, but theocentric. God is the primary mover, goal, and agent in the creation, and God acts for the sake of the other (both animals and humans) in all that God does. God is Creator, and that is no mere ancient title.  God is still at work within the creation!

The creation is not about humanity, and it is not about the biosphere. It is about God.


Psalm 66

February 16, 2015

Some people enjoy hearing testimonies. Others do not.

As for the latter, their reasons vary.  Some testimonies appear superficial or lack discernment. Some believe testimonies are too subjective and individualistic. Some regard testimonies as private, a matter of personal interpretation rather than public proclamation. People should keep “testimonies,” according to some, to themselves, and they especially do not belong in the worship assembly.

On the other hand, Psalm 66 reflects the union of communal worship and personal testimony. The psalm combines a hymn of communal praise (66:1-12) and individual thanksgiving (66:13-20). The former shapes the latter, and the latter gives voice to the former. The community of Israel, gathered for praise, hears the testimony of an individual believer whose personal experience affirms the story of Israel.

At the heart of the hymn of praise is an invitation, “Come and see!’

The invitation is for “all the earth” and its “peoples.” They are invited to join the assembly of Israel in the praise of Yahweh. Israel’s story is not just about Israel. Rather, it calls all the nations scattered throughout the whole earth to join in song and music in order to shout God’s praise. Yahweh’s “name”–reputation, presence, character–deserves praise because of God’s “awesome” (fearsome, awe-inspiring) deeds. When Yahweh chose Israel, Yahweh chose them for the sake of the nations so that all the peoples of the earth might share in the inheritance of the kingdom of God.

Specifically, the psalmist has the Exodus and the entrance into the land of promise in view. The journey from the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan is Israel’s redemption by God’s mighty power.

All the earth is invited to come and “see” what God has done. But how can they “see” a past event? “See” probably means something like “to experience” or “to encounter.” When Israel gathers to praise Yahweh, it rehearses the story of redemption and through that story Yahweh encounters Israel once again as well as others who are gathered with Israel to praise God.  To “see” the mighty deeds of Yahweh is to experience them again and to encounter the holy God in the midst of the congregation.

The story of God with Israel, however, is not an easy one. In rehearing the story, they do not leave out the wilderness and neither do they forget their long years of bondage.  The God who redeemed them also tested them. Through slavery and the wilderness Israel was refined as a people so that they might become the holy people of God who would enter the land of promise.

The psalmist believes God led Israel into these times of testing; times when they were burdened, even enslaved. Israel was, at times, entrapped, as in a net. Others mistreated them, and they went through “fire and water.” God used these experiences to refine, like silver, a whole community, a whole people.

Ultimately, God redeemed, and though God led Israel through “fire and water,” Yahweh also led them into a place of abundance–the promised land.

As Israel praises God, they remember the slavery as well as the Exodus, and they remember the wilderness as well as the Jordan-crossing. The divine plot-line moved a people through trouble to redemption, and then through trouble again to redemption. The trouble has its purpose–it is refinement, a testing. The refining process prepares us for further redemption.

“Come and see” is an invitation to participate in the story of Israel, and we are reminded that the story is both one of refinement and redemption. It is not an easy path, but one that learns to trust and depend on God through the trouble. This is exactly what the personal testimony affirms in the next section of the psalm (66:13-20).

At the heart of the personal thanksgiving is also an invitation, “Come and listen!” The psalmist invites “all who fear God” to listen to his/her testimony, to listen to what God has done for him/her. The psalm moves from first person plurals to first person singulars–from us to me. A personal, individual testimony emerges in the midst of congregational praise.

First, the psalmist addresses God and remembers the vows made and the prayers prayed when he/she was in “trouble.” In gratitude, the psalmist now comes to the temple to return praise to God and fulfill those vows.

Specifically, the psalmist offers burnt offerings. Usually a thanksgiving sacrifice is a fellowship-offering where the worshiper eats the animal in fellowship with God and others. However, here the worshiper burns the whole animal before God. This is an intensification of the thanksgiving itself. The whole animal is given to God; the whole animal is burned up. By this the worshiper dedicates everything to God and thus symbolizes the intent to wholly dedicate himself or herself to God. To burn the whole animal to God is to dedicate one’s whole life to God.

The psalmist’s testimony is simply this:  I was in trouble, I prayed sincerely (without hiding sins in my heart), God heard me, and God delivered me.

The psalmist offers no details, and this is intentional. The psalmist offers a model for future testimonies and provides an entry point for others to insert their own story of renewal or deliverance in this song. In other words, testimonies are for everyone, and everyone can insert theirs into this story.

This story, however, is Israel’s story. The psalmist has lived in microcasm the macro-story of Israel. Just as Israel was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed, so this individual was in trouble, was refined, and then redeemed. The personal story of believers in Israel relives Israel’s own story.

More to the point, the story of Israel becomes the lens through which believers interpret their own personal stories. Israel’s experience as a whole becomes their own individual experience. Testimonies are legitimized in Israel because they are interpreted and told within the framework of God’s history with Israel.

The same is true for Christian believers. Indeed, Jesus’ own story is interpreted in the context of God’s story with Israel. Jesus passed through the sea, entered the wilderness–even to the point of death, and was ultimately redeemed (resurrected). And this is true of followers of Jesus as well.

As disciples of Jesus, we interpret God’s work in our lives through the lens of what God has done in Jesus as well as what God did in Israel. We use this interpretative framework to understand our lives in relation to God’s mission, praise, and goals. We interpret our lives through the lens of God’s story  in Jesus, which is the fulfillment of God’s story with Israel.

Consequently, testimonies are important. They are just as important now as they were in Psalm 66.

When the community gathers to praise God and invites the nations to join in the praise, personal testimonies are an important part of that assembly.

We invite all the earth to “come and see,” and we invite all those who are gathered to praise God to “come and listen.”

That, indeed, is the essence of assembly. We “see” God anew, and we “listen” to what God is continuing to do among all those who fear God.

 

 


Psalm 88

February 15, 2015

Perhaps originally an individual lament by Heman, the Psalm became part of the repertoire of Israel’s communal worship at the temple. The faithful community sang and prayed these words. These words were not hidden in a corner, but heralded in the temple courts as the congregation of Israel worshiped God. Though they may have begun as a personal testimony, they became the community’s voice as well.

But the words are startling to many contemporary believers. It is almost unimaginable that any believer should pray these words much less that a worshiping community recite and sing them in their assembly.

Unlike other laments, Psalm 88 has no explicit praise, no commitment to trust, and no explicit hope that God will answer. It only has one petition, and it does not request healing, resolution, or redemption. It only asks God to listen (88:2)! The Psalmist wants to be heard, which is one of the great needs human beings have. We want to be heard, and most of all we want God to hear our hurts, pains, and concerns.

While Psalm 88 is traumatic for many believers, it is a prayer that arises from trauma. Perhaps that trauma was a long, chronic illness; one that has afflicted Heman from his youth. He has often lingered near the grave, on the edge of death. The prayer is the testimony of a dying person.

Three times–and this makes a  nice structural division of the Psalm into three parts–the Psalmist cries out to God:

  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (1-2), and Heman gives his reasons (3-9a)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (9bc), and Heman questions God (10-12)
  • Yahweh, I cry out to you (13), and Heman describes his lot (14-18)

Each time, however, Heman uses a different word for “cry out.” These terms overlap in their semantic meaning, but the emphasis is slightly different. As a structural key to the Psalm, we might see shifting (or developing) moods in the different verbs. The first has the sense of crying out for help in the midst of some kind of distress; it is an outcry, an emotionally charged plea for help.  The second has the sense of proclaim or call, which perhaps reflects a public pleading for help as if it is a pleading in court. The third is a plea, perhaps couched in deep saddness, for deliverance.

I see movement in the three sections of the Psalm.  Heman begins with an emotionally-charged plea for help where he details the tragic circumstances of his life, and then publicly questions God about death and divine faithfulness. In the final section, emotionally spent, Heman–with a sense of melancholy–faces the reality of the situation where darkness is his constant companion (88:18). We move from shock to anger, and from anger to resignation, but there is no deliverance in sight.

The shock is that God has not answered despite the persistent prayer of one who has served God faithfully for years (Heman is one of the Levitical musicians or singers–he is part of the temple musical complex). Rather than deliverance, which one might expect from the God of the Exodus, he has found himself near death as if God has abandoned him and cut him off from God’s protective care. This abandonment extends to his friends who regard him as “a thing of horror.”

Heman is alone. There is no community, and there is no salvation or healing. This has nothing to do with his prayer life–he prays every day, morning and night.  This has nothing to do with his service–he is a committed member of the praise team!  This has nothing to do with his confession–he knows Yahweh and speaks the name of God in his prayers. Consequently, Heman is bewildered, confused, and perplexed.  This does not make sense.

The Psalmist is shocked that God has not answered. He is shocked that God lies behind his condition, and his prayer is filled with accusation.  God is responsible for his situation! That itself is a shock.

This shock turns to questioning, perhaps even anger (88:9b-12). The questions are probably arguments, but also rhetorical.  Perhaps he knows the answer to them (do they assume a negative answer?), but perhaps they are more open-ended, a kind of grasping for hope in the midst of despair. Whatever the case, this prayer-warrior is bold and addresses the covenant God (Yahweh) with direct questions. He wrestles with God.

The questions contrast death and the character of Yahweh.

Does God work wonders for the dead?

Do the dead ones stand up to praise God?

Is steadfast love declared in the grave?

Is divine faithfulness declared in Abaddon?

Are divine wonders recognized in the darkness?

Is divine deliverance recognized where people are forgotten?

This is a dispute with God about death. What good is death? What good is there in Heman’s potential death? What does God gain from death?

The questions affirm life. This is where God’s steadfast love and deliverance are remembered and praised. This is the arena of God’s redemptive work, and it is where Yahweh loves and communes with the people of God. The living praise God.

As Andrew Peterson sings in “Come Back Soon,” “Every death is a question mark.” Every death raises questions about God’s character, about the meaning of life, and about the praise of God.

Heman feels these questions.  Perhaps the dead do praise God, but Heman does not know this or at least he is uncertain about it. In fact, his argument is that it is better for him to live and give testimony about God’s deliverance in the land of the living than to die and praise God (if he can) where the living will not hear. The steadfast love of God is about life, not death, and Heman appeals to this  in anger and frustration.

This anger, I think, turns to melancholy or sadness.  It still questions, “Why do you hide your face from me?” But resignation is present to some degree–the reality has set in, and no deliverance seems near. Instead, he feels assaulted and overwhelmed by a flood of terror. God has not released him from death, and God’s “terrors” have frightened his friends and neighbors.  He is alone, and only darkness is his companion.  Darkness is the last Hebrew word in the psalm.

His prayer asks, “Why?”  Sometimes one hears that sufferers should not ask why, but sufferers in the Psalms did, and Jesus even quoted one on the cross (“why have you forsaken me?”). “Why?” is a perfectly legitimate question but without satisfying answers. Heman does not know the answer, and neither do we.  Nevertheless, we still ask.  There is something deeply emotive about asking that question. We vent even as we inquire. We yearn for meaning and purpose even if we don’t see any possible meaning or purpose that could be given to some of our experiences.

“Why?” is the voice of despair, even anger. It is, however, primarily a way to cope. To ask–to voice the question–is to act, and to act is to search for meaning. Ultimately, we give the question to God who alone can answer it. But sufferers must lay it in God’s lap and ask! There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there is something (spiritually) therapeutic about it.

In the midst of suffering–a chronic illness, the loss of death, or whatever it may be–we are first shocked, then we become angry, and then we feel the overwhelming torture of sadness or depression. This is the process of Psalm 88. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Indeed, Psalm 88 leads the congregation of Israel through that very process. It is important for healing, growth, and renewal.

But are there signs of renewal here?

Heman is overwhelmed with darkness. Even in that darkness, however, he has a glimer of hope though it is faint.

  • He continues to pray, day and night, unceasingly and persistently. He is still speaking to God; he has not given upon on God.
  • He calls God by the covenant name, “Yahweh.”
  • He approaches God as an intimate, that is, he questions God and boldly places his heart before God.
  • He knows the story of God’s covenant love, faithfulness, and past wonders, and he relies on those stories for the hope of deliverance.
  • He addresses God, in the first line of the Psalm, as the one who is able to deliver, “the God of my salvation.”
  • The prayer evidences an intensity and depth of relationship with God; Heman still trusts God and prays boldly.

And yet, there is only one petition in the whole prayer:  “incline your ear to my cry.” This is a different word for “cry” than the verbs present in verses 1, 9a, and 13.  This word involves groaning, distress, and agony.

Heman is in agony, and all he wants–as far as this prayer is concerned–is for God to listen.  Sometimes that is all we want from anybody….somebody to listen. Perhaps God answered Heman’s prayer when the whole congregation prayed with him in song and music.

Perhaps that happens even today when we are willing to listen to each other’s agony, and then darkness is no longer our closest companion.


Psalm 19

February 10, 2015

Words.

Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and words that shape the life of Israel. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from chaos. It is not merely “sky,” but the word reflects God’s creative love.  God’s glory is that God has acrafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress that Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing (day and night!), and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example of this speech. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-t0-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessiblity of God’s speech through the creation.

Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

Torah’s Words

Israel knows that God speaks in other ways than through the rising sun and the testimony of the heavens. God has spoken in history, and God has acted within history to enter into covenant (relationship) with Israel. That story is told in concrete ways–it is written in the Torah. These words are heard, and they are heard in the assembly of the people of God. Israel has been given the “oracles of God” (cf. Romans 3:2), and this comes in the form of Torah (often rendered “law”).

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech. It is, one might say, the controlling metaphor for the following descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandment. Those further terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel in walking with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative and story rather than merely specific case-law or isolated commands and rituals.

Embedded within God’s story with Israel are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. This story:

  • restores the soul, that is, it renews life
  • makes the simple wise, that is, guides the inexperienced
  • gives joy to the heart, that is, enables a life free of burdens
  • enlightens the eyes, that is, enables us to see more clearly

The Torah–the story of God with Israel–provides a path for healthy, joyful and wise living.

The colon “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to the lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, easily driven by desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection (they react rather than respond to situations). Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple”discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, that is, it is to fear (awe, reverence) Yahweh. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

Our Words

The Psalmist confesses that Torah, God’s guidance, is both life-affirming (there is great reward in living a wise life) and a warning (there are dangers into which the “simple” might fall).

Indeed, the dangers are so pervasive that often they are hidden from our own eyes. The human ability for self-deception and self-delusion knows no practical limits. Most of our faults, I would guess, are “hidden” from us. We are unaware due to ignorance–ignorance both of the Torah and of our own selves.

The danger is that this self-deception can grow into an arrogance, and arrogance leads to presumptuous or defiant behavior.  It leads to willful sin, that is, sin that rebelliously lives outside the story. Arrogance presumes that the story (Torah) does not apply to them and they are the exceptions to the rules a community shares for the sake of the common good.

Because this danger looms large in every soul, the Psalmist asks God to forgive the hidden sins and prevent them from developing into a rebellious attitude. The Psalmist is committed to God’s story and wants to live within it. Yet, the poet knows the dangers and seeks God’s help in cleansing and self-understanding.

Yahweh is the Psalmist’s “rock and redeemer.” The fear of Yahweh is a stable place and a sure foundation upon which to build a life, and though our own self-deception often intrudes and disrupts that life, God is also a redeemer who forgives sin, renews life, and gives joy.

Let us offer our meditations–on creation and Torah–before the Lord, recommit ourselves to wise living in the fear of Yahweh, and humbly submit to God’s guidance.

 


The Closing Psalm (Psalm 150)

February 2, 2015

At some point Psalm 145:21 may have been the final doxology of Psalms. It makes a similar point to Psalm 150:6.

Psalm 145:21 appears as the concluding doxology of Book V in the Psalter.  Books I-IV conclude with independent doxologies attached to the final psalms in those books. It is natural that Book V would also conclude with a doxology.

However, there are five more Psalms (146-150). If Book V concludes with Psalm 145, what is the function of the final five? I think they are concluding doxologies (or praises ) for the whole book.

It is as if the final editor (whoever he/she/they may be) of Psalms was unwilling to end the Psalter on a two-line doxology. The journey through the Psalter is a difficult one. It is filled with lament and protest, but it moves toward praise and exults in the character and redeeming acts of God. The Psalter must end with praise…..and praise….and praise. There are not enough words.

Each of the final five Psalms begin and end with the Hebrew phrase often transliterated as Hallelujah (praise Yahweh, or praise the Lord). The word “praise” occurs thirty-six times in the final five psalms, and twelve times in the final psalm (150). The editor(s) concludes the Psalter with resounding praise–almost as if it is unceasing praise. So, the structure of the Psalter might look something like this.

Introduction: Psalm 1

  • Book I (Psalms 2-41) Doxology:  41:13
  • Book II (Psalms 42-72) Doxology: 72:18-19
  • Book III (Psalms 73-89) Doxology: 89:52
  • Book IV (Psalms 93-106) Doxology: 106:48
  • Book V (Psalms 107-150) Doxology: 145:21

Conclusion: Psalms 146-150

The final psalm–of the traditional Hebrew text–uses the verb “praise” twelve times. Every line in the psalm contains the verb. Eleven of them are imperatives (commands), but the next to last is a jussive, that is, an invitation to join the praise (150:6).

The repeated exhortation to praise constitutes a demand that arises from the story the Psalmists have told throughout their journey with God in the previous psalms, a journey with many hills and valleys. That journey ends, however, in praise.

God has sustained the Psalmists. God has not abandoned them, even though sometimes they thought God had. Yahweh is faithful, and from creation to Exodus to renewal in the post-exilic era, God has redeemed Israel and demonstrated the excellence of the divine character.

That praise begins in the the divine, heavenly sanctuary–in firmament that shields the earth–but it encompasses what God has done upon the earth, God’s “mighty deeds.”  The praise in Psalm 150 has no content. Instead, it has a standard.  We are called to praise God in ways that reflect God’s mighty deeds (God’s redemptive acts) and the excellence of God’s character.

The mighty deeds have demonstrated God’s presence and revealed God’s character. Our praise must be congruent with God’s story, the faithful and redemptive ways in which God has patiently continued to love Israel. We know who God is, and this demands praise.  Hallelujah, the call to praise Yahweh, is the call to engage the covenant God of Israel, the one who has acted in faithful love for the people called out of Ur and Egypt, and returned from Babylon.

In the divine sanctuary (which probably includes the temple court as a mirror of the heavenly one), how is this praise embodied?

Interestingly, nothing is explicitly said about the use of words, though I think the call to “praise” involves words.  Rather, the mood and atmosphere of praise is connected to instrumentation, to the sounds of artistic, exuberant, and bold string, percussion, and wind instruments. Israel praised God with (through or by) these instruments. They were no mere aids but means.

  • Trumpets–usually  used to mark movements within the liturgy, to announce significant moments, events, and transitions (much like bells are used in some liturgical churches).
  • Harp and lute, or “strings and pipe,”–the use of wind and string instruments as means of praise, as acts of praise of themselves.
  • Tambourines and dancing–we see the joy of the Exodus in the praise of God (cf. Exodus 15:20), and that joy continued in the celebration of God’s redemptive acts and faithful character.
  • Cymbals–perhaps also used to mark movements within the liturgy, but also to dramatically heighten the bold character of the praise. The cymbals are loud and resounding; this is no soft, solemn, or silent praise.

As one student commented, the instruments reflect how bold and enthusiastic this praise is. We might imagine the priests blowing the trumpets and clashing the cymbals at dramatic moments in the liturgy while a Levitical band (strings and pipes) provides the music that accompanies the words of praise are sung by a Levitical choir. In the midst of this offering by the priests and Levites, the congregation taps their tambourines and dances in the temple court in praise of Yahweh, their faithful covenant God.

This praise is the fruit of a life lived under the Torah of God and tutored by the prayers and thanksgivings of the Psalmists. Living in humble submission, absorbing the values and language of the psalms, and obedient to the Torah or story of God, praise is the fruit of such a life. Prayer leads to praise, and obedience leads to adoration.

Indeed, this is the fundamental identity of everything that breathes; humanity is homo liturgicus.  The final line of the Psalter, except the inclusio “Praise the Lord,” invites all creation (“every breath” as in Genesis 7:22), to join the chorus of praise.  As in Psalm 148, the cosmos–whether in heaven or on earth–is invited to praise God.

God gives breath, and that breath ought to return to God in praise. The breath in us is, in fact, the Spirit of God moving through us (see Job 27:1). As such, breath returns to God who gave it.

As the Orthodox theology Schmemann wrote, “every breath is communion with God,” and the Psalmist invites “every thing that breathes” to say, Hallelujah!

So, as people who sing, pray, and mediate on the psalms, we join the chorus of praise that reverberates throughout the cosmos,even though we have traversed many valleys and dark places to get to this point.

Our every breath is both an invitation to praise and a form of praise!


Three Takeaways from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

December 30, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings is filled with amazing special effects, wonderfully depicts the cultural situation (clothing, geography, architecture), and generally follows the biblical storyline.

Epic “biblical” movies are always imaginative creations. The Ten Commandments with the beloved Charlton Heston used a lot of imagination in telling the Exodus story, though it arguably followed  the biblical “script” more closely than did Gods and Kings.

When telling the biblical story visually, however, imagination is imperative and unavoidable.  Storytellers–whether verbal or visual or cinematic–tell the story in a particular way to make a contemporary point. We might hope that there is some degree of faithfulness to the overt lines of the story (and this is the case with Gods and Kings generally), but the intent is to tell the story in the present for a contemporary audience. In other words, if Exodus had been written last year, how might the story have been told while still retaining the main features of the reality it portrays? I suppose it could look like this movie. Maybe. At least one version of it.

Whatever one might think about the explicit divergences from the biblical story (e.g., the conversation at the burning bush is too limited in the movie, the omission of the opening confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, absence of Pharaoh-Moses interaction about the plagues, etc.), the story is told to make a point(s) for contemporary audiences.

I heard several points, but here are my major takeaways.

1. Israel wrestles with God. Nun, Joshua’s father, demonstrates a tenacious hopeful faithfulness as he expects divine deliverance though he is uncertain as to when. In the movie, Israel waits for God, prays to God, and hopes in God, even as their suffering abounds and increases.

At one point, Moses–still a prince of Egypt–reminds the viceroy, who supervises the slaves, of the meaning of the word “Israel” (one who wrestles or strives with God). Moses is fully aware of this, and when he encounters God this becomes a prominent theme which grows within the drama.

Moses both argues and cooperates (or even abstains from action) with God. Moses wrestles with God. He objects to God’s decision to kill the children of Egypt (and perhaps we even nod our heads in agreement), but ultimately Moses accepts God’s decision (even when confronted by Pharaoh as to why Moses serves such a God).

This wrestling reflects some of the best of Jewish tradition. We see it in Exodus 3-4 and Exodus 32. We see it in Psalms 30 & 88, as well as in Job 7:7-21 and other places. It is part of the history of Judaism.

Israel wrestles with God. There is tension, and there is faith as well as honesty. God seeks human cooperation and honors the dignity of human freedom. One of the final scenes highlights this when Moses buys into the divine regulations we know as the “Ten Commandments.”

Rather than depicting the God-Moses relationship as a sanitized submissiveness, Gods and Kings reflects the raw reality that the book of Exodus depicts.  Moses wrestles with God, and so do we.

2. Jewish Holocaust Relived.  Forced labor. Burning bodies. Racial slurs. Summary executions. Genocidal pogroms.

The movie allows us to enter into the experience of slavery. We remember not only that ancient slavery, but the Nazi Holocaust as well.  The parallels are vivid. We are incensed with a righteous indignation, and we cry with the Israelites for justice and deliverance.

God expresses this righteous anger more than any other character in the movie. In explaining why the plagues, and particularly the last plague, were necessary, God points to Pharaoh’s arrogance and the treatment of Israel. The plagues are not about vengeance but justice and to secure the release of Israel from the holocaust they were experiencing.

The cry for justice rebounds through the history of the world. The slave conditions remind us that Africans were enslaved as forced labor in the Americas. The movie reminds us that racial slurs, summary executions (lynchings) and genocidal pogroms (mob violence) are part of our own American story.

As viewers sympathize with Israel in their suffering, perhaps we learn to sympathize with enslaved Africans, enslaved women in sex-trafficking, and the injustice pervasively present in the world even now. Perhaps our sense of righteous indignation is renewed.

3. Not by Israel’s sword, but by the Lord’s right hand. This biblical theme emerges in the movie. It is present in Psalm 44:3, Psalm 20:7, and Hosea 1:7 as well as other places.

I wondered early in the movie why Moses carried a sword rather than a staff after the burning bush encounter. Indeed, the staff is absent until after Israel crosses the sea.

Moses approaches the situation as a general who intends to train an army of freedom fighters. (The biblical story highlights Moses’s violent nature–he kills an Egyptian.) Moses will liberate Israel by his own might, ingenuity, and sword. He wages a guerrilla campaign against Egypt.  Of course, this is nowhere present in the biblical text.  This is a place where the script writer takes creative liberties in order to make an explicit point, which is nevertheless a theme in the canonical story and in the history of Israel.

God allows Moses to pursue his ineffective strategy until God decides to assume the reins and effectively move Pharaoh to liberate Israel. The plagues, depicted as natural events (though implausibly explained as such by Pharaoh’s own “scientist”), are divine acts that humble Egypt before Israel’s God. Egypt experiences horrors, and they now know how Israel feels in its horrendous bondage.

At bottom, violent revolution, which Moses chose as his strategy, is rejected. God uses the chaos of nature–a form of uncreation where God turns order into chaos when his creative activity turned chaos into order–to achieve the divine purpose.

The movie depicts human violence in negative terms, and in the biblical story human violence does not deliver Israel from Egypt.

Further, it is a purpose that is frustrated at times by Pharaoh’s own stubborness and idolatry (not only does he serve other gods but also thinks of himself as a god). Pharaoh’s hard heart increases the drama of the plagues. Human sin and rebellion creates further hardship (which is not unlike what sinful environmental practices do as well). Resistance to the will of God has consequences–for the nation, for people, even for children.

God delivers. We do not deliver ourselves. God remembers the promise to Israel and faithfully acts to redeem them from bondage. Moses’s freedom fighter strategy is discredited. Rather, Moses learns to trust in God’s mighty hand, and so we trust as well.

 

 


The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”