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Posts Tagged ‘Psalms’

In the Psalms, as in life, the enemy is often hidden and relentlessly scheming. Here as in so many other of its observations, the book of Psalms displays its characteristic realism.

We are more sentimental and romantic about our adversaries, at least in those moments when we can bring ourselves to admit their existence. We do alright with evil, comfortably abstract and remote. But we resist the notion of evil people. They’re a bit too concrete for our post-modern aesthetic, where everyone gads about on pretty much the same moral plain and almost any action can be tolerated if we can just find an angle from which to understand its causes.

Psalm 21, apart from a wider biblical context that radically constrains the king’s authority, might be seen as a set piece of tyranny, a clumsily ideological tract that frames anything the king wants as God’s will and God’s way. But that wider context stubbornly exists, for example in the urging of Psalm 146 not to ‘put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’.

Something strong but something that is not clumsy is going on here. The psalmist prays that his king might see through the sinister designs of his—and therefore our—adversaries.

Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you …

Though they plan evil against you, though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.

Only a generation ago, everyone knew that people and peoples had real enemies. Perhaps the lightning fast-forward of the past couple of decades has advanced us beyond the common wisdom of human history towards enlightenment. Or perhaps we’ve lost our stomach for reality, with its inconvenient jagged edges.

In the seamier, more brutal corners of humanity, where the spin of events allows no luxury for explaining away evil, let alone evil people, it is an ordinary thing to pray that one’s enemies might be found out before they carry off our child or our neighbor’s. Plotting and scheming seem less like delusional projections when last week’s car bomb was placed precisely where our women buy their vegetables on Tuesday mornings.

Those dark corners may be where we live one day, God forbid. If so, Israel’s prayer that its king’s right hand might find his enemies in time will likely tumble more naturally from our once refined lips.

 

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The Bible’s Old Testament argues for what we today call ‘monotheism’ by asking a question.

‘Who is like him?’ and ‘Who is like you?’ are the rhetorical thrusts that celebrate YHWH’s uniqueness or, more precisely, his incomparability?

They are foundational questions and, so they generate corollary questions that dive more deeply into the reality they are seeking to define:

For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? (Psalm 89:6–7 ESV)

Often, as in Psalm 89, YHWH’s incomparability is seen in his faithfulness. We might say, at risk of reducing a large quality to one of its smaller constituent parts, his reliability.

As here in this psalmic celebration of YHWH’s promises of David, so elsewhere and in other times YHWH can be counted on to do as he has said he will do. No other being anywhere, we are told—indeed we learn to proclaim the fact, even if via the enigmatic phrasing of a rhetorical question—is so faithful to be the person he has declared himself to be.

We are warned that we will learn YHWH’s faithfulness in violence and in chaos:

You rule the swelling of the sea; when its waves surge, You still them. You crushed Rahab; he was like a corpse; with Your powerful arm You scattered Your enemies. (Psalm 89:10–11 JPS)

The events leading up to Easter must sorely have tested Jesus’ knowledge of his God. Surely, the seas had now swelled beyond containment, surely wave would now surge where wave would surge.

Without limit. Without mercy. With no reliable promise that evil’s tsunami would ever recede or, if recede, leave anything but death and debris where a couple had celebrated 38 years or a child’s laughter had recently rung out.

Surely YHWH, like all others before and after, could be taken. For a price. By a greater power. Or because violence does as ruination will have it do, leaving the gods as pathetic bystanders whom we should never have trusted in the first place.

Then Easter. He is risen.

The awfullest waves, stilled and put back. Chaos, in its finest moment, crushed.

Miy camoka? Who is like you?

 

 

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The dialect of blessing accelerates quickly to its full cadence. Because the speaker has only good things in mind, no resistance belabors the tongue. None of life’s ordinary anguish burdens the mind as it spins out what it wishes for the ones upon whom its heart’s desire falls.

Blessing, one gathers, consists of two critical pieces: first, the desire of good only and everywhere for the one whom the blesser loves. And second, the willingness to do all that one can to coax those good wishes towards reality in the life of the blessed. (more…)

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In ancient Israel as in our day, it sometimes seemed that true religion required the infrastructure of holiness and piety’s ever-grasping bureaucracy. Absent temple, priesthood, and sacrifice, what is one really to do?

The voice of the psalmists brings in prayer—wherever life’s inconvenience locates the one who speaks to God in this naked, untrammeled way—as the good-enough engagement with YHWH when it is all one has at hand.

O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! (Psalm 141:1–2 ESV) (more…)

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The altitudes of the heart are of massive importance to the biblical witness.

Particularly in the book of Isaiah, the hubris that leads a human being to elevate himself is a certain prescription that he will be brought low. The Psalms also pick up this topic, with uncanny employment of the same vocabulary that Isaiah uses to make the point.

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1–2 ESV) (more…)

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Ceaseless toil claims to justify itself. Our 24/7 agony shouts its own merit.

Hard, purposeful work is a noble thing, it is true. Only a questing, unworldly stab at false spirituality denies this.

Yet a different truth also intersects with our busy hands and our whirring minds: it is all useless if God is not in it.

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:1–2 ESV) (more…)

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Poetry and redundancy do not play nicely together.

The linguistic discipline of the poet leads him to use repetition sparingly. It is the mark of a clumsy wordsmith to heap the same syllables upon the word-pile over and over again.

Unless, that is, the poet’s purpose demands this. Then to repeat is to speak one’s art, one’s craft, even one’s truth.

Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121:4–8 ESV) (more…)

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Jesus memorably elevates a status that is widely viewed to be lamentable.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3 ESV)

Nobody wants to be so impoverished. Broken down, crushed under an unbearable burden, bereft of emotional strength. It is a state to be avoided when possible, regretted when not, survived if one can.

Or so we thought, until Jesus taught us that holding title to his Father’s rule in this world and the next requires one to experience just such broken poverty. (more…)

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Light dawns often in the biblical text.

Whether because the dawn is in human experience such a reliable expectation or because the move from night’s darkness to morning’s shining is so dramatic, the image lends itself to the vocabulary of hope and of hopefulness.

One of life’s great enigmas—and therefore a subject matter for the probing poems we call the Psalms—is why the righteous suffer. Why, in a well-governed world, should good women and men know the darkness and the confusion of night at all? Why is theirs not a perpetual stroll from light to brilliance? (more…)

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Biblical wisdom insists that life is a classroom. Those who live it best engage life as its students.

The logic of this approach to living life as a learning experience assumes that the way of things is not immediately apparent. Short attention spans need not apply.

Things that are worthwhile require prolonged scrutiny. Circumstances and phenomena do not give up their truth quickly. The best of reality simmers slowly. The patient cook—and his or her loved ones—enjoy the richest meal.

Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:2 ESV) (more…)

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