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)
These words do not come via the ease of philosophy or the armchair repose that is sometimes thought to be the customary space for doing theology. The poem’s first lines sketch out a pressured, even a threatened, circumstance. YHWH had better act quickly if this psalmist is to finish his thought. Or live another day.
In his precarious moment, the psalmist dares to hope that his prayer will smell like incense in the Divine Listener’s nostrils, his lifted hands be acceptable as proxy for the lamb or the dove that in a more privileged moment he might carry into the temple’s courts.
We may not be accustomed to thinking of prayer as a compromise, a concession to reality’s imposed limitations. The notion affirms the value of temple, priesthood, and sacrifice when these are to be had.
Yet the biblical canon’s reception of the psalmist’s plea, its granting of a place of honor as the ‘141st Psalm’ to his inconvenienced cry, also endorses the thought that YHWH listens when all one has are words.
It may be difficult to imagine such a bare cupboard of religious resource.
But only until exile, estrangement, or another of life’s ragged tears thrusts us far from the modern-day counterparts to temple. To priesthood. To sacrifice.
Then, alone with one’s words, one discovers that he is not truly alone.
Someone is listening.