Posts Tagged ‘Psalms’

The poet who stands behind our 104th psalm contributes to a compendium that insists upon YHWH’s activity in history a celebration of his work in creation. It is a beautiful oddity.

Curiously, two features of divine participation in creation interweave the psalmist’s celebration.

First, the psalmist observes divine activity not only in initial creation, but in the ongoing sustaining of YHWH’s creatures. When this note is touched, we see also creaturely collaboration. YHWH provides the needed resources, and the creatures respond by gathering if they are animals and by the labors of field and hearth if they are humans.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.  The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers …

These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” (Psalm 104:14–15 … 27-28 ESV)

Second, it is not only the psalmist who rejoices in this patterned, sustaining collaboration. YHWH himself is gladdened by it, just as is the poet in its contemplation.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. (Psalm 104:31–34 ESV)

Creation here is not objectified in any impersonal or mechanical way. It is a living, breathing community of YHWH’s design, populated by beings who are entirely dependent upon his provision and tasked—in the case of human beings—with turning it into amplified and extended provision for others.

The cycle of life and death is recognized, a nod given to seasons of withering scarcity. None of this blurs or bounds the psalmist’s rejoicing nor, presumably, that of the Creator.

Human exertions upon the sea’s vastness and in the challenge of soil contribute to the doxological vision.

There is synergy, collaboration, even a certain imitation of God in all of this.

Only, in the end, do ‘sinners’ and the ‘wicked’ blemish its glories. These are entrusted to YHWH’s just power.

The world as we encounter it is not, we might pause to consider, inevitable. It is not ordinary. It is the work of divine hands. It is bent towards rejoicing. It is an invitation even now to appreciative laughter, to a heart made glad in the consideration of it.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!



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Psalm 103 insists that we live in a world in which clear vision leads to gratitude.

Blessedness is reality. The failure to see this means that someone has gone blind, perhaps even succumbed to a lie.

Yet gratitude requires a choice—and even that ongoing choice which becomes a discipline—because for some unnamed reason we are liable to forget. Blessing is a fact on the ground, yet gratitude seldom occurs in nature. It requires practice, discipline, even culture, lest blessing go unanswered by thanksgiving.

This is why the psalmist employs the odd figure of exhorting his own ‘soul’ to bless the Lord. It is not that YHWH’s blessings are difficult to see, just that they are easy to miss. They are easier still to forget.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and do not forget all His bounties. He forgives all your sins, heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit, surrounds you with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies you with good things in the prime of life, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord executes righteous acts and judgments for all who are wronged. He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel. (Psalms 103:2–7 JPS)

It is more often than not the last recourse of scoundrel interpreters to insist that ‘the original language speaks truths that do not come across in translation’. Yet in this case it is partly true.

The italicized words are Hebrew participles. In classical Hebrew the sense of this is usually ongoing activity. Though that cannot be the case with the last of this chain of participles—YHWH made known his ways to Moses only in the past—the preponderance of evidence suggests that we are to bless the Lord here precisely as the One who habitually acts in this way. It is his nature, his divine habit, the easy work of his right hand.

It would tax the language, but it would make perfect sense to translate these with the English definite article plus a gerund: the One who is forgiving … the One who is healing … the One who is redeeming … the One who is surrounding … the One who is satisfying …

Simply put, this is what YHWH is like. You can contrast him with other lords, if you like, and give thanks that you have fallen under the care of this one.

When we see clearly, in a world governed as this psalm insists that ours is ruled, we bless its Ruler. We give thanks. We become grateful.

We are not asked here to overcome reality with psychological exertions. We are asked to see things as they are.

It would be the strangest thing to do otherwise, like the stumblings of a blind man, the baseless pleasures of the conspiracy junkie, the woman who has entirely strayed from reality.

Listen up, soul!





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The exclamation, the sensuous enthusiasm of the summons that comes to us in the 8th verse of this psalm of testimony and wisdom surprises. If such an invocation to sensation is just about imaginable in the context of witness, it is utterly defiant of the disciplined reflection of classical wisdom.

Yet here it is:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalms 34:8 ESV)

Perhaps the particular challenge that an acrostic psalm (alphabetically ordered) thrusts against the prowess of its composer explains this ranging wide of the customary field of play. We might imagine that the poor guy will say just about anything as long as it begins with the right letter. Or conversely, if we’ve sung or read this language of sanctified gustation one time too many, its impertinence might even escape our attention.

But tasting and seeing? Is this how the canonical songs of Israel are meant to speak about human interaction with that people’s invisible deity? Things get a little reckless before the poet settles back down into the conventional syllables of wisdom in the verse’s second half.

We will make more sense of this momentary break-out into holy sensation when we realize the the object of tasting and seeing is the fact that YHWH is good. This is no casual religious blather. To the contrary, the psalmist alludes here to something rather solemn, to the closest thing to a creed that we find in the Hebrew Bible:

The LORD is good; his mercy endures forever!

Few Israelites would be unfamiliar with this credo, this fundamental assertion that YHWH need not be the object of our crazy fears, need not be suspected of mixed motivations. We need not wonder whether or not he is consistent, whether what we see in YHWH is what we get.

No, YHWH is good. In what way is he good? Well, his חסד, his loyal love is inexhaustible. It does not run itself dry, does not fickly change direction, does not go half-way in covenantal loving.

The two components of this quasi-creed are not likely independent if parallel expressions of truth. Rather, the second unpacks the first. It sets forth the evidence. It explains in what way YHWH is fundamentally, reliably good. The verse has not two truths to tell, but one. YHWH is good in that his unique, burning, growing love does not end before it has accomplished its purpose.

Every Israelite, we might suppose, has recited these words and in some measure believed them to be true.

The psalmist, despite the acrostic challenge, is not merely stringing words together, casting about for any words that fit his pattern. There is far more literary dexterity and far more theological depth in these lines than that.

He is, rather, alluding to Israel’s declaration of faith and at the same time recognizing the limitations of its frequent reciters. At the risk of sounding merely sentimental, the psalmist wants more than simple assent to abstract truth.

So he calls his reader to press more deeply into the existential, sensate experience of YHWH’s goodness. With daring physicality, he dares him to taste. To see. To know by experience what he has affirmed with his community.

Reservations theological and liturgical are for one moment put on hold. The profound beauty of truth’s recitation is asked, for this instant, to step into the shadows and wait there for a moment while the knowers of YHWH’s truth become the consumers, the ingesters of his goodness.

Then, quickly, we are returned to the settled blessedness of his trustworthy refuge in the verse’s second half. But we are different now, for we have savored goodness so rich, so complex, so compelling that we will never again murmur our creed with eyes completely dry.



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The famous rhetorical question of the eighth Psalm is widely mis-gauged:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalms 8:3–4 ESV)

The assumption behind the question is too often thought to be that human beings are too measly and pathetic to warrant such divine attention. In fact, the context suggests just the opposite: there is some intrinsic glory—albeit a veiled glory—in human beings that holds YHWH’s gaze:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (Psalms 8:5–8 ESV)

Next to the massive dimensions of the moon and the stars, humans are manifestly small creatures. One might not expect YHWH to find them fascinating and worthy of his care. Yet in spite of their humble bearing, we read that YHWH is mindful of them, cares for them, indeed has exalted them over the rest of creation. (more…)

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As the Psalter works its way down the home stretch toward its finale in the 150th psalm, the gloves come off. Doxology reaches to a stretch, digs down to bedrock, summons even the unseen powers and convenes heaven’s lights.

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.

(Psalms 148:1–6 ESV)

In the ancient Israelite context, calling upon sun and moon to praise their Maker is brave. They were often worshiped as gods themselves. It is also polemical: they are put in their place.

They do not seem to mind, in the psalmist’s opinion, though worshippers of the heavenly bodies might beg to differ. The psalmist imagines heaven’s lights praising YHWH at full throat simply for the privilege of having been created at his command so that they can do so.

There is, we are asked to accept, no corner of heaven or earth where praise is rightly withheld. If there is war in heaven, celestial conspiracies afoot, they are forgotten as the psalmist reaches forward to how things should be. Will be.

The most awesome, the most mighty, the high and almost holy, even these burst into song when their time comes. They know their place, and are glad in it.

How much more we mortals, elevated as we are now to sing along without too much embarrassment about our little voices, trembling hands, sad yesterdays.

Perhaps He commanded us, too, into existence so that we could sing like this, eyes moist because we are not yet fully home.

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The faint heart is often insomniac. What is it about the 3:00 a.m. hour, so full of worries, fears, and untimely wakefulness? As though on schedule, eyes open and the faint heart races. Life’s shadows loom taller and more menacing than usual. Improbable fears seem perfectly plausible. Things that will shrink into proportion in the light of day take the shape of lethal threats and impassable walls. The sixty-first psalm relieves us of at least one of our disabling fears: that we cannot pray because our heart is faint. (more…)

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After detailing the radical bent-ness of the wicked, the writer of the thirty-sixth psalm finds himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of YHWH. The LORD’s loving justice is everywhere.

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. (Psalm 36:5–6 ESV)

The Hebrew Bible does not traffic in the notions of omnipresence or ubiquity to which thoughtful readers of the Bible would eventually lay their hand. It’s natural dialect is more concrete, more this-worldly. Yet, in spite of what might seem to our habits of thinking a limitation, the Hebrew poet knows how to say exactly what he wants to say. (more…)

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