Sadness

I find psalms a bit like many worship songs, although not in the way you are probably thinking. I can sing them, while the words glide over me without touching the sides. I have just not been paying attention. Living with a single psalm for a while has caused me to stop and work out what is actually going on. It also alerts me to how little attention I had been paying, as they both puzzle and challenge in complex ways – like many good poems should.

From the first, psalm 14 struck me with its pathos. The fool has said in his heart. And I am left saddened for the fool. Saddened too that God looks down and can find nobody seeking him and doing right. Yet, as I read on, I find that pathos abruptly challenged as I read that the fool is also devouring God’s people. It is harder to feel sorrow for your persecutor, and yet it is a double folly, given that God is our protector. Yet, oddly, when God was looking down, God saw nobody doing right. God’s people were not listed as an exception. Maybe I should not make too much of that. Poetic license and all, yet, it is a little strange.

The psalm ends with a question that reaches out in hope. A hope that was eventually fulfilled, but in an unexpected and so was largely missed. The psalmist was looking towards Zion for salvation, for God to restore his people. He was not expecting it to look like the son of God being nailed on a cross. And so now, there is a sadness to for the psalmist and the Jewish people.

It is difficult to know what to make of the psalm, but it does leave me sad. Sadness that our world today is full of those who say there is no God. A sadness too for those who have missed him in his unexpectedness.

www.freeimages.co.uk

Selah

I’ve heard it said that when David broke one of the strings on his lyre, he’d exclaim, “Selah”! Perhaps that was said tongue in cheek, but it does bring out the fact that nobody actually knows what it means. Some modern translations (like the NIV) appear to have given up and just ignored it entirely. I mention this, because this post is somewhat off piste from my routine of going through the psalms. I am pausing to consider, which, by coincidence, is one popular (but unsubstantiated) guess at the word’s meaning.

Going through one psalm a week has proved less helpful than I had hoped. Or at least, that is how it feels. Already themes are beginning to repeat themselves, often related to a request for God to bless me, while poking out the eyes of my enemies with a pencil. Maybe not quite that, they didn’t have pencils. So, at one psalm a week and 150 psalms, I may have bitten off more than I really want to chew. Yet, I believe there is still value in what I am doing doing, I just need to be more selective. So, rather than doing every psalm, I will continue with just those psalms that are referenced in the New Testament, starting with the ones that are referenced more than once, which, as Psalm 2 has already been covered, makes for a grand list of ten. After that I will review again.

However, one curious thing has struck me. Psalm 23, which must be the most popular psalm in churches today, isn’t referrenced in the New Testament at all, not even once. Odd that. I’ve no idea why, but I do find it interesting…

 

(Image: www.freeimages.co.uk)

The One and the Many

We are in a minority. I’m sure, many would argue against that, but that is because they confuse a religious facade for its content. We are in a minority, and always have been. The person portrayed in Psalm 4 speaks out as the voice of the one to the many. He (or maybe she) asks them how long they will seek after vanity and illusions and calls on them to turn to God. They do not appear to be listening. Like so many today, they are too busy seeking happiness, but totally unaware from whom it is found. It is only the psalmist who knows the answer. For all the apparent wealth (and wine) of the many, the psalmist declares that his joy is richer and that he is also able to sleep in peace, resting secure.

In our world, we focus on results. We preach the good news, we don’t see any results, and we give up. Yet, the psalmist shows no sign of discouragement. He has called the people to respond to God. The fact that they do not does not disturb him. After all, for him, as for us us, there is no guarantee of being listened to. Indeed, Jesus warns us to expect even worse. The response is not our concern. Nor is it our concern that they seem to be outwardly doing better than we are, or that many around us say that we are the ones living an illusion. They can point to their stores of wealth, to their pleasures in wine. These are real. Yet we have a different reality. Our joys are richer and we we are secure. We also sleep well at night.

The Nations

The trouble with the early psalms in the Psalter is that I have read them many times before. It is only the ones after about psalm 30 that have not been read often. The point where my interest flags and I move on to other things. So psalm 2 is familiar. I know its story. By the middle of last week I felt I had exhausted it and wanted to move on. I had to fight hard to resist. By the end of the week I did not know the psalm any better, yet, its truth had moved into a sharper focus. So, while my knowledge of the psalm has not changed, in some small way, I have. Its truth has been internalised more – which, after all, is what my experiment with the psalms is all about. It is proving an interesting journey.

Psalm 2, itself, has an interesting complexion when considered alongside psalm 1. While psalm 1 looks at the individual who does right (as opposed to the one who does wrong), psalm 2 continue where psalm 1 left off, but zooming out, to take in the nations and the kings of the World.

We see powerful nations, with leaders who appear to be far removed from those who contemplate God’s teaching. They are contemplating vanity. It is that same Hebrew word, hagah. Vanity is not just being considered, it is being ruminated on. Nor do we need to look far to see how the World plots to release itself from the constraints of, what it regards as, our less enlightened past. It is easy to look at all of this and give in to fear – for ourselves or our children. Yet, the psalm lifts our eyes off of this world and asks us to look from heaven, where we find a God who finds man’s efforts quite laughable, and God’s own king, who has been given a rod of iron to use, should he wish.

The psalm encourages the World’s leaders to become wise, but we see little evidence of that happening in our day – or in any other. It is fortunate then, that, in spite of appearances, the fate of the World does not rest on the wisdom of its leaders, like Donald Trump, but on the graciousness of God – who sent his Son, and who now sends us. For, happy indeed are those who take refuge in him.

And so, my journey is beginning to bear fruit, if only in a very small way. A small nudge here, a small nudge there, but then I am only two psalms in. I have another hundred and forty-eight to go.

Two Ways

I have realised that if I am to reshape my imagination around the Kingdom, then I must change the story in which I am embedded. Unfortunately, this has proved less simple than it sounds. My last attempt proved a step too far and I am going to need to take much smaller steps. Fortunately, such a path has been trodden before and has often been recommended in the church – which is to meditate on the psalms. With such an obvious path forward, it is amazing that it has taken me so long to find it. Perhaps the less said about that the better. So, to begin with psalm 1.

For such a small psalm, there is a lot packed in it. It lays out the path of the two ways. The way of those who do right and othose who do wrong. It has proved a remarkably apt place to start, with that wonderful line “In Yahweh’s teaching he ruminates day and night”. I like the idea of ruminating. Chewing over, digesting and then chewing over again. It is not the usual way to translate hagah, but it caries that sense, so I am sticking with it. This, after all, is what I am doing – ruminating on Yahweh’s teaching.

I have found the psalm challenge me too. When describing the righteous man it says all that he does prospers. What would Jesus have made of that when he hung on the cross? Actually, though I initially wondered at the psalm’s naivety, I ended up respecting its truth. It does not say that the righteous won’t go through times of trouble or suffering, just that they will prosper in them. Jesus certainly suffered and it was certainly an odd looking success, but it was the reason he came and he in it he did prosper. It was then that I was able to look back at my past and I could concur. In all that I have done I have prospered. For sure, there have been times when it did not feel like it. There have been times when I have felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails. But looking back, those have been significant points in my life. I have, in spite of all, prospered. Like a tree transplanted from the desert to be by channels of water, my leaves have not withered. I am secure and know that fruit will come in its season. The wrongdoer, by contrast, is like chaff blown away by the wind – to perish.


Psalm 1

Happy is the man who
does not walk in the council of wrongdoers,
Nor in the way of sinners does he stand,
Nor in the seat of scoffers does he sit,
But, in the instruction of Yahweh, his delight.
In its teaching he ruminates day and night,
Like a tree transplanted upon channels of water,
That yields fruit in its season
and leaves that do not wither.
All that he does prospers.

Not so the wrongdoers.
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wrongdoers will not stand at the judgement,
Nor sinners at the assembly of those who do right.
For Yahweh knows the way of those who do right,
But the wrongdoer will perish.