My God!

You would think that Jesus his final words to count, which makes his exclamation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” something of a puzzle. It is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22.

I have to confess to being moved by this psalm. I felt the despair of abandonment. God is not doubted, but he is strangely silent. We have all been there where our prayers seem to bounce back, as though God has gone on holiday and not left a forwarding address or note to say when he intends to return. Perhaps it is this identification that makes it so moving for me. Yet, is this really what Jesus wanted his last words to convey? Or is there something else going on? The more I look the more I wonder. If despair and desolation are the theme, then what causes the switch to praise at the end? Unless, of course, it has been praise all along.

Bad things are happening and God does not appear to be doing anything about it, yet there is no complaint, only a question. Those around him watch his suffering and assume that it is a sign of God rejecting him. After all, who is he, if not a worm? He might praise God. He might put his trust in God, but to all appearances, God has abandoned him. Which is maybe why this is the psalm Jesus alludes to while hanging on the cross. The appearance is of one abandoned with dogs howling at his feet. Yet God remains. With brutal honesty, amidst the pain and suffering, this is a psalm of praise. Not pretending that all is ok, when they are not. Not pretending to understand all that is going on, but declaring its trust anyway. Which is perhaps why the psalm ends on such a high. By this point his accusers have been left behind and his praise flows freely. A praise that will flow out to generations not yet born. Including, I realise, me.


Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done. (Ps 22:29-31, CEB)

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.

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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…

 

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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.