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)
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.
There are times when everything seems too much, my mind swirling, my eyes firmly locked on an oncoming train. I have just one cure. A high place. Fortunately, I have a park nearby, where, looking in one direction I see the centre of London and in another fields and open country side. Before long, my perspective begins to change. What was once an overwhelming problem shrinks before the awesomeness of the world God has made. I breath a sigh of relief.
I mention this, because this is what psalm 8 speaks to me about. It has always been a favourite psalm of mine, although, perhaps, this is the first time I have given it serious attention. I had never before noticed how it reflects the opening chapter of Genesis, where God makes the heavens and the earth and then fills it, creating man in his image (a little lower than God) and setting him to rule his creation. The parallel images are too close to ignore, which then makes verse 2 stand out, quite out of place: “From the mouths of infants and sucklings you have founded strength on account of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger”. That is not in the first chapter of Genesis. It is also somewhat puzzling as to what the psalmist is trying to say.
Whatever the psalmist intended, it leaves me with the sense that it is about the strength that comes from considering the work of God. Which is where we came in. But if psalm 8 also is a reflection of the opening of Genesis, what is this doing here? The mention of infants and sucklings calls to mind that Adam and Eve, were in their infancy, new born into creation. When tested, Eve (and I assume Adam) chose a different strategy. Theirs was to add to the command they had been given. To protect themselves from eating, they have decided they were not even going to touch it. Their strategy did not work. So, maybe the psalmist is placing this verse in opposition to what happened in the beginning. A start reminder of what happened, but also and alternative narrative that we can apprehend for ourselves. Strength does not come from our rules (we must not touch), but in the wonder of the world God has made.
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…
Elisha was surrounded by the Aramaean army. No doubt, feeling pleased with themselves. Where is Elisha’s God now? No wonder Elisha’s servant was feeling scared. It was only when Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened, that he realised the true state of affairs. It was the Aramaeans who had been trapped, surrounded by the armies of heaven. This, for me, seems to be the essence of psalm 3. God lifts our eyes to see the reality of the Kingdom. A truth that is often hard won – at least for me. When adversities surround me, I am frequently overcome with fear and worry before God is finally able to get me to look where I was supposed to be looking and realise that I have nothing to fear. It is a good lesson to learn, but, in living with the psalm for a while, I find am not able to gloss over the bits I do not understand or am uncomfortable with.
I must confront the fact that God not only lifts my head, but he is my glory to. I found that odd. I suppose part of it is that glory is a term that is used glibly, without much thought as to its meaning. In Hebrew, the word literally means ‘heavy’. The wealthy and powerful were better fed and so it was used figuratively to symbolise prestige and honour. A royal throne is surrounded by gold to show that the person sitting on it is worthy of respect – it is part of their glory. Today, that might translate into the expensive cars and fancy houses of the rich and famous. Yet, my glory is in none of these. My glory is in God. My identity comes from him – and occasionally that identity leaks out and is seen by others.
I am also confronted by a psalm that asks God to break my enemies teeth. That is an uncomfortable prayer to pray. It is perhaps passages like this that make me a little cautious towards some psalms. They were written for a different world. Yet, in this case, I think this is more idiomatic. An English equivalent might be to say, ‘give the wicked a bloody nose and your people a blessing’! It is a cry for justice and the right ordering of things.
This weeks journey has not taken me on a straight path. It has at times been challenging to place myself within this psalm. Yet, it remains God’s truth for us – even in its oddness, even from its different culture. I am aware that some of the psalms to come might present an even bigger challenge, but that is a problem for another day. My journey through the psalms looks as though it could prove more challenging than I imagined.