The separation of church and state is official veneer in North America. And in Canada especially, faith is assumed to be a private sphere that should not interfere in the public sphere of politics. I believe that it is impossible to separate these two. Psalm 68, as with many psalms, mixes the two quite liberally. I do not understand all the imagery in the psalm nor the political contexts and religious worldview of the time. One thing is clear to me: the two are intertwined.

The problem is not that faith or religion interferes or taints public policy whilst a-theistic secularism objectively guides it. So-called secularism is also faith in some thing. The problem is not the mixing of the two. The problem is the mix of bad religion and bad politics. The world is rife with the combination of these from my armchair vantage point. The most obvious example in the world today is the dictator who runs his country and the world from his twitter account and plays charades with another dictator using state-sponsored giant airplanes and nights in luxury resorts as their props while their most vulnerable citizens are shot in schools and starved in the streets.

“May God arise… God, you provided for the poor… kings and armies flee in haste… the Almighty scattered the kings in the land… God chooses to reign… Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies… Summon your power, God; show us your strength, as you have done before… rebuke the herd of bulls among the calves of the nations… scatter the nations who delight in war.” [excerpts from Psalm 68] Should we be praying this today? I shudder.

 

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Praising God in the Psalms is often conditional on God rescuing the people from enemies or calamity. In the midst of predicament people cry out to God making vows that they will praise God if they are vindicated. If suffering continues God must be punishing them for something. God saves them and God is proclaimed as powerful and wonderful. Psalm 66 repeats this common theme.

This perspective seems kind of simplistic to modern readers, including me. But then again, am I really that different? It’s pretty easy to sing songs of praise when things are going well. Today was a beautiful late spring day, flowers are blooming, the garden is growing, fresh strawberries are plentiful, and school is almost out… life is good. Praise God! It reminds me again that the Psalms are not prescriptive but descriptive. Most of us are happy when circumstances are pleasant and sad when things don’t go our way but maybe we should not read divine causality and/or blame into every circumstance.

 

Have you noticed any repeated themes in your psalm reading thus far? One of the benefits of reading the entire book from beginning to end is the possibility of noticing these. Psalm 63 reminded me of one theme I had encountered before.

What does it mean to desire God? What does it mean to seek God [v.1]? How do I see God and behold divine power [v.2]? How is God’s love better than life [v.3]? Do I simply show my desires by singing and raising my hands [v.4]? How does God satisfy me [v.5]?

Psalm 63 is one of more than a few psalms that metaphorically describe human desire for the divine [e.g. 27, 42]. In this case desiring God is compared to thirsting for drink in a desert and hungering for food in a famine. But hunger and thirst are tangible cravings that are satisfied with bread I can smell, and taste, and touch—and water that literally is life. Those of us who believe in the existence of a transcendent divine being have no trouble saying that this divine being is also the sustenance of life, that in God we live and move and have our being, that seeking some thing or some one beyond us is part of what makes us human. Desiring God is part of being IMAGO DEI; we are made in the image of God and part of that image means we desire to be in relationship with our Creator.

Popular songs also depict this search for God. One of the most well-known and loved songs in my young adulthood was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I remember opening a sermon on Psalm 27 with the lines of this song when I candidated for my first youth pastor job in 1988 [I got the job!]. The sermon was all about longing for God. We also had choruses based on Psalm 63, 42, 27 that expressed this desire for God. I sang with passion and longing but now that I am older and sometimes more skeptical; I wonder, what was I longing for? Was it related to my search for meaning and belonging as a young adult? What does it mean to desire God now that my life and relationships are more stable?

 

Psalm 57 seems almost like two separate psalms spliced together (Note v.1-4,6 and then 5,7-11). Two contrasting themes seem to confront each other: the psalmist crying out to God in the midst of vividly described enemies, and then words of singing, music, and praise for God’s love. Only the latter is typically associated with Pentecost. Say the word “Pentecost” and people will usually think of speaking in tongues, hands raised while singing contemporary praise choruses, and perhaps things like being slain in the Spirit, miraculous healings, holy laughter, etc. Only the first actually happened on Pentecost. Unfortunately, the stereotypes of the Pentecostal tradition and denominations have provided a very narrow view of what it means to be “Pentecostal.”

If we check out the original Pentecost story in Acts 2 we note the question: “What does this all mean?” (v.12) in response to the manifestations of wind, fire, and many languages described in v.1-11. Peter answers the question by quoting the prophet Joel. His main point was that this Pentecost event was the beginning of the church, the dawning of a new age of the Spirit. Old barriers and walls that once stifled and restricted the Spirit were now broken down. The barriers of gender, age, and social status would be erased in the new age of the Spirit. How has the church done on this for the past two thousand years?

Our spiritual ancestors of the Anabaptist movement gave their lives in defence of this teaching. For all to be priests, by opening up the interpretation of the Bible and the voice of the Spirit to every person… that threatened the power structures of their day. “What kind of chaos will ensue if all people can hear and speak God’s words?! Our whole church structure and social system will be upset. Let’s shut’em up!” the people in power said, and killed them. (Perhaps this is where the other part of Psalm 57 comes in—the voices of the persecuted crying out to God for vindication.) Are we (established churches, Mennonite or otherwise) the persecutors who are quieting the dissenting voices today? Are we listening for God’s voice in the voices of the marginalized?

God’s love is not only for the insiders (see the continuing story in Acts 8 and 10 where the barriers of sexuality and ethnicity are also broken down). Psalm 57:9 provides the theme song of Pentecost. “I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.”

 

 

 

This post is really about the authorship of the Psalms using Psalm 51 as an example but I can’t help but connect the story about King David’s sexual assault of Bathsheba to the present circumstances on our continent where numerous powerful men, not unlike David, are being confronted for their acts of sexual assault. Perhaps this psalm could be a template for a response?

Psalm 51, and more than a hundred other Psalms, have some editorial lines under the number. These lines include one or more of the following: reference to an author/s, musical notations and directions, and sometimes a brief story, usually from the life of David.

All the psalms come out of the worshiping community of ancient Israel. Authorship was not a significant issue then as it is today in the age of copyrights. Rather than authors, we could more accurately call them liturgical traditions. The names were attached to give the psalm some credibility and context. “Psalm of David” could mean “written for David”, “connected to David” or “in the tradition of David”. The brief references to events in David’s life do not necessarily mean that David wrote them during or after that event; rather, the brief historical note gives the psalm some context and keeps the stories of David alive for future generations. There is no doubt that David wrote some psalms but probably not all 73 with his name attached.

David was a gifted worship leader, composer, singer, musician, and lyricist: his harp playing soothed King Saul’s manic depression [1 Sam.16:14f], he was a vigorous dancer [2 Sam.6:14f], his laments spoke for the entire nation [2 Sam.1:17f, 3:33f], he was revered as an anointed prophet [2 Sam.23:1f], he was even said to have made musical instruments [2 Chron.7:6], he was the leader and appointer of all the worship leaders and even subsequent generations saw him as being the primary conductor [2Chron.25:6]. This is why so many psalms have his name attached.

There are numerous other liturgical traditions in the book of Psalms: the sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, Ethan/Jeduthun, Moses, and Heman. And it is quite likely that just as there were female prophets there were women who played instruments, led worship, and wrote some of the Psalms [68:25; 2 Sam.19:35]. Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah all wrote psalms that are not included in the 150 but are elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Psalm 51 is then not just a psalm that we can imagine David reciting after he was sorry for his sin of sexual assault but it is a psalm that was and is relevant anytime worshipers confess their sins.

 

Two weeks ago I was stabbed in the gut four times by my surgeon. Thankfully I did not feel a thing until anaesthetic wore off later that day! I have been in recovery mode since then with orders to “Be still!” It struck me as I read Psalm 46 today that the “Be still!” that is often used for entering a meditative and contemplative state is also an emphatic command rather than a voluntary spiritual practice in a serene retreat setting. God says “Be still!” in the midst of tumult and violence so cataclysmic that the figurative mountains are falling into the sea. In the midst of this God is a refuge. This proclamation of peace is from the same God who created the world with a simple word and now bids that wars cease. Oh that the warring world might hear–or me in my own daily frenzy.

 

I previously posted in regards to Walter Brueggemann’s threefold spirituality of the Psalms. Orientation psalms are those that display creation order and justice—the way God created life to be. All people have an orientation to how life should be and disorientation, calamity, suffering and death are also universal human experiences. Disorientation psalms are those that cry out because reality does not match our orientation. Life includes violence, pain, broken relationships, and injustice; this is inevitable. We cannot insulate ourselves from these. However, many people stay in the midst of disorientation. They give up. That is hopelessness.

Psalm 40 is an example of a third theme: “new orientation” spirituality. The possibility of new orientation only comes after having come through the valley of disorientation because on the other side there is a brand new perspective. It is “new orientation” not “reorientation.” There is no return to the original stable orientation. There is no going back to the good old days, even though we may long for it in the midst of disorientation. There is also nothing we can do to bring on a new orientation; rather, it is a surprise. New orientation is always the work of God. Each time we experience new orientation we are grateful. New orientation psalms are recognized by frequent thanksgiving.

Even if it is not automatic that we move toward new orientation, we are not left hopeless. The key to new orientation is a posture of openness to God’s work in our lives which involves the process of theological reflection. This is slow work that involves the classic spiritual practices.

My theory is that we go through these movements numerous times in our lives: sometimes daily and sometimes they are measured in decades or longer seasons of life. And I think that over time a once “new orientation” can become a stable expected status quo orientation and the cycle repeats again.